Monday, June 1, 2015

Dialogue: Do All Your Characters Sound The Same?

Don't Put Your Readers To Sleep!
Image by artist Steve Lambert.

Character One: "How are you this morning?"
Character Two: "I am fine, how are you?"
Character One: "I am fine as well. Did you sleep well?"
Character Two: "Why, yes, I did. How about yourself?"
Character One: "I slept fine as well."
Character Three: "Hello, how are you both this morning?"
Character One: "I am fine, how are you?"

Reader: Zzzzzzzz.

There's a disease in the world of fiction—or even non-fiction—that plagues some writers. It seems that all their characters sound the same.

The same inflection, sentence structure, vocabulary. Even if slang is used, it is all the same slang words, used by all the characters interchangeably.

"Allow your characters to speak for themselves!"

Having all your characters speak the same is just as if you were having them all look the same or have all the same interests and opinions. Why is this acceptable?

The answer, of course, is it's not acceptable! A skilled craftsperson will be so adept at writing dialogue unique for each character, that she will not even need dialogue tags half the time, because readers will know exactly who is speaking by the carefully crafted dialogue itself.

A true master of this craft is the author Jan Karon. Her characters for her Mitford series are almost all uniquely identified by their dialogue alone.

Here is a sample of her dialogue, in which I've taken the liberty of editing out dialogue tags and some narration:

"Shall we bring the armoire over this Saturday?"
"This Saturday, I'm taking you for a little... recreation."
"I love recreation! What are we going to do?"
"It'll be a surprise."
"Good! I love surprises!"
"What don't you love?"
"Exhaust fumes, movies made for TV, and cakes baked from mix."

In this long series (up to ten novels at this writing), there are two central characters. The first character is a stick-in-the-mud bachelor of 60-odd years. The second is an artist, a lover of life, an embracer of new things. In the dialogue above, it is easy to understand which character is which.

Karon takes these traits and weaves them into her dialogue, revealing and strengthening her characters', well, characters! One of her more masterful talents is to establish her two central characters' conversational habits, and track their evolution. As an example, at the beginning of their relationship the bachelor—Tim—is fascinated by the artist's—Cynthia's—joie de vivre. She often proclaims her love for whatever is going to happen or is happening in her life. As the novels progress, Tim will respond to her proclamations of love by saying, "Cynthia, Cynthia, what don't you love?" and she will answer by listing three things she doesn't love (as in the example above, exhaust fumes, TV movies and cake mixes).

Karon's minor characters also have had this care and attention lavished upon them. Each one has unique sayings that belong to themselves alone. If you listen, you'll hear this proclivity in your own real life acquaintances. What better way to develop your characters than to individualize their speech patterns?

That said, this is not the easiest craft to master. Dialogue is almost effortless to write when our characters think and speak like ourselves. Allowing your characters to speak in their own voices takes patience and familiarity with their personalities and quirks. Most of all, it takes the willingness to get out of your characters' way.

Individualized dialogue takes work, but the worth to your readers is almost immeasurable. It will make all your characters seem like personal friends (or enemies!) It's another way to get your readers to trust you with their reading time and energy. Allow your characters to speak for themselves, and they may surprise you with their individuality.

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