Dialogue is one of our favorite things to write. It’s one of the most powerful tools in an author’s arsenal because (unless your narrator is unreliable and misrepresenting what characters are saying—unreliable narrators are fun, too!) it’s one of the few times when a character is untainted by any sort of narrative bias. A character just says something, and outside of any tags inserted by an author at the end of a line of dialogue (they said, mischievously), that’s all a reader gets. They’re listening directly to the character speak.
It’s an incredible tool to flesh a character out. Are they witty? Depressed? Narcissistic? (it turns out Tweets are a decent inroad into a person’s soul, as well). The power comes from the fact that the reader herself makes the inferences based on the dialogue, not any sort of authorial commentary on the dialogue. By its very nature dialogue is all show, no tell. As two writers who maybe tend to do a little too much telling, dialogue is an easy way to propel the action forward. Dialogue is the prime driver of a narrative, not just based on what characters say, but how they say it, and what they elect not to say.
But given how powerful dialogue is, it can be quite difficult to do well. Like everything else in fiction, there are twenty-seven considerations that a writer must wrestle with when writing dialogue. Here are those twenty-seven considerations:
- Just kidding. There aren’t twenty-seven. You wish there were twenty-seven. The limit is really only defined by a writer’s sanity.
Think of how you speak in any given conversation. Your words are impacted by so many different things it would be an exercise in futility to try and list all of them. Some of the big ones might be your mood, your age, your beliefs, your nationality; essentially, everything that makes you, you, impacts the way you speak. Characters are no different.
One of the nice things about contemporary fiction (we’ve recently discovered) is that we have at least some idea of how an American (at least one from the left coast) talks. We grew up around them; we’ve met a lot of different people; we’ve spent our whole lives conversing with them. We can do a pretty decent job channeling those voices for our characters’ use.
But what about the dialogue of characters in a completely made-up world?
We’re not even going to get into the frankly ridiculous but necessary assumption that our characters simply have to speak English. Readers seem willing to accept this (there’s no reason Hobbits should speak English, but they do, and no one seems all that pissed off about it) so we’ll take that as a feather in our cap and move on.
But language is not static: it has beautiful variations based on dialect. People from Oregon speak much differently than people from the American South, just as people in Ireland speak differently from those in England, or India, or Australia. Why should characters in a fantasy novel all speak in the same, monochromatic voice?
A reader’s patience might have something to do with it. Reading strange dialects, even if they are technically English, can be a bit of a burden. It forces the reader to have to slow down and pretty much say the words out loud (which is sort of cool), but gets old pretty quick. We’ve found that sprinkling in some dialects from different regions of our made-up world can help make it feel more immersive, but we’ve tried to limit doing it.
We’ve also messed around with having locations, mountains, rivers, and even character names vary somewhat, according to different languages here on good old planet Earth (i.e., using French, German, Spanish, etc., for different regions in our book). We think this helps to provide some variation; at the same time, because they’re words and phrases most people recognize, it’s not as startling as simply making up a language. We sometimes even have characters speak—briefly—in these languages to help make things more diverse and add to this massive illusion we’re trying to construct.
Beyond the simple aesthetics of our character’s dialogue, we’ve struggled a bit with the fact that our novel takes place at a time period that equates to a much earlier time here on earth. How did people back then tell jokes? How did they tell someone they loved them? How did parents interact with their children? How did old friends greet each other?
It’s been a lot of fun trying to figure it all out. Where we haven’t found historical help, we’ve simply tried to make it up to the best of our abilities. We’ve actually learned quite a few new tricks, found humor, sadness, and love in places we might never have looked if we hadn’t undertaken something like this. As always, this journey in writing a fantasy novel has turned out to be a lot more interesting and difficult than we ever imagined when we first started out.
Let us know your thoughts below! We’d be glad to hear your thoughts on dialogue, writing, or anything else that comes to mind. As always, we sincerely thank you for reading,
W & W Sawday