My book, “Kalokairi,” is finally taking enough form that I find myself wanting to add dialogue to places I had only mapped out before. Much of my first attempts at writing contained only descriptive passages. How does so-and-so get such-and-such to do something? Why do they take a bus instead of a train? What does the place look like? Smell like? Feel like?
Then a character opens her mouth. And talks to another character. Then a third character chimes into the fray, and I’ll be damned if they don’t all sound just like me. Which is a problem, you’ll be quick to point out, especially if you know me well.
In case you find yourself in similar straits, here are some ideas offered by our “Nearly There” group, as well as some online sources:
Think of people you know. Imagine that each of your characters is an amalgam of traits from a couple of different folks. If your Uncle Joe is the family cut-up, perhaps he could be the basis for your comic-relief character, but then fictionalize him to have a different haircut or color. Give him an idiosyncrasy that the real Joe doesn’t possess. As Rachel W. prompts, “It doesn’t have to be a fatal flaw,” but everyone has one. Or more, in my case.
Sean S. recommends keeping a character sheet that lets you list all kinds of details about your characters. Height, weight, likes and dislikes, education level, where a person grew up, how many siblings… these all play an important role in shaping the way a character will (or will not) speak and interact with the people around him. All of these character details should not necessarily appear in your book, but it is important for you as the author to know them, so that each character feels authentic and individual as you unveil them to the reader.
eHow contributor, Jane Smith, advises: “Do not use offensive language in one character without showing the approval or disapproval level of other characters, and without clearly establishing the need for such language as it advances the plot. If it does not advance the plot, why use it at all?” Interesting question. Some people enjoy a good cursing in their books. They put the “fan” in profanity. Others, however, will tune out or even shun a book entirely once their expletive threshold has been reached. If your character is a construction worker, policeman, deployed military, or gang member, then “Hell, yes,” you can feel confident that some foul language will be expected, if not necessary, to make your book feel realistic.
Finally, for help with the “guts” of writing dialogue, try this NaNoWriMo resource. It has very easy and direct examples of where the quotes go, and how punctuation interacts with the conversation. They show us how a simple, “Hi, how’re you doing?” exchange would flow on the page, and then quickly remind us that conversations like this are best reserved for keeping our friends happy… not advancing plot.