Give Your Characters a Voice: Writing Strong Dialogue

WritersdontcryEver finish a book and feel like you were losing some of your best friends? Or ever getStrongdialogue 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.

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Comments (5)

Great to see you here Susan, I followed your blogs back at Wizards Of The Coast and, ahhh*, It's just so good to have found you here! ;D

I'll surely follow both this blog and SeriousPixie. The advice is great in both! :)

Posted by: Rafael | Monday January 23, 2012 at 8:49 PM

Rafael--thank you! I'm really glad you took the time to let me know :). Knowing readers like your work helps keep you inspired. I hope they continue to be useful for you!

Posted by: Susan J. Morris | Tuesday January 24, 2012 at 8:47 AM

Some wonderful advice in here--dialogue is one of those things that requires practice and listening. As you say, it must do equal work of character exposition and development, as well as be artful rather than "too real."

Reading aloud is my major way of testing dialogue. I worry I sound crazy so I whisper it, but it gets done all the same. Of course, it also helps to keep your inspirations close at hand. Movies and TV are easy sources of hearing dialogue, and sometimes I'll cue up relevant pieces to simply get in the frame of mind--er, frame of ear?

And adding in action to spice up dialogue has been critical for me. Both in terms of discovering actions that would be important to development and exposition, and also to simply make my writing easier to read.

Posted by: Sam X | Tuesday January 24, 2012 at 12:35 PM

Sam X--Thank you! And I agree, reading aloud is the perfect way to test dialogue, but it definitely helps to not have to read aloud in a computer lab.

And that's a good point about keeping inspiration material close at hand. It's one of my favorite things to do when preparing to write. I call it "research."

Action is very important, but also very tricky. I will always admire masters like Westerfeld for his ability to weave it in so effortlessly--and to make it matter.

Thanks for your comments!

Posted by: Susan J. Morris | Wednesday January 25, 2012 at 9:33 AM

Remind your reader that your characters are physical human beings by grounding their dialogue in the physical world. Physical details also help break up the words on the page.

Posted by: Metal Wall Art | Saturday March 10, 2012 at 12:29 PM

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