When writing a novel, your whole purpose is to weave a story that your reader can escape into. Every bit of it needs to feel real or, if it’s extremely far-fetched, presented in a way that it can be believable. Readers know that they are reading a novel, but they don’t want to feel like it’s being told as a monotone byline. The words need to be framed in such a way that the reader questions reality for just a moment. This applies to all parts of the novel, including the dialogue. Dialogue between characters is a magical key that enables you to provide access to the characters, to their reactions, and to their experience of the moment without having to describe anything. They speak about it and your world is created. A problem that often comes up, however, is dialogue that feels stiff or forced. The characters sound like they’re reading a playbook but forgetting to express the lines. This type of dialogue will drop the reader out of the story immediately. The happy news is that it’s easily avoided. Here are a few of the steps I take to create believable, engaging dialogue.
Your Characters are People
Every character that you place on the page has a life of its own. They exist in your head, but you make them real when you start writing about them. The dialogue given to each character needs to be written as if you were having a conversation with that person. The characters have to take on some sort of life so the dialogue can flow. This is actually a fun adventure. What can you do to give them life?
For me, I do a lot of visualizing when I write. I sit quietly, crawl into my head for a bit, and find my characters. And then I watch them. I find their mannerisms. I throw them into scenes and see how they react, see what kind of words and actions come up. I see how they interact with each other. I find areas of weakness and strength. Then I write about it. Doing this, putting myself into the scene with the characters, has been an effective way for me to connect with them and frame their conversations around what I discover. This works because if you have a strong character with a fiery independence, she’s going to speak differently than a character that is quiet and subdued. Their dialogue is more believable if it matches their personalities. The fiercely independent woman that hates the help of others is going to resist help from any other characters. Her dialogue will sound something like this…
“Don’t touch me,” she hissed. “Last I checked I didn’t need you hovering around waiting for me to fall on my ass. Go find yourself a damsel and leave me be.”
Whereas a second character, one that takes comfort in the presence of others may sound like this when resisting help…
“Thank you.” she stepped quickly forward, grasping the item before he could swoop in. “I appreciate the offer, but I can manage.” She smiled, hoping he wasn’t offended.
Both women are resisting help and both dialogues fit closely with the personalities that are being portrayed.
Make Your Dialogue Consistent with their Upbringing
Part of writing believable dialogue is writing dialogue that stays consistent with the world the character grew up in. All of us are defined to some degree by the environments that we existed in during our childhood years. For dialogue, this is easily seen when you consider the variations in tone and words that a person has in Georgia when compared to a man born in Seattle. The accents and words are different, which means if you had both characters in a scene with one another, the dialogue between them would vary dramatically. When you know the accents and tones consistent with the character upbringing, you can put them into the dialogue, adding another layer to the person you are writing about.
The same concept applies for characters that are defined by their social status. Typically speaking, a character born into a wealthy, well-bred family will have proper grammar and a way of carrying himself that shows he knows his status in life. A character born in less than ideal circumstances may have the dialogue of the streets. A lot of slang,a lot of body language that shows that he is tough, mistakes in grammar, etc. These two are defined in their words by the environments that shaped who they are. A beautiful example of framing dialogue around the upbringing of your character can be found in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The contrast in the dialogue between the white slave owners and the black slaves is very well done, and beautifully portrays the difference in upbringing and life, while still showing the compassion and humanity of both sides. To take it one step further, she also has the character of Tom, a black slave who is well-bred, compassionate, and respectful, and the character of Simon Legree, a slave owner who has no compassion for humanity and life. Here is an example. It is a scene between Mr. Shelby, a white slave owner, and Haley, a slave trader. The dialogue shows their differences in status perfectly.
“It’s done!” said Mr. Shelby, in a musing tone; and, fetching a long breath, he repeated, “It’s done!”
“Yer don’t seem to feel much pleased with it, ‘pears to me,” said the trader.
“Haley,” said Mr. Shelby, “I hope you’ll remember that you promised, on your honor, you wouldn’t sell Tom, without knowing what sort of hands he’s going into.”
“Why, you’ve just done it sir,” said the trader.
“Circumstances, you well know, obliged me,” said Shelby, haughtily.
“Wal, you know, they may ‘blige me, too,” said the trader.
I love this because it shows the power of dialogue in helping to define who a person is in life.
Break the Grammar Rules
This one is shown in the example above, but is worth mentioning here. When writing, proper grammar often translates in dialogue as stiff and emotionless. Most people blend words together, creating slang to some degree. Prime examples are could have, would have, should have, could not, and so on. Very few people actually enunciate each word. Instead, we lump them into could’ve, would’ve, should’ve, couldn’t, etc. So unless your character is giving an eloquent speech, you may want to consider including some dialogue in their contractions.
Also, going back to grammar and the character upbringing, you’ll want to consider how you want them to be portrayed. Often, a character that has little schooling will be shown having the smallest grasp on grammar, meaning their dialogue is littered with grammatical errors that might drive a grammar nut such as myself mad. There will be a lot of double negatives, a lot of words that are pronounced improperly, and a lot of words that really aren’t words. Ain’t anyone? Although, to be fair, that word may have made it into the dictionary. But the point is, if you write all of their dialogue using the grammar rules you were taught in school, your characters might just feel lifeless. So break the rules and have fun destroying some grammar.
While their are many ways to give depth and personality to your characters, dialogue is one of the most important. It is an essential tool for driving the story forward and keeping the characters in action, while simultaneously fleshing out more of the character persona. When writing, dialogue may just become your best friend.