In this part, I’m going discuss defining character with dialog. Many new authors don’t grasp this starting out, and they end up having all their characters talk alike. We’ve all read novels where it was difficult to keep track of the characters because they lacked individuality both in actions and in speech. In a project I’m working now, the two main characters are teenage twin girls. My co-author and discussed this early on that these two girls will have their own quirks and personalities. If they’re identical in everything they do and say, then we’re setting ourselves up for a boring story. Therefore, we sought ways to differentiate them in their actions, thoughts, and dialog. Now, if identical twins should be different, how much more so should your non-identical characters be different?
I’ve said it here before, and it bears repeating: Develop your characters before you start the serious writing of your project. Stories must begin with an idea, but all stories must be about the CHARACTER. Stories must happen to someone. They involve conflict, and there’s not much of a story if all you do is describe a setting. (I’ve read a few literary pieces that are little more than this, and I find them incredibly boring.)
After you’ve decided who the story is happening to, then you need to develop the characters (all of them, not just the main one) in at least some detail. Once you know the character and his or her background, then you’ll have an idea how that character talks. The relevant factors to a character’s speech are GENDER, AGE, NATIONALITY, ETHNICITY, EDUCATION, PAST LIFE CIRCUMSTANCES, and PRESENT LIFE CIRCUMSTANCES.
If you thought this was going to be easy, you were wrong because every one of these factors will govern how your character talks. A man who was raised in an educated family, attended a prestigious college, and became a lawyer is going to have different speech patterns than a man who grew up on the streets but attended the same prestigious college and also became a lawyer. And these two will be different still from a man who ended up in the same circumstances yet was born and raised in a foreign country.
The question becomes one of how detailed you need to be when crafting your characters’ dialog. The answer is easy (even if the execution is difficult): make certain your characters sound like unique individuals and not like the author who created them.
One of the easiest ways to differentiate characters is to give each one certain speech habits or phrases they use frequently (without getting monotonous). Think of the Doc in the Back to the Future movies. He frequently says, “Great Scott!” In fact, watch and study all three of those movies to gain excellent insight on how to handle dialog appropriate to both the characters (of varying backgrounds and personalities) and the time periods.
I’m going to provide some examples my novel Vampires Anonymous that illustrate the points I’m try to make with character distinctions. As always, I make no claim to great or perfect writing in these passages.
Dialog passage #1: Adrian Shadowhawk, seventeen and human at this stage, has just tried to commit suicide by slitting his wrists on the Detroit RiverWalk. He’s found by Eli Howard, a vampire. The POV is Adrian’s. Note the speech patterns of Adrian and Eli. (NOTE: Language possibly offensive to some readers follows.)
Adrian awoke with a ghetto blaster booming inside his skull. In a dimly lit room. He moved his body a little. Apparently, he was on a bed, a comfortable bed. He rolled his head on the pillow and instantly closed his eyes. “Fuck!” His head throbbed something fierce. He’d never been hung over like this. Cheap shit wine. When he dared open his eyes again, he saw the IV stuck in his left arm. Great. I’m in a fucking hospital. He shut his eyes and tried to wish away his misery.
He heard the door open. Footsteps on a wooden floor came toward him. “Feeling better?”
“Fuck, no.” He carefully opened his eyes. The black man. He was a lot bigger than Adrian remembered, and lighter skinned. A doctor had found him? Just his bad luck. “Can you give me something for a headache?”
“Are you allergic to aspirin?”
The man put a hand under Adrian’s back and scooted him up against the headboard. He opened a drawer in the nightstand and took out a bottle.
“I need three.”
The man gave him two tablets.
He handed him a cup of water from the nightstand.
Adrian focused on his surroundings. This didn’t look like a hospital. “Where the fuck am I?”
“You’re in my home.”
“And who the hell are you?”
“My name is Eli Howard.”
Adrian lifted his arm a couple of inches and inspected the IV. “You’re a doctor?”
