Depending on who you are, these are the big two. If you’re like Sanderson, you might be all about plot first, and how the characters fit in later, and we will get to the plot later. But I wanted to talk a bit about character and dialogue first. Some will separate those two – I don’t, for a simple reason. How people talk leads into who they are. It’s a brief window, whether colored by patois, or by use of dictionary words, into a part of their character. Here we go then. My thoughts.
Aw man, I got the squiggles.
One of the big questions I often see asked is “How do you write someone different to yourself?”. Short answer, you don’t. Sure, you can do research – watch people, maybe read a little philosophy and psychology – that’ll help. It’ll give you an insight into what makes people tick. But the truth of the matter for me is that you can’t write a person without coloring their experiences with your own. I believe people, real or fictional, are a sum of the things that came before, and no amount of research is going to tell you what it’s really like for a soldier in Iraq or a stock trader in New York without actually having lived those things. Leonardo da Vinci coined the much-paraphrased idea that every artist paints himself, or parts of himself in a portrait. It’s a truism I haven’t been able to avoid, and one that harkens back to ‘write what you know’. There’s a reason so many authors’ books are about authors.
My characters often find themselves in hard spots – it’s what I like to write. “How are you going to get out of this one?” I’ll ask them, and the answer is almost always by being clever, or ruthless, or smart. Never genius. Never some sort of tactical maestro. Never Sherlock, always Watson. I can’t find that in myself, and frankly, it would ring false to me even if I researched that sort of person and tried to shoehorn it in. It would feel wooden, like a puppet I’m controlling, rather than a real boy. I want my people to feel organic. I want them to react like I know friends, family, and myself might react or act in a situation. If they’re brave, it’s not because they’re not also scared shitless. It’s because being brave is the thing they know they have to do. Why did that villain just kill three people? Because he believes it’s right, and God help us if we don’t know people who are so fervent in their belief that they always seem one step away from volcanic violence. True to life, sometimes with qualities amplified for effect. I’ll probably never face down a dragon, but if there’s a taco truck on the other side of a busy highway, I’m going to cross.
How does dialogue fit into that? For me, it’s fairly simple. I write people talking how I feel people actually talk. I don’t subscribe to the Tarantino school where everybody tells long stories or pontificates on the nature of cheeseburgers and nihilism. I don’t subscribe to the Shonda Rimes version of a monologue every 15 minutes for effect. People talk in simple sentences for the most part. They try to be clever or funny or hurtful or sincere or any one of a thousand emotions, depending on the situation. And depending on the person, they almost never lecture you or tell you a long-winded story about that time they were in Winn-Dixie and someone brought three pigs in and then someone got them drunk and wait a minute – that might actually be funny. But you get the point. If everybody spoke like they do in movies and some books, nothing would get done in the world. Finally, I write dialogue so it reveals parts of a character. A simple comment, depending on context can be an ego blow or boost. It can convey love or loathing. It’s up to you to decide how to use them. To (probably misquote) a song: Words are only water/I hope they’re never cold.
Ack, my feelings.
Action. I know I didn’t mention it above, but unless your character loves idle words, make them do what they say they’re going to, in the tone they said it.
“I’m going to kill you,” she said, smiling.
“I’m going to kill you,” she said. Her eyes were flat.
Yeah, don’t get in her way.
The last thing I do, and I think it’s important for most writers to do this, is to ask a reader after they’ve finished a simple question. Did you buy that character as a person? If they say yes, I’ve somehow managed to avoid writing a train wreck. Which is always a win.