See what I did there? I made an alliteration. Huggles.
During the revision process, I’ve found myself digging through my dialogue with a sort of painstaking determination. I got a great piece of advice from Stephen King via his book On Writing (I just finished reading it for a second or third time), and as I believe knowledge gets stronger when it’s shared, I’ll paraphrase it here.
Write well and tell the truth.
In my collegiate days when I thought of myself as the evangelical sort of cross follower (something that I realized midway through said collegiate days was pointless, because I no longer believed), I went through a period of reading a lot of Christian fiction. While some authors like C.S. Lewis are just plain good, I did come across some works that were astonishing in their badness. One I would even describe as marvelously, miraculously awful. Awful in the sense that reading it inspired this strange, fascination-driven awe. I just spent a few minutes rooting around in a cardboard box looking for this particular monstrosity to prove the point.
Without taking the trouble to retype the first three pages, suffice it to say that within those pages, the protagonist falls in spectacular love with a perfect, handsome, fashion magazine cover man (her genealogy teacher), uses about three adverbs per paragraph to describe this infatuation, and turns into a sullen raincloud when she finds out he’s a Christian.
Even at the time I first read it, I almost flung it across the room. The first line of dialogue?
“Yes, I’m going in. Of course I am. Why else would I be standing out in the cold in front of the library?”
After her infatuation fades, she watches his “broad-shouldered form saunter away with all the appeal and confidence of a male model on a runway.”
Ouch. Just…ouch. The protagonist at this point is not a Christian. What is clear in the opening three pages is that by the end of the book, she will be. I entered that world around age fifteen and exited by twenty-two, so most of my life has taken place outside of that label. Audrey’s character is such a walking cliche that I almost cried. During that literary stint in college, I discovered the following formula:
clumsy and awkward non-Christian + flawless and beautiful Christian x theological angst + big life lesson + verb: adverb ratio of 1:1 + tearful conversion + marriage = happy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
(Whoa…I just realized that sounds kind of like Twilight, if you replace Christian with vampire — though to be fair, whatever you think of Meyer’s writing, she did enthrall millions and thus did something right. Ponder that.)
Big fat anyway.
The point of all that diatribe (I warned you) is that someone was not being honest — or rather that the author didn’t take the time to find out if that’s how real heathens would behave and act. It’s the perfect picture of an insider’s view of what the outsider might think and feel.
If you tell the truth, it’s going to piss people off. Honest writing always pisses people off, even if it’s not particularly good writing. Dishonest writing is hollow and trite, much like that entire book, which would better be employed as a door stop than a source of reading material. In spite of that, it is a perfect example of what not to do in writing. If you write to please the League of Anti-Vulgarity Blowhards, chances are you won’t be writing very good stuff. Write to the readers, not the censors.
When writing dialogue and narration, if you’re true to the characters and true to how people actually behave and talk, it’ll resonate with readers. Stephen King used the example of profanity — the average blue collar carpenter would not say, “Oh, sugar” if he smacked his thumb with a hammer. If he’s going to say that, he better have a good reason (his great aunt Matilda is watching him, the neighborhood preacher is drinking sweet tea on the porch swing while he works on the railing, etc.). Even then, he’d be more likely to say, “Oh, sh…sugar.”
This isn’t to say that all carpenters have potty mouths, but even the very churchy folk I used to associate with would drop the occasional profanity bomb if they whacked their funny bone or dropped the potluck casserole. There’s a release that comes with cursing that alleviates a bit of frustration.
Characters should speak in a way that flows out of who they are, where they came from, and what the situation dictates. You wouldn’t have a Caucasian farmer from the 20s with hay all over his overalls sounding like Winston Churchill. If that’s who they are, that’s what they should sound like. If they have any idiosyncrasies, a quick sentence of exposition can explain them and even build the character. For instance, my protagonist’s best friend spent a semester in London during university, and she adores throwing around words like git, bollocks, and wanker — but for the most part she still sounds like a girl in her mid-twenties who graduated from university and made an effort to tone down her Southern twang when she left Texas.
If you have a character who likes to use big words to show off his Ph.D, by all means. Have at it — just be sure to clarify the more obscure words if your main character’s vocabulary isn’t on the same level (and if you expect your readers to feel the same). While there’s nothing wrong with using a hearty variety of words, you also don’t want to alienate your target audience by making them feel stupid. I remember the humbling experience of learning the word pedantic — my Polish tandem partner nit-picked an email I’d written in Polish and used the word, making me feel about as big as a flea for not knowing a word in my own language when a non-native speaker used it. For about a half an hour, I despaired of my education, my language ability, and my goal of ever learning Polish. Then I busted out my dictionary, learned the word in Polish, and got back to work. (In case you’re wondering, in Polish it’s a cognate — pedantyczny — and it’s used with much higher frequency in Polish than it is in American English, thus explaining why he knew the word.)
That brings me to the subject of dialect. Part of being truthful about how your characters would speak has to do with dialect. You wouldn’t expect the average Canadian from Toronto to say, “Hey y’all! Come on over sugar so I can hug your neck!” any more than you’d believe an Oxford professor would say, “Get out mah face, bitch. Who d’you think you is?” Dialect can open up a new world of character development and lend credibility to your characters — and it can destroy that same credibility if you don’t take the care to listen to people talk.
Whenever I’m stuck on a point of dialogue, I think about my characters. If I can’t be clear on who they are and what their personalities are like and where they came from (social class as well as geography), I won’t be able to write convincing dialogue for them. The best dialogue I write feels like I’m transcribing instead of writing. It feels like my switchboard muse hooked me up directly with my people, and all I’m doing is listening to them do their thing. Going against the grain can work if you’re trying to show irony or some other divergence from an already-established persona, but all in all, you have to tell the truth the way your characters would tell it.
The best way to do that is just to listen to people. Wherever you go, just listen. If you’re trying to write a foreign dialect, like British English or Scots, you can do that well if you take the time to listen. Listen to news interviews with people from the area and try to pinpoint key phrases and pronunciations that can be phonetically rendered. If it’s a native speaker of another language, see if you can find examples of people speaking English. Note what little grammar pitfalls they make. How they construct their sentences and which verb tenses are problematic. Polish learners of English often omit definite and indefinite articles in the early stages because those little words (a, the, an) don’t exist in Polish at all. In later stages, they use them but might put them in the wrong places.
When I was in the early stages of learning Polish, I was told I was speaking English with Polish words, and they were right. At that stage, all I knew how to do was translate — I couldn’t construct real Polish. Language learners all do that when they first start learning, so unless your foreign characters are completely fluent, adding those little foibles adds charm and truth to their dialogue. It takes some research and time, but it’s worth it as much as any other research you do for your story.
Characters make or break your story — you can have all the explosions and drama you want, but if readers think your characters are cardboard or unconvincing, they won’t keep turning those pages. And that’s all I have to say about that.
(Except one more thing: everything I say in this post, I am preaching to myself. I want my characters to be as textured and truthful as they can be. They can say shit if they want to.)
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