“I’ve had medical training.”
“Did you give me some blood, too?”
“Not necessary. You hadn’t lost that much. For future reference, it works better if you make the slit along the vein, not across the wrist.”
Adrian looked at his wrists. “You saying I’m stupid?”
“Only for trying to kill yourself.”
“And you stitched me up.”
“Suture strips. Less chance of scarring. You didn’t require stitches.” The man gave him a fatherly stare. “Now, tell me, why does a fine young man like you want to commit suicide?”
“Nothin’ fine about me.”
“AIDS can be treated.”
How’s he know I got AIDS? Oh, right. He’d mentioned it when the man grabbed him on the RiverWalk, hadn’t he?
Adrian popped the aspirins and washed them down. “Only if you got the money. And you care.” He handed back the cup and slid down the bed. He pressed his fingertips into the top of his head and massaged in tight circles.
Dialog passage #2 from “Vampires Anonymous”–
Five years later, Adrian, now a vampire himself, is a big brother and tutor (along with Eli Howard) to ten-year-old Jonathan Clayton, also a vampire. Adrian’s attitude has changed a lot in the past five years, and his speech reflects that. Jonathan, a bright kid, was not a street kid like Adrian used to be. These vampires have telepathic powers. Adrian’s, however, are weak. In this scene, Adrian is trying to locate Adam Mathews, a foe of the vampires. Note that dialog cues are rarely necessary here because it’s generally clear who is speaking from their speech differences, wherein I attempted to reflect the characters’ respective ages.
Adrian leaned back in his chair, looking past his PCs and servers at the satin-black wall behind them. He’d recently repainted the room with Jonathan’s help. Black made the flatscreen monitors stand out better. Not having to crank the contrast and brightness was easier on his sensitive, vampire eyes. And the black wall was way cool.
He’d painted the other walls and ceiling pale orange. Indirect lighting around the ceiling cast a warm glow over the room. Jonathan had picked the color. He claimed Halloween colors and vampires went well together.
Adrian returned to his hacking frustrations. “Where the hell did you go, Adam? I didn’t think you were that smart.”
“Only old folks talk to themselves. Oh, I forgot, you are old. My bad.”
“Hey, dogbreath, I’m only twenty-two.”
“In vampire years, loser.”
“In human years.” Fucktard.
With an exaggerated finger press, Jonathan paused his iPod. “Uncle Eli is gonna be so pissed at you for swearing at me, mega-loser.”
“I did not swear at you.”
Jonathan put his fingertips on his temples. “You thought it and I heard it, so it’s a swear.”
Adrian put a finger on his forehead. “That was my private thought, you little pain-in-the-anus. Eli warned you not to poke into people’s minds without their consent.”
“Uncle Eli says it’s okay to poke sometimes. He pokes yours all the time.” He wrinkled his nose and gave his mean stare. “You’re a bigger tard than me.”
“‘Sometimes’ is the operative word. He doesn’t read my thoughts all the time.”
“Only ‘cuz there’s not much to read, stem.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Stem. Like brainstem. Like nothing above the neck.”
Adrian suppressed a desire to smile. “How you doing with that video game? You done hacking it?”
“Almost. I beat your score an hour ago.” He displayed his straight, white teeth. “It’s so cool how you teach me all this shit.”
Adrian glared at him.
“‘Shit’ isn’t a bad swear.”
He glared again.
“You had blood last night.”
“Real food. Pizza, super-deluxe with everything. Good pizza, not the frozen, store… stuff.”
The key to getting the dialog right is to listen to it back as you say it aloud and by asking yourself if it reflects your characters. If it all sounds the same and you can’t tell which character is speaking by his or her speech patterns, then you have some work to do.
Next time we’ll discuss slang and characters whose first language isn’t English. We’ll look at how to make them sound authentic without annoying your reader with awkward dialects and without you having to know that language.