One of the best ways I’ve learned for how to get to know my characters is by sticking them in a room with another character then sitting back with a little popcorn and listening to their unique voice. But I’m not just listening for that. I’m also listening for how they choose their words, what they choose to reveal and also what they feel their purpose is within their world. Though the conversations you witness and the character’s history you learn from those scenes are purely for research purposes - and I know it's hard to write a scene like this and not use it in the story, but it should only be included if it is vital to the plot in some way, shape or form.
So how is this related to the dialogue within the story?
Knowing your characters is the backbone for your dialogue, not just the story. The dialogue won’t stand unless you know your characters. Ever had one of those moments where you’re writing a scene and you type/write out that your MC says something a bit contradictory to who you’ve come to know? But at the same time you’re incredibly excited to read it because you knew it was a long-time in the making based on the research you did in getting to know your character?
That’s what I’m talking about and this is exactly where getting to know your characters plays into dialogue.
A contradictory remark would definitely throw the reader for a loop, but how else were you going to get their attitude towards that day, time, place, situation or even something that vital to the character’s arc across unless it was expressed via dialogue?
Telling the reader that your MC is extremely stressed over an incredibly important, life-changing decision they have to make is vanilla and could be the difference between your MS getting published or being tossed into the slush pile. Instead, you need to show it:
Todd waved his hand in front of Emily’s face. “Hey, Em,” he said, snapping his fingers, “I asked if you planned on being at the team dinner tonight.”
“Snap at me like that again and you won’t be going anywhere tonight,” Emily said as her eyes shot daggers in his direction.
Now, what the reader already knows by now is that Emily has a life-altering decision she has to make and she must do so soon. But so far she’s handled the stress of this decision fairly well, so the reader would think that her normal response would have been: “Huh? Oh, sorry, I’ve got a lot on my mind. Sure, I’ll be there tonight.”
Instead though, through dialogue, the reader has been shown, for the first time, that the weight of this decision has finally settled against her shoulders and she’s beginning to crack. And because the author knows their character, they knew this was not only an abnormal response, but it’s one that was bound to happen and they were ready for it – heck, they might’ve been rooting for it. J
Another way your dialogue improves by knowing your characters is their cadences. I took an advanced dialogue workshop via Savvy Authors back in September and our wonderful teacher, Devon Ellington, defined a character’s cadence like this:
“Every character has a unique voice, a unique speech rhythm. Find your character’s cadence and use it. That doesn’t mean delving heavily into dialect. It means letting your character’s unique rhythms shine through so the reader knows who is speaking without tags.”
In our first exercise, Devon went on to explain how we truly do learn a lot about our characters by their speech rhythms. Don’t you know someone who says ‘um’ a lot when they’re explaining something? Or what about that person who loves sprinkling in the word ‘like’ when they’re telling you a story? That's a part of their unique speech rhythm, and there’s many more out there to be discovered and invented as you work your way through getting to know your characters via dialogue.
As an example, when I first learned the term cadence and how it defines a character and makes them unique, the first fictional character that came to my mind was Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. His speech was unique, so you never really needed a dialogue tag to know it was him. Lennie had a particular rhythm that was adhered to throughout the book and is rememberable to the reader no matter how long it's been since they first read that story.
I’ve learned a lot by experimenting through dialogue, but there's one thing that remains true every time: it is one of the best ways to show your character’s strengths, flaws and what it is that makes them unique and unforgettable.
What are some of the challenges you run into when writing dialogue? When you’re showing within your writing do you tend to show more with the dialogue between characters, or do you lean more on the character’s inner thoughts? Do you reflect a character’s history in the way they communicate with others? What about their unique cadence, are you conscious of this while writing dialogue?