My major problem having a blog that’s not explicitly made to hold my fiction is I never know what to post in it. However, today I got a very nice question on Tumblr and I answered it in a variety of ways that satisfied me, and Tumblr is a terrible website for archival purposes, eyemow, so I’ll put them up here as one of these posts. Enjoy!
what’s your approach to dialogue?
I try not to overthink the “aesthetic” of speech too much. I used to get stuck on making every character “sound different.” I still do some of that, but I do it sparingly. It’s not about sounding the same or different but about characters talking to each other in a way that’s consistent with their personalities, the level of information they have access to and how they would approach a situation.
I don’t view the dialog in quotes in a story as direct speech but as layers of abstraction for the reader. In a fantasy world for example people wouldn’t necessarily be speaking English and they might lack certain sentence constructs. But we don’t render their speech faithfully: we render it legibly to our readers. Where we can make in a difference is having characters speak consistently with, for example, what they understand of their world and situation.
In The Solstice War I sit down and think about what a person in the 1940s would know. They don’t have the internet, television is in its infancy, radio can’t or simply doesn’t convey as much information as either of these two other mediums do and that’s the one that’s popular and accessible – and not everyone has access to that either. So what do people know and where do they learn it? What does this say about their path in life and what things they value? This will not exactly affect how they talk, but what they talk about. That’s what I try to focus on: the content of speech. Who is saying what and why? Not so much how they say it. To me that’s less important for characterization.
As an example, one thing I kept in mind when writing Naya was the fact that she got a formal education, K through 12, which a lot of other characters didn’t get to the extent that she did. So she knows enough not to sound like she has blind spots in her knowledge. However Naya doesn’t value her education. She’s kind of a jock. So Naya wouldn’t be dishing out scientific factoids or whatever, even though she knows a few. She values her physicality more than intellect.
Another example of writing this way is “war room” style scenes. Every character in The Solstice War is constantly engaging with war, and they have different levels of knowledge about war and different roles in war that I try to convey in the dialogue, both what they say, when they say it and why they say it.
For example, Schicksal is sort of a narrator to the Nochtish 8th Panzer Division’s war room. She says the information she collects, and she kind of has to sound like she’s parroting facts, but I also do want there to be a burgeoning understanding of what she’s saying: she can’t sound like she’s got the drive that Dreschner does, where he comes up with original directives. But she can’t sound like she has no idea what’s going on, either, because she has access to so much information that she can’t not know some of what’s going on. She’s growing as a soldier in each scene and I have to convey that within that space.
Meanwhile, Parinita and Madiha have a back and forth that reflects their greater level of equality in the war machine. Parinita doesn’t know as much as Madiha does but she’s enthusiastic to help and doesn’t have a “place” in the room the way Schicksal does. Schicksal has a rigidly defined role; Parinita has freedom to come up with stuff and to question things even if she’s wrong. Dreschner talks at people who are under him, but Madiha and Parinita talk to each other.
Texturally their dialog can “sound similar” though I try to have Madiha speak in a horrible stilted fashion that no normal person would use, while Parinita is more approachably conversational unless she’s parroting information. But I try to use the situation and the information they have access to and such to convey more.
Whether or not I succeed at this is more up to the individual reader to judge.
On another level, I’m an autistic person who has some measure of trouble with speech. English is also my second language and I learned it self-taught from a thesaurus. All those words people don’t “normally” employ are part of my speech. I have a formal college education in English that also has affected my word choice and what words I choose to deploy for certain purposes. (Such as that previous sentence, hoo boy). When I write more casually I usually don’t care as much or think as much about what I’m saying; you know I’m paying more attention when my written cadence approaches the level of this current post.
Ultimately the point here is, in a lot of ways, I can’t defeat how my brain parses language, and that will affect how I write, and especially it affects how I write dialog in stories. There are folks who are praised for writing incredibly casual, friendly, believable dialog – I’ll never be one of those people because my brain will never allow it. Even in the most “I don’t care” writing I do, like my sloppy-ass tweets or tumblr posts, you will see a remnant of my weird vocabulary in it. Honestly who do you see who uses “deploy” as a verb. But that’s just me.