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.