Let Your Characters Do the Talking: A Dialogue Cheat Sheet
(NOTE: The following article is from a dialogue panel I participated in with Tanya Egan Gibson, Monica Wesolowska and Wendy Tokunaga on July 22 at the San Francisco Writers Conference. The advice provided can be found, with more details, in my book, Growing Great Characters From the Ground Up.)
Today’s publishing industry has become global in scope. That’s why we writers are told it’s more important than ever to be sensitive and accurate in portraying characters, especially if they’re from a different ethnicity, culture and/or socioeconomic group than ourselves. At the same time, we’re expected to create dynamic characters with equally dynamic voices.
The two tasks seem in direct opposition: to be careful in our approach, lest we unintentionally insult our readers, yet bold when creating fantastic characters.
Here's my suggestion about how resolve the two: first thoroughly develop your characters, then let them do the talking.
Step 1: A Specific Defining Detail
Assign your character a very specific defining detail that shows readers how that character operates.
In my novel, Winter Light, set in 1978 suburban Chicago, the defining detail for 16-year-old Mary Donahue is her pair of weathered, beige, men’s boots she bought the previous summer at a garage sale two blocks from her house, an item she bargained down to a price of $1.
How many other people in the world could have that exact defining detail?
What does the detail tell readers?
Like the boots that shield her from the harsh winter, she’s tough, direct, drives a hard bargain, doesn’t attempt to hide her poverty and daily feels bound to protect her soft interior from the frigid world around her.
When someone tells her she can’t do something she knows is allowed, what does she say?
If she’s forced to attend a dinner at a 5-star restaurant, what’s her next comment after looking at the menu?
By assigning meaningful defining details, you’ll lift your characters out of cliche and give them life. After that, it’s time to step back and listen. They’ll tell you what they’ll say in any given situation, which will make them consistent and authentic in readers’ eyes.
Step 2: Do Your Research
Once you’ve assigned a defining detail, determine what about the character’s background influences the person’s dialogue most. Pop culture? Region? Education? Era? Age?
Based on that decision, do your research by personalizing the following four features of dialogue for every character in your story:
pronunciation: “‘Dang! You drank all the milk,’ she said, pronouncing it melk.
sentence structure/grammar: “I go to the house, too.”
slang: “My Dad threw up his hands at me. ‘Well, dagnabbit! Now what are we supposed to do?’”
speech signatures, i.e., favorite sayings: “After listening to my argument, he stared at me, then said, ‘That dog don’t bark.’”
YouTube offers an endless supply of videos that can help you understand, and hear, how people from different places speak. This includes non-native English speakers, though be aware how they structure their sentences in English would be very different than how they speak in their native tongue.
For example, “When a meandering tourist walked up to the old woman’s stall in Phnom Penh, picked up a piece of fruit and squeezed hard, the woman said, ‘You not do that.’ Then she leaned sideways and murmured to her son in Cambodian, “These tourists don’t have a brain in their heads.”
Consider using grammar to convey accents and show differences in language usage, rather than employing phonetic spellings like "dat" instead of "that," or "bruthas" instead of "brothers." Phonetic spellings can be difficult to read and can lead to unintentional insults. And besides, the words people choose and order in which they place them is enough to let the readers' brains fill in the rest.
Lastly, once your characters know what they’ll say, let them say it! Curbing their replies because you oppose the language they choose is called author insertion, which readers discern immediately and can cause them to stop reading.
What if your character chooses to say something offensive? Make sure the dialogue is absolutely necessary, and if so, take your best guess about what affect it might have on some of your readers, which will help determine if the cost is worthwhile. If not, find another approach that’s true to your character, but less traumatic for readers.
Step 3: Dialogue = Conflict
Cut all dialogue that doesn’t show conflict, and that means all!
Conflict occurs when at least two characters in a conversation oppose one another.
If dialogue doesn’t have conflict as its primary goal, readers will skim. Such exchanges include:
common greetings: “Hi, how are you. Please take a seat.”
expositional dialogue where authors use a conversation to explain something: “As you know, Sue, the goal of our organization is to offer people a fresh start in life. Did you know over a million people a day encounter the problem you face? Here are the four ways we can help…”
repetition: Two women are talking and one says, “Wow, I’m so surprised," and the other says, “I know.” Then, “I mean, who would have thought," and “My thoughts exactly,” followed by, “Unbelievable," and “Truly.”
Step 4: Outside Evaluation
Seek an outside evaluation, whether from a sensitivity reader, an experienced professional or trusted group of fellow authors who read the type of stories you write. If they tell you a character seems cliched, and/or the person’s dialogue could be construed as offensive, or the dialogue lacks conflict, pay attention! Return to the character’s defining detail and listen more carefully for a more powerful, and accurate, response.
Happy dialogue writing!