Damn, I wish I woulda said that

First off, I have to thank my tweep @thealphapussy for the inspiration for this post.  She is another writer pal and if you are on twitter you could do far worse than follow her though she is occasionally (often) nsfw so consider yourself forewarned.

Anyway, she responded to a tweet I sent in which I said something along the lines of “write dialog as your character wishes they spoke rather than as people really speak” to which she replied that she had heard the opposite, that you should write dialog like real people speak.  I felt that I would need a couple more than 140 characters to explain this out (and I stand by my original statement).

One more caveat, because, you know, I like to leave myself with plenty of outs if I say something stupid – this is all my own opinion.  If you paid a hundred million dollars to go to the University of Awesome Writing to get your MFA in ass-kicking writing and they said to do it some other way, feel free to ignore this post.  Or pick it apart for grammar mistakes, it’s all up to you, but yes, I would like fries with that order.

I believe that characters are the only “things” that really matter in your story.  There.  I have a said it and I mean it.  Plot, settings, twists, red herrings, eras, genres, creative devices, prescient futuristic writing and everything else are neat.  Who know, if you are good enough, they might even become a character in which case they will start to matter.  Until then, they are just there showcase your character.  People care about people.  People like to read stories to get some voyeuristic pleasure into the most intimate and important moments in someone’s life.  Even if that someone happens to be created out of the ether of your mind.

Dialog is one of the key ways that you inform the reader about the character and that the character informs the world about who they are.  Here is a quick exercise for you.  Think of your top 3 or 5 movies or just whatever pops into your head – it might not even be a movie you like, but the lines will stick with you.  Then think of why.  It will usually be the character, and that will usually be because of things that the character said.  Here are mine in no particular order.  I bet you can pick out the movie – I will give you my interpretation as to what that line says about the character to me.  Also remember that you have to have the dialog in context, which I have assumed here.

“Yippee-Kai-yay, mother fucker” a bit irreverent, a blue collar everyman with his cowboy movie reference, his profanity says he is not afraid to get dirty (and bloody, and beat up) but we know he isn’t going to quit.

“Turn to the dark side, Luke” this character knows that he is Fallen yet he retains enough humanity to want to share it with his son.  He is evil, yes, but perhaps not beyond redemption.

“I’m king of the world!” Hopeful.  Youthfully naive.  Carefree in the moment but it is tempered with the knowledge that it is an illusion.

“…your suffering will be legendary, even in Hell” a terrifying threat if the maker is able to carry it out which this guy, with his fellow demons (or cenobytes), seems likely.  He also has a flair for the dramatic, so we know that he won’t do anything in the simple way.  He is also has a patience – for suffering to truly matter it must be lasting.

Just as an aside, for the last few years the focus of my writing has been screenwriting so my examples are primarily from there, but here are a couple of prose-ish ones that pop to mind instantly:

“Tremble and despair for I am power!” see below for my thoughts on this one.

“What e’er you do, Br’er Fox, please don’t throw me in that briar patch” clever, clever, clever.

“You shall not pass!” (okay, this one was from a movie too, but it was ripped from the book)  There is no equivocation here.  The thought of failure doesn’t even enter this characters mind.  He is resolute.

“Let there be light.” The character is God.  Or thinks that they are.

Yeah, got a bit facetious at the end, but hopefully I made my point.  It does bear mention though, that words are so important that the Bible’s authors wanted to emphasize that all things were created by the word.

Back to the point of this post.  Every character should be a living, breathing, unique individual.  They have their own desires and fears.  They have their upbringing.  They probably know who they are (as much as any of us) and who they want to be.  They may or may not be aware of the chasm between.  Therein lies the magic.

Yes, the character should speak authentically.  They should have a voice of themselves, but they should also say the best possible thing that they can say in any instance.  For example, when Pug (from David Edding’s Magician series – the first couple are awesome, then not so much) realizes – and displays – his magical power he likely would have said “Yeah!” or nothing at all.  The line “Tremble and despair for I am power!” does so much more than that.  You can see him almost drunk on the magical might he is wielding.  You can see him glowing with barely contained fury and there is something not a little dangerous.

A character who is a street hood, knows what he is and is limited by that.  He probably won’t go around quoting Shakespeare, but who knows.  Maybe the thug wishes he were smarter than he is.  Maybe quoting Shakespeare is his way of protecting himself from the awful things he does.  Maybe he butchers Shakespeare because of his lack of education.  It tells a lot when he says

“All the world’s a stage and everyone acts their part”

He has read some of the Bard perhaps and misremembered it or rather interpreted it in a way that makes sense to him.  He lives in a movie age.  He probably salves his conscience with the thought that he is doing what he has to – he is playing his part so his atrocities are outside his control.  It means he even has a conscience which gives the reader hope that he might do the right thing eventually.

Psychoanalyze all you want on the fact that about those lines above that stuck with me.

I don’t think for even a second that people will analyze every bit (or even any) dialog to figure all of this out.  I do believe, however, that their subconscious will pick up on cues and assign symbolic meaning and value to things which I never even considered, just as I hope my own subconscious will allow my writing to be more than just the words on the page.

Readers want to identify with one or more of your characters.  They want to be as glamorous, dangerous, exciting, sexy, troubled, or just plain cool as your characters.  They want to see lines that stick with them and think, damn I hope I would say something as cool if I were ever in that situation.

Can you overwrite this?  Sure.  Is that a bad thing?  Sure.  Just like overwriting anything is bad.  Will spending more time on making your dialog cooler make your work a more enjoyable read?  Yes, I think it will.

Sorry for this long and somewhat rambling treatise on dialog.  Good for you if you actually made it this far. Reward yourself with something nice.

Disagree?  Feel free to leave me a comment and prove me wrong.

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3 thoughts on “Damn, I wish I woulda said that

  1. I am honored with the thought my comment generated. Very well written post.

    I will take you to task on stating that the characters are all that matters. Yes, they should drive the story, but the conflict (aka plot) must be present in every scene. There must be a reason for the characters to do what they are doing. Dialogue and character action is great, but not if it doesn’t serve a purpose.

    World building also goes hand in hand with characters. You could almost argue that the setting is a character in and of itself. If the setting isn’t fleshed out and believable, who is going to suspend disbelief for say, a 7 foot tall walking carpet who uses a crossbow and can fly ships?

  2. Ah, but the conflict only matters because of the danger to the character(s). So it is really just a set up to show off the character.

    Plot is also just to show of the character of the, er, character. What makes characters so wonderful is that you could take a single plot (aka conflict) and retell it over and over with different characters and the story will be different almost every time. Hollywood makes billions of dollars just on that premise alone 😉

  3. I think there are no absolutes. Sometimes what makes us connect with a character, what makes a character seem more real is fallibility. We can’t usually relate to a perfect character. Sometimes the character NOT saying the perfect thing in any moment is better for the character development and the story. I agree that dialogue should be cleaner than “real” talking. We can strip away all the ums and aws and hesitation unless it serves to illustrate something about the character or moves the plot. To consider your examples, when the (sometimes flawed) character has a high point, a moment of triumph or bravado, the dialogue should probably be the best thing they can say. The rest of the time, yeah, it depends.

    AND I don’t think you can separate character and plot. You need both the rich character and the solid plot. What the character does and how he or she does it builds their character; who the character is helps determine what he or she does.

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