If You Want to Dialogue Like a Pro, Know Your Characters
Before I come right out and state Writing Rule #19, I need to address an issue that comes up way too often when writers are working on characters and their dialogue.
It’s the age-old issue of prejudice.
People in general have a bad habit of making assumptions. And writers are just as guilty of this mistake as anyone else. When those prejudices show in storybook characters and how they talk, it can easily become an embarrassing problem.
Consider the following common “outsider” opinions:
American Northeasterners are all snobs.
American Southerners are all slow.
Whites are all prejudiced.
Blacks are all disadvantaged.
Asians are all smart.
Parisians are all cultured.
Car salesmen are all crooked.
Lawyers are all ruthless.
Nurses are all female.
Millennials are all lazy.
Baby boomers are all technologically challenged.
Canadians are all nice.
Italians are all crazy.
Now, speaking as a happy half-Italian, I’ll admit there’s some truth to that last one. But I’m sure there are some Italians out there somewhere who somehow aren’t completely overemotional.
Statistically speaking, there have to be.
As for the rest of the stereotypes I listed, well, yes, you’re going to find some residents of the American Northeast who are terrible snobs. But guess what? That’s also going to be true of some Southerners, West Coasters, Midwesterners, etc.
Likewise, there are definitely some prejudiced whites and then there are definitely some prejudiced non-whites. Etc. Etc. Etc. I’ve even met obnoxious Canadians.
Sorry if I just blew apart you’re entire world view, but it’s true.
That’s why writers need to delve into their characters as individuals instead of just one more part of a group or groups. By all means, if you’re writing a story, ask yourself where your characters come from, what their skin color is, what their socioeconomic situation is and so on when you’re describing their demeanors and dictating their dialogue. As we’ll cover in a second, that’s important!
But then take care not to make them stereotypes.
Now with that clarification taken care of, let’s get to Writing Rule #19…
The inaccuracy of so many stereotypes aside, we can all act stereotypical at times.
As a female, I have been known to cry for no reason. As a half-Italian, I do use my hands way too much. As an English major, I tend to employ too many big words that make me sound like a snob. And as a short chick, I do climb on grocery store shelves to reach what I need.
Oh yeah, and I was born in New Jersey and drive like it too.
If I was writing about myself as a character, I would want to keep all of that in mind when putting words in my mouth. That character needs to sound the part.
So ask yourself: How old is your character? Is he a city slick or a townie? Is she a suburbs soccer mom or a CEO? Does this individual live in North Dakota, U.S.A., or some subset of Milan, Italy?
Whatever it is, there’s going to be jargon, colloquialisms and standard vocabulary. Your job is to make sure they match.
While you’re at it, don’t assume you’re an expert on any of that just because you watched a bunch of movies about it. That “experience” does not mean you’re an expert. Or just because your family has a certain opinion of a certain subset of the human race, that doesn’t mean they’re automatically correct.
To make sure you don’t fall into this dialogue-writing pitfall, do a little research. Get in contact with someone who matches your character’s profile. Ask them if their neighbors say “pop” or “soda” or “cola” when they’re talking about standard fizzy drinks.
Are you writing about a character from some group you have no contact with? Try watching some personalities on YouTube who fit the bill.
And here’s two quick tips, one for Americans writing about Brits and one for Brits writing about Americans…
U.K. citizens say “boot,” not “trunk,” for the back of a car. And contrary to some British thinking (Hi, James S!), not every American says, “Howdy.”
Another big pitfall to avoid is how little kids speak. A three-year-old and a six-year-old and a 12-year-old are going to have very different vocabulary choices and ways of expressing themselves.
Too many writers think they can capture how children talk, but they might want to double-check by actually paying attention to members of the rugrat community before they go creating conversations for them. I don’t know, go to a park or something to get an idea of what real kids say.
Of course, if you do that, make sure not to be a creeper. Your writing resources might be limited in jail.