Give Your Characters a Voice: Writing Strong Dialogue
Ever finish a book and feel like you were losing some of your best friends? Or ever get addicted to a series just because you had to see what happened to the characters, plot be damned? Finishing a book can be ruthlessly traumatic because the characters you have spent so many cozy hours getting to know will never say anything new ever again. You know these characters better than you know most people. You know exactly what they would say in any given circumstance. And, most interestingly, you could write whole books of fan fiction with your favorite characters—and other fans could tell you when you mislabeled bits of dialogue.
Because when your dialogue is strong enough, and each character has a unique voice, readers not only feel like they’ve known your characters their whole life—they fall in love with them. It’s the inspiration behind fan art and fan fiction. It’s the source of daydreams and cosplay. It’s the font of almost all book quotes, and it’s the only thing that remains (mostly) the same when a movie is made.
Strong dialogue defines memorable characters. So what can your characters say to make readers fall in love with them?
DO Keep It Real—Only Better
“There are, ah, problems with the boy, yes. But the problems are unique to his situation in my care. Were he under yours, I’m sure they would, ahhhh, vanish.”
“Oh. You have a magic boy. Why didn’t you say so?” The priest scratched his forehead beneath the white silk blindfold that covered his eyes. “Magnificent. I’ll plant him in the [censored to protect the innocent] ground and grow a vine to an enchanted land beyond the clouds.”
“Ahhhhh! I’ve tasted that flavor of sarcasm before, Chains.” The Thiefmaker gave an arthritic mock bow. “That’s the sort you spit out as a bargaining posture. Is it really so hard to say that you’re interested?”
The Eyeless Priest shrugged. “Suppose Calo, Galdo, and Sabetha might be able to use a new playmate, or at least a new punching bag. Suppose I’m willing to spend about three coppers and a bowl of piss for a mystery boy. But you’ll still need to convince me that you deserve the bowl of piss. What’s the boy’s problem?”
“His problem,” said the Thiefmaker, “is that if I can’t sell him to you, I’m going to have to slit his throat and throw him in the bay. And I’m going to have to do it tonight.”—The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
This scene is a brilliant introduction of character and concept. You gain truckloads of information about the plot, the city Camor, the priest, the Thiefmaker, and Locke Lamora himself, even though the latter is not in scene. Much more than listing their exploits or statistics, or using adjectives like sneaky and sly. In addition, you cannot predict a single response in this witty back-and-forth. Substantially different from standard salutations, you are forced to hang on every word the Thiefmaker and the priest say, because these two charismatic characters are so inventive that their interactions, while natural feeling, are anything but rote.
The leap from “vanishing” to a “magic boy” is logical but unexpected—as is the fairytale connection, which is deftly grounded with the use of swearing. The bowl of piss is surprising in its context as a sweetener to a proposed deal and contrasts nicely with the priest’s profession and the fairytale imagery from earlier--and it is even more amusing that the valuation of the bowl of piss at more than three coppers. But the true brilliance here is the sudden shifts of tone—from delicate manipulation to crass honesty to playful haggling to cold reality--done naturally, but probably a wee bit faster than in the day-to-day.
When writing dialogue, try saying it out loud, to make sure it sounds like something someone would actually say. But also, keep it interesting, keep the tone shifting, and try to use dialogue to only say new things. If a reader can predict what your characters will say next—before getting to know your characters really well—then the dialogue doesn’t really serve a purpose. The very best dialogue sounds like the “best of” edition of life that’s been edited for “interesting.”
DON’T keep it too real. Have you ever listened to people talk? Like, actually listened? Taken literally, it’s terrible dialogue for a book! Filled with verbal pauses and banal small talk involving greetings, the weather, and traffic . . . Enough to make a reader throw a book across a room. So, cut to the chase and give us the good stuff.
DO Ground Dialogue with Action
“And who is most closely allied with Russia?” Volger asked, not even a little breathless.
“Britain,” Alek said.
“Not so.” Volger’s blade slipped inside Alek’s guard, whacking his right arm hard.
“Ouch!” Alek dropped his guard and rubbed the wound. “For heaven’s sake, Volger! Are you teaching me fencing or diplomacy?”
How much more engaging is that, than a lecture on the diplomatic relations between nations at the start of WWII? Most people find history a bit on the dry side—and large amounts of background information are likely to send readers skimming for the next part with any action. But here, by neatly weaving in fencing practice—something that Alek clearly finds to be of more immediate concern than their diplomacy discussion—the scene is not only a far cry from dry, it’s downright entertaining!
