Greetings, SE’ers! Beem Weeks here with you again. Today, I am going to share my thoughts on character dialogue in fiction.
Dialogue. It can make or break a story. Dialogue is the lines your characters speak aloud in a written story. They differ from the narrative voice in that even the peripheral characters are given a voice through dialogue. The narrative voice is telling your story, but your characters, if they are to become real to readers, must speak. And they must be authentic when speaking.
For the most part, the narrator will usually be a consistent voice. But your characters are each different. Some may be sweet and kind and full of empathy, while others might be indifferent, aloof, apathetic to the struggles of those around him or her. Still others might be hardboiled and angry—or just plain mean. A bully and his or her victim are going to sound radically different from one another when speaking. These dialogue voices let readers know, not just who it is that is speaking, they also tell us a lot about the personality of each character.
I can’t stress it enough: Dialogue is vitally important to forming your characters. If the first line of dialogue we hear from Frankie Jerome is, “Listen, jerk, if you don’t back away from my car, I’m gonna bust you in the mouth,” we can be pretty sure Frank is not a man to be messed with. He sounds tough, and maybe even a bit aggressive. We know he’s likely to be a fighter rather than a guy who would walk away from a confrontation. Now, if we’re then told by the narrator that Frank is saying this to a nun, well, we get an even darker picture of the man.
The way we speak in our everyday interactions is really a personality trait. Our speech tells listeners if we’re introverted or extroverted. It reveals our place of origin: the southern U. S. or England or India. It can also alert others that maybe we’re angry or scared or sad or depressed or happy. Capturing tone is important in dialogue. Emotion is conveyed through our speech.
Writing lines for your characters is not always an easy task—though it doesn’t have to be difficult, either. In real life, people speak in ways that may seem impossible to capture on paper. Consider the varying dialects within the same languages. British English has its own patterns and words that differ from American English or the Aussie brand of the language. (And that’s not even counting the varying dialects within the same country. A chap from Liverpool will speak with a different sort of accent than a fellow from Birmingham.) A skillful writer should be able to illustrate that, of the three characters conversing in the opening scene of chapter seven, two are from England while the third is from Australia—without mentioning this every time they speak.
If the writer can hear those voices in his/her head, they should be able to drop little vocal hints within the written dialogue that give life to the characters and to the stories they tell. But it’s not always easy. Sprinkling a lisp or a stutter into your character’s speech can seem daunting—though it need not be.
Dialogue is probably my favorite part of writing fiction. These are words and accents—and even speech impediments—that give personality to characters that did not exist until I put pen to paper and gave them meaning, reason, and life.
So here’s my advice to any writer who might be struggling with dialogue issues: Just write what you hear. Listen to voices on the street or those being spoken inside your head; read works by other authors; study films with rich dialogue and strong acting performances. That little extra effort will usually show up in the finished product. The great thing about language is it’s all around us in so many differing forms. We just need to be attentive.