Monday, February 23, 2015

Listening to your characters: Dialogue

Dialogue is, honestly, one of the hardest parts of writing a novel. I don't mean remembering to label who is saying what (though would it kill some authors to put in dialogue ID tags every four lines?), I mean something far more difficult. You have to make certain that your characters all sound different and distinct from each other. This can be hard if you haven't got a good set of characters.

Like most authors, I hear voices in my head. Sometimes, if I focus, it's literal. I can hear their voices, their complaints, their accents, their emphasis on things. Sometimes I cheat and push through the dialogue, knowing what they're going to say, and how they'd phrase it, but sometimes I miss part of the music.

One of the most important parts of dialogue is making sure you get the music and the lyrics down. Sure, word choice in important, but is also has to match the cadence. This will go a long way to making sure that your Californian mercenary sounds different from your New York Catholic priest. I'm a New Yorker. Like with Henry Higgins, I can pin most people to within at least a general neighborhood, just by the way they speak. But, again, you do have to listen.

This is very much a problem all writers have. Even Rex Stout, the creator of Nero Wolfe, said that his biggest problem with writing a genius was to make him sound like a genius. Then it became a matter of word choice and a love of language. 

I'll give you an example (or, as we say around here, “a fer-instance”). I did a short story a while back for Liberty Island called Fear No Evil. It was basically what happens when you take a nice Southern girl and put her up against a band of terrorists. In the case of Fear No Evil, I had to be patient and listen. My heroine, Carla, is a good, kind, sweet Christian girl, and I'm a Catholic New York male with an attitude problem, though that may be redundant. It was very important that she didn't sound anything like me. I had to think like she thought. I had to remember where she came from, what she went through, and how she's going to process it. There were a lot more “praise the Lord”s and “dang it”s than I had expected. 

I have no idea why a Southern accent made me design sentences for like, well, this:

 “Praise Jesus for finding the knife. If you wouldn't mind, I'd like to not have to use it--I'd prefer not to get that close. But if I must, I shall. ”

In a similar situation, I would think “Knife. Yay. A weapon. Thanks God. But can I upgrade to a gun sooner rather than later? Please.

The differences are apparent, though I'm not sure if that's really enough to appreciate the difference.

Then, for The Pius Trilogy, I have an Irish Interpol Agent named Maureen McGrail. With her, she's easy to make sound distinct. Some of the Irish have this way of speaking in questions “And sure, didn't the poor dear man just make that focking shite up?”

Yes, there are also funny vowel sounds. Heck, I remember one awards show where an Irish actor got his trophy, and kept talking about “this fecking award,” during his acceptance speech, and no one bleeped him because no one understood a word he was saying!

Granted, accents are a way of cheating. Isn't it easy when there's something particularly regional about the dialogue?

With Codename: Winterborn's Mandy, it was very … stiff. Cheap with words, expensive on action. Economy of words bettered her personal economy. Her words were clipped and contracted whenever possible. Short, sharp sentences. No BS. All business. Time's money. Get outta my way, damnit.

Yes, the ever-shrinking sentences were deliberate. Mandy's one of those characters that get in my head, and I'm trying to figure out if I should get her out.

Granted, all of these are gross exaggerations meant to illustrate the point.

At this point, the next question becomes “Okay, Mr. Smarty-pants, how do we learn that?” Simple: go out and listen. Plug in your favorite tv show on DVD, and just listen to them talk. Imagine how another character would say any given line, and ring the changes as you imagine the dialogue coming out of different mouths. Would the word choices change? The delivery? Start simple and swap dialogue for the lead characters for Star Trek, or Babylon 5. Then do the same with your own characters – if you can't hear the changes, it might be time to go back to the drawing board on the characters. Though let's face it, there can be times when your characters might start sounding a lot like each other, especially if they're from the same town, but they should still have their own way of speaking.

If you follow the tv series Person of Interest, you already have an appreciation of this with one of the more recent episodes. One episode was shown almost entirely through the point of view of the Artificial Intelligence backing our heroes, and it runs through multiple scenarios to figure out what the next move should be, war gaming out from an initial decision. At one point, the AI started using placeholders instead of dialogue, like “inappropriate flirtation,” and “derogatory comment about sanity.” It was hilarious, and also a good lesson in speech patterns and how characters react in certain ways to certain events.

The only way to listen to your characters is to go out and listen to other people. Or develop a healthy dose of schizophrenia. Then again, if you're writing books, you may already have the latter.

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