Dialog

My topics that people want me to write about are piling up, and I will get to each one. But the requests that are going to take longer to compile a post are being pushed back and while I didn’t plan on writing this post yet I can bang it out rather quickly.  So bear with me.  You see I started writing the book a day early, and so I need to have my full attention on that.  I’ll also be posting about how my first day went but again, I don’t want to right now.

In any case, one of the things I didn’t call out about my character studies (although it exists) is some indications about their speech patterns.  It drives my wife and editors crazy because whenever they attempt to edit dialog of one of my major characters, I almost always undo their changes.  I have things that I do intentionally but they may see them as mistakes.

    1. Incomplete sentences – I purposefully do this when writing dialog, as I think it makes it more believable. Few people speak in complete sentences and by saying, “That so?” can come off more natural sounding then having someone say, “Is that so?”
    2. Liberal use of  contractions.  Again people are more likely to say it’s rather than it is and we’ll rather than we will.
    3. Dialects:  I try to avoid them because they can make the reader work too hard and get in the way.  Do they add flavor, sure.  But there is a trade off between atmosphere and easy reading that you must juggle. When used in moderation, I think you can get a little more heavy handed. For instance Erandabon Gile the Tenkin Warlord of the jungles in Calis certainly had a heavier accent than most. But there are some (usually the peasants or lower classes) who will have slight modifications such as using “ya” rather than “you” or “yer” rather than your.
    4. Modern language – except for a few instances where speech is done in middle English for plot reasons, I write my dialog very casually using what some would consider “too modern” for an epic fantasy.  It’s a conscious decision on my part and done to remove barriers between the reader and the characters.  My theory is that it’s my world and they can speak anyway I damn well want.  For me I prefer accessibility over atmosphere so while a term like “pal” or “buddy” might rub someone the wrong way, it isn’t because of a mistake.  I do, of course, draw the line at certain things and would never use “dude.”

 

Now with all that being said, there are certain people whose speech I’ve designed for particular reasons. Nimbus (the imperial secretary and courtier from Vernes), for example, is extremely formal. He would never use a contraction even in the most casual of settings. It’s just not within him. Also he always adds a “my lord” or “my lady” to any interactions he has with anyone of position. Therefore there are notations on his character sheet indicating so.

But there are other aspects about character’s speech that I note.  For instance, Royce isn’t a big talker. He is terse, harsh, and unapologetic. If he were to use “please” or “thank you” it is something to take particular note of, because such niceties are something he really has to force himself to do. He also doesn’t generally have to resort to an outright threat.  For instance he wouldn’t say, “Do this or I’ll kill you.”  His demeanor seeps off him so that’s not necessary.  The person he is speaking to knows the danger without having him saying the words.

Hadrian, on the other hand, is more loquacious. In some regards this is because he is a friendly, amiable sort, but in many cases, its done to compensate for Royce. A harsh comment from Royce usually needs some smoothing over in produce the desired result. For instance, when trying to convince Myron to come with them and leave behind his burned out home Hadrian’s response is, “Listen, it’s time to move on with your life.” If Hadrian wasn’t there Royce’s response would be. “You’re coming,” because it is one word shorter than, “You’re coming, period.”

With dialog, consistency is important, but context should trump it.  For instance, Bishop Saldur speaks very formally in public, and especially when giving a speech, but when sitting around sharing a drink with a confidant, his speech patterns relax. In fact that is a subtle hint that he is comfortable. So again this is noted in his sheet.  Someone like Nimbus, who I mentioned before, does’t drop his formality even with those he is closest to.

Then there is non-verbal communication. Royce, for instance has his boots on almost always, on the few occasions he removes them it is a signal that he feels safe and completely free of any threat. (Again this is noted on his character sheet and in those instances I’m sure to mention their removal. It’s not that I’m expecting the reader to pick up on such subtle nuances, and even if it is only I who know such things, it gives me a sense of satisfaction with the work just knowing that something as insignificant as that has a reason.

Then there are the times where you can say more by saying nothing. There is a scene in Nyphron Rising where Royce an Hadrian are preparing camp.  The scene is played out through Arista’s point of view and there isn’t a single word exchanged between the pair.  Each sets about doing “their task” and knows full well what the other will be doing.  So much so that a tool can be tossed from one to the other without even a “Heads up” comment.  This shows a familiarity formed over years of doing similar tasks over and over. Without any  words spoken, we get a sense of how long the two have been together, much more efficiently then them recounting a story from their past while sitting around the campfire.

I’ve read enough reviews praising the dialog of my characters to make me feel as if I have a pretty good handle on this part of my writing.  Still, dialog is one of those things that will be criticized no matter what. Art is subjective and what works for one person, grates on another, so if you see complaints about your own writing, don’t start breaking out he flail too quickly.  If, however,  it seems to be a common complaint from a large number of people, then you may want to take a closer look, and make adjustments.  Also keep in mind that a complaint can actually be a compliment.  There have been some instances where people will mention they were put off by stilted dialog, but since I have a great number of characters whose adherence to formality is an important aspect to their personality, I’ve actually hit the mark I was shooting for.

3 thoughts on “Dialog

  1. This post couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I’m working on a short story and for some reason, yesterday was the day I realized my shortcomings with dialogue. I’m especially focusing on giving each character their own voice as I tend to find they all end up with ‘my’ voice. Appreciate the tips Michael and I look forward to more!

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