Characters speak like real people

New writers’ manuscripts are often marked by unrealistic dialogue. Many things can go wrong in characters’ speech, but this is one of the biggest. If the characters’ conversations sound fake, readers will drop out quickly.

Conversations are natural and realistic.

When I say natural, I refer partly to the idea, mentioned last week, that a character’s background and personality will be reflected in their speech.

One fault I often see in manuscripts from people who spent too much time in academia is a lack of contractions. It is possible to use this to good effect in several ways. In a historical novel, for example, the absence or presence of contractions can be used to show the difference between upper and lower classes. In my fantasy novels, some people groups use contractions and others don’t. This gives each group’s “language” a different sound, even though the whole book is in English.

reading script dialogue
© Innovated Captures •

But writers who were taught in school not to use contractions at all run the risk of having all their characters sound stodgy and old fashioned. Especially if you’re writing contemporary fiction, your characters should use contractions. It’s unnatural for them not to.

At a writer’s conference, a writer said her editor changed her use of gonna and shoulda to going to and should have. That is an editor with a tin ear. Such locutions are idiomