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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Your Character Said What?

“Doctor, to muse and blabber about a treasure map in front of this particular crew demonstrates a level of ineptitude that borders on the imbecilic . . .and I mean that in a very caring way.”

In case you never saw Treasure Planet, that line was spoken by Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson)—one of my favorite characters. Yeah, I know. She’s animated. But she’s still one of my favorites. What she says in dialogue defines her character while entertaining us, and making us care.

Dialogue has many purposes in fiction such as breaking up the narrative. I don’t enjoy reading long passages of narrative. Do you? Dialogue can be used to advance the plot, develop conflict and build the tension. Story background and setting can be revealed through dialogue as well.

But what about using dialogue to develop your characters? Maybe you’ve done a character chart or have actually interviewed your character. You’ve used every technique to discover everything you can. You know his hair and eye color, the kind of food he likes, the big secret he’s hiding. But none of that will matter unless you make the reader care. You must bring your character to life. How do you do that? Not through long passages of narrative. But through dialogue.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

1. Get rid of the chit chat. (I’m not referring to Susan’s previous post) Chit chat can be almost as boring as long passages of narrative. Never write dialogue like this:

How are you?
Good. How are you?
Good. Well, have a nice day.

Sure, some of us may talk like this in real life but that’s not what we want to include in fiction.

2. Develop a good ear for dialogue. You don’t want your characters to sound like you. Nor do you want them to all sound alike. Start by listening to what people around you are really saying. Jot it all down in a notebook if you want. Refer back to it later to get a good sense of how to differentiate your character’s speech.

3. Shape your characters voice with diction. Your character’s word choice and order can show us who they are. In fact, spend more time working on this element than you would on dialect or slang.

Dillon Richard, the character created by Randall Ingermanson in his thriller, Double Vision, demonstrates his special way of thinking through his speech.

A pained expression crossed Dillon’s face. “Grant, Asperger’s Syndrome is not a disease, and you will please not treat me like a cripple.”

Rachel felt her mouth drop open. “Um, what’s this all about?”

Dillon’s face tightened. “I have a form of autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome. It is named after Dr. Hans Asperger, an Austrian physician who wrote a paper in 1944 describing—"

“Autism?” Rachel said. “You mean like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man?”

“High-functioning autism,” Dillon said. “I do not babble, nor do I slobber, nor do I require institutionalization. I am a contributing member of society with a special kind of brain.”

“That’s so cool!” Rachel said. “Can you count cards like in Rain Man?” She put her hand on his arm. “Dillon, now I get it! Uncle Grant told me you were one in a million, but I thought he was exaggerating.”

Dillon looked very pleased. “Every autistic is different. I cannot count cards. Very few can. But I have unusual abilities to concentrate. Like Einstein. Like Newton. Both of whom are thought to have had Asperger’s.”

Here’s another great example of defining a character by word choice and order. See if you know who it is.

“Named must your fear be before banish it you can.”

Did you recognize Yoda from Star Wars?

What about this?

"Does an active galactic nucleus have superluminal jets?"

If you haven’t seen Treasure Planet you wouldn’t recognize this as the good Doctor Doppler. But I think you get my point.

I’ve only given you a few tips here to get you started. Entire volumes have been written on this subject. Two books to take you deeper are Dialogue, by Gloria Kempton, part of Writer’s Digest Books Write Great Fiction series and Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella. For fun, you can read the script for Treasure Planet.

Happy Writing!


Blogger Dr. Joey said...

Stumbled on your blog - I really enjoy reading it, even if I don't write much. Hmm, then again maybe I could use some tips for my blog... keep it up!


12:26 AM  
Blogger Veronica said...

wow, that's great advice for writing dialogue. No wonder my teacher last year kept telling me dialogue was hurting my writing instead of helping it...these tips are definatley going to make a difference in the future. Thank you!

10:24 AM  
Blogger Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

Great advice. :D


1:15 PM  
Blogger Fiji said...

awesome this will totally help me with my book!

4:01 AM  
Blogger night patrol said...

hey i just liked thge way u described importance of writing dialogues. Sometimes these dialogues become immortal. just like characters.
you can also comment and look at my works @.....

7:02 AM  
Blogger Emily said...

These tips are extemely useful. I absolutely love your blog. I'll thinnk about this stuff, I mean I don't want my reader to hate charactor who they're suposed to love, all becasue of diogloge. Thank you so much.

5:27 PM  
Blogger Miss Jane said...

Wow. I knew that bookmarking this blog will be useful... And very frustrating... Because now I will most likely go to that draft I'm writing and go through all the dialogues making sure they don't sound the same and they are goos and no chitchat...

I suppose my life was easier before I found this blog. Oh well. I'll have to live with that.

Thanks for posting. This was not only helpful but very entertaining as well :)

3:05 AM  

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