Integrating action with dialogue is a common tip to avoid talking heads syndrome—a condition, common in infodump scenes, in which an unfavorable speech-to-action radio reduces the reader’s field of view to two comically oversized heads spouting dialogue. But it’s devilishly tricky to pull off. Too often, it results in characters running up and down stairs, pacing, sipping way too much coffee, or picking up and putting down dishes. What Scott Westerfeld masterfully manages here is to make the action inform the dialogue, important to the plot, and interesting in its own right. It also manages to sneak in a fair amount of humor. All while getting across very necessary information for the readers. If only traditional schooling were so sly!
DON’T put in some action—any action—just for the sake of “having action.” It’s all about technique here. It’s important that the action is interesting and important in its own right, not too repetitive, and that the character notices that they’re doing the action. If it feels like an ‘80s movie, you’re probably doing it wrong (or very, very right).
DO Keep Us in Your Character’s Head
“So, I’ll be in a coal miner outfit?” I ask, hoping it won’t be indecent.
“Not exactly. You see, Portia and I think that coal miner thing’s very overdone. No one will remember you in that. And we both see it as our job to make the District Twelve tributes unforgettable,” says Cinna.
I’ll be naked for sure, I think.
“So rather than focus on the coal mining itself, we’re going to focus on the coal,” says Cinna.
Naked and covered in black dust, I think.
How many times when someone speaks does our verbal response match the first thing that comes into our heads? Letting us in on Katniss’s mental gut checks provides humor, insight, and a healthy dose of point-of-view. One of the things I love most about Katniss (and this scene) is that she often has a clear idea of what she thinks is going on, and she’s just as often incorrect. I love that! That is so like reality. Too often, we end up with invisible types who exist only to ask questions for the reader.* But Katniss, she probably won’t even ask the question the reader or author has in mind, because she thinks she knows the answer to it. She’ll react to what she thinks the answer is, and in doing so, provoke an illuminating response. That is quality character and dialogue creation right there—confidently in error, and totally endearing.
Letting us in on your character’s secret thoughts and reactions is one of the most important aspects of dialogue—especially if you have a quiet character, a socially skilled character, a character under some misconceptions, or a character who maybe doesn’t always say exactly what’s on her mind. Hell, almost any character. Here it is particularly effective for getting the reader to identify with Katniss because she is essentially confiding these embarrassing thoughts in us, the reader, at the same time as she is talking to Cinna.
*Rule of Thumb: if your character is asking more questions than making statements, they could probably be rewritten to be a bit less dumb.
DON’T go overboard. You can get a lot about character emotions just from the way they speak, and what they say! So unless you’re writing a soap, at which point more power to you, emotions should be used to punctuate, not micromanage the reader experience.
DO Give Each Character a Unique Voice
Then War said, “Where is Armageddon, anyway?”
“Funny you should ask,” said Famine. “I’ve always meant to look it up.”
“There’s an Armageddon, Pennsylvania,” said Pollution. “Or maybe it’s Massachusetts, or one of them places. Lots of guys in heavy beards and seriously black hats.”
“Nah,” said Famine. “It’s somewhere in Israel, I think.”
“I thought that was where they grow avocados.”
AND THE END OF THE WORLD.
Even if Death didn’t speak in all caps, I’m pretty sure you could pick his dialogue out of a crowd. He’s Lawful Hilarious, in Dungeons & Dragons terms. I’m pretty sure he inspired Castiel’s manner of speaking on the hit TV show Supernatural. And if you went as Death from Good Omens for Halloween, you can be pretty sure everyone would recognize you the moment you opened your mouth.
That’s because Death’s earnestness, his tendency to speak in sentence fragments, and his endearing literal-mindedness is completely unmistakable—as well as being really funny. Like with LOL cats, there are clear rules as to what Death would and would not say, and those rules really inform his character. Think about how your characters would speak when writing them. Do they use pronouns a lot, or do they tend to speak more impersonally? If they use pronoun, do they use singular or plural pronouns more often? Do they qualify their statements, or speak as though their opinions are the capital “T” truth? Do they speak in sentence fragments, use slang, answer direct questions when asked, or always speak to the intent of the speaker not the actual words? Even coming up with commonly used words for your character can help give them each a distinct feel.
DON’T force it. Forcing catch phrases on a character is painful to watch. If it’s natural, like “barking spiders” as a curse for Mr. Sharp in Leviathan, then it’s a great touch. If it’s strained, it tends to feel a bit awkward for all involved.
For practice writing dialogue, check out my list of 52 Writing Exercises, inspired by some of my favorite books. There are a number of exercises in there specifically focused on writing dialogue. Choose one or two, and try writing descriptions keeping in mind all of the tips listed above.