Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Conversations with Myself

Lately, I've really been thinking a lot about characters.  In my opinion, they're more important than even a good plot (though a good plot is very important).  As I've said before, characters are what make readers keep reading.  If the reader has an emotional attachment/investment towards the characters, it's going to compel the reader to want to find out what happens to those characters.  Good characters drive the story even more than a good plot, in my opinion.

So for the next few Wednesdays, I'm going to try to talk about different aspects of characterization.  I don't know if I'd consider myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but since I've written three books and portions of other books, I have had a little experience in what works and doesn't work.  Today, I'm going to write about dialogue.

I want to say right off that dialogue is not my strong point.  I'm not the most articulate person; I write far better than I speak.  But most novels include dialogue, and I'm not creative enough to believably find a way around it.  So my novels have all included dialogue, as well.

Dialogue is important for many reasons.  It shows the inner workings of characters' minds, as well as relationships between characters.  But it's interesting to think of what dialogue really is.  The writer, who in my case is just one person, has to create a conversation involving more than one person.  I've got to pretend I know what each person in the conversation is going to say and how they're going to say it.  I'm often bewildered because I have no idea how people talk to each other, and I'm not sure if the conversation I'm essentially having with myself is even believable.

Sometimes, I go to edit some of my dialogue, and I realize it's not anything like what people would say in real life.  For instance, I'm pretty sure that in real life people don't sigh every other sentence, nor do they call each other by name after every other word.  And I think I've exhausted my mental thesaurus for phrases that could be used instead of "he said-she said." 

Other times, however, there is a sort of magic that happens.  The characters' conversations just flow from my brain onto the computer screen (or paper, if I'm going old skool--which doesn't happen often because my writing wrist is a pansy).  Sometimes I'm caught off guard by things the characters say, how they say them, or what they do while they're saying things.  These are the dialogues I don't have to edit much.  These are the dialogues where it seems as though there really are two people talking, and not just me writing down what I think these people should say. 

When dialogue like this happens, I know my characters have ceased to be ideas and have taken on lives of their own in my story.  I'm no longer having conversations with myself, but observing something outside of myself, yet guided by my pen (or more likely, my keyboard).

I'm not really in control of when these magical times happen, but I do have a few things I've learned to help me write better dialogue:

1. Observation.  Maybe this seems stalkerish, but a good way to figure out how people talk is to listen to people talk.  If I'm writing a YA book, it might be a good idea to listen to how teenagers are talking.  If I'm writing a science fiction series, it might be a good idea to listen to how nerds are talking.  If I'm writing a fantasy, it might be a good idea to listen to how Dragons are talking (lucky I've got five of those in my room).  Another part of this observation (that is slightly less creepy) involves reading other books.  It's easier to write good dialogue if I'm reading good dialogue.  The danger in this is that sometimes it's easy to steal lines from books and/or movies without realizing it.  Again...that's what editing is for.

2. Practice.  This means I ACTUALLY have to talk to ACTUAL people...and essentially observe myself.  How do I talk?  How do others talk to me?  It's important to think about these things while writing dialogue.  And I've found that the more I write dialogue, the easier it gets. 

3. Edit.  I think I've already mentioned this, but it's so important.  Sometimes even good dialogue contains repetition (a person can only run their fingers through their hair so many times before the reader starts wondering if the character has lice), poor phrasing, unrealistic or uncharacteristic word/sentence choices, etc.  I reread my dialogue more than my prose (though rereading both is important).  Sometimes I have a friend read over it to make sure I haven't missed anything.  I want to make sure I'm representing my character's words as clearly as possible so my readers can see them for who they are.

I'm sure I still have much to learn about dialogue and good characterization, but these are some things I've been thinking about lately.

1 comment:

  1. One of my favorite masters of dialogue is Dorothy Sayers in her Lord Peter mystery novels. Someone asked once how she came up with such realistic dialogue between men. She said something to the effect of "I'm human, thus I know how humans talk."

    Those are some helpful points. Observation is definitely the most fun, though. Haha.