“The character of a man is known from his conversations.”
Ford Madox Ford—
If the author says: “Mr. X was a violent reactionary,” you would know little about him. But if Mr. X’s first words after his introduction were, “God damn it, I say put all the filthy liberals up against a wall and shoot their filthy livers out. Are you with me or against me?” That gentleman will make an impression that many following pages will hardly efface.
WHAT HE SAYS
Have you ever read a novel and all the characters talk alike, if you were just to read the dialogue you wouldn’t know who was who?
Phraseology 101. We need to listen when people speak, to tune our ears to the slang and verbal shortcuts, the repetition, interruptions, and nonlinear subject-jumping, how they frequently say one thing and mean another. A person’s speech patterns are as unique as his fingerprints. When we put words in our character’s mouth, we need to check, double-check, and triple check to make sure they’re his words and no one else’s.
Because the protagonist’s voice is crucial, Kazuo Ishiguro—author of six novels, including the Booker-prize winning Remains of the Day—"auditions" narrators by writing a few chapters from different characters’ points of view.
Dialogue is where writers can let loose and have fun. It’s not every day that we get to take both sides of an argument. Now’s the chance to jump into our characters’ skins and vent all those suppressed whammies we’ve been aching to unleash. But remember—
People don’t talk to each other in grammatically-correct sentences. Nor do they banter back and forth in logical order. Verbal language is riddled with non sequiturs, innuendoes, terms with personalized meanings, and subtleties deceivingly cloaked in irony. And people don’t always understand what the other is saying. Or perhaps two parties understand, but a clueless third party scratches his head. In real life, people don’t listen too well. Furthermore, we jump to conclusions and take offense.
Conversation doesn’t offer us a perfect medium to communicate, and if our completed novels provide such a medium, they aren’t true to life and we’ve overlooked infinite sources of conflict, as well as opportunities to develop our characters. (For more on Dialogue.)
Dialogue should identify and separate the members of our cast. Their speech patterns, perhaps above all else, should reveal their personalities.
Every universe, our own included, begins in conversation. Summoned to life through language, our world, our orbits, are talked into existence.
Notice how each character below approaches the same task, but in entirely different styles—
- “How’s the meatloaf, dear? I’ve a hankering for meatloaf. Then again, last meatloaf I had stayed with me for weeks. Eh, what the hell, you only live once, am I right? Sure thing, I’ll take the meatloaf. A slice of that pie, too, with ice cream a la mode.”
- “Steak, medium rare. Got that? Not medium, not rare—medium rare. And a salad. Not the kind with fancy lettuce, plain iceberg, Italian dressing. And make it quick, I ain’t got all day.”
- "Um, yes, okay, that’s what I’ll have, what he’s having. Thanks. And if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, would you mind having them put the dressing on the side? If it’s not a bother. No hurry.”
- “Are there croutons on the salad? I don’t do gluten. And these’ll be separate checks.”
- “Fifteen minute with you in the back room, sweetheart, and a coffee, black. You’re all the sugar I need. Come here, gimme a little kiss.”
How’s it read if the same five men took seats along a row of identical barstools and said—?
- “Meatloaf for me.”
- “I’ll have the steak.”
- “Me too.”
- “Salad, hold the croutons.”
- “Just a coffee.”
Different orders, but otherwise—same, same, same. Distinguish your characters with what you put in their mouths. There’s so much room to play with. Why not start with catchphrases? Everyone has them, whether it’s all right, yup, or there we go.
Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter is notable for a string of such oft-used expressions. His include the opening line, "I say you fellows"; to criticism, "Oh really Wharton" (or whoever is speaking); and an exclamation of pain, "Yarooh" ("hooray" spelled in reverse).
And then there’s Sawyer of TV series Lost fame. Everyone gets a nickname, a different one everyday if not every hour.
Jack has been called: Hero, Doc, Jacko, St. Jack, Jack-Ass, Chico, Cowboy, Dr. Quinn, Dr. Do-Right, Sheriff, Brother, Hoss, El Jacko, Amarillo Slim, Cool Hand, Dr. Giggles, and Daniel Boone.
With Kate, it’s: Freckles, Shortcake, Sweetheart, Belle of the Ball, Sheriff, Baby, Sassafras, Boar Expert, The Mighty Huntress, Hon, Girl, The Lady, Sweetcheeks, Puddin’, Sheena, Thelma, Pippi Longstocking, Little Lady, Honey, Magellan, and Kiddo.
A word of caution. Don’t jump on Sawyer’s bandwagon. It’s fine to borrow ideas from other writers and remake them into something unique, but in Sawyer’s case, the Lost writers raised the nickname tag to an art form. I’d venture there will be many characters with a similar habit coming our way, but any reader anywhere will know he’s a ripoff and, guaranteed, a second-rate ripoff.
Another word of caution. Remember, you too have catchphrases. Be sure you don’t inadvertently slip them into multiple characters’ lines. Once you finish your novel, you might want to do a search to read each character’s dialogue to be safe.
One last faux pas to watch for—don’t create a character who can’t speak the part. I often see this in protagonists who are either high school valedictorians or Cambridge scholars. Now, even Nabokov said, “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.” Few real-life scholars speak in textbook-ese. All the same, few real-life scholars speak and think like they bailed on high school at sixteen. I’m not referring to the socially unintelligent scholar, as in Ann Patchett’s Dr. Marina Singh of State of Wonder. She’s ditzy, something of an adolescent adult, and well worth traipsing through the Amazon to see what becomes of her. I’m talking about the scholarly character that doesn’t have anything to say. She (it always seems to be a she) is reputedly a brilliant mind, but when we’re invited inside that brilliant mind, no one’s home. She’s just thinking about the plot—thinking about things we’ve moved beyond. With a scholarly hero, we readers should turn the page and have epiphanies, not find that we’ve outdistanced the star of the show.
Perhaps it requires a mature novelist who’s written a number of completed books to know how to fill out the vista of the expansive mind. As writers, we’d be wise to choose what we can deliver. I can’t see myself ever taking on the dialect that Mark Twain spread like butter, for starters. Know your weaknesses, know your strengths, and choose your characters accordingly.
And remember, too, as in life, what a character withholds is often as important as what he says. In Faulkner’s short story Barn Burning, for instance, when the court finds Abner Snopes guilty of ruining his boss’ rug, we unwaveringly interpret his silence during the verdict as the assurance of a violent, albeit delayed, recourse on his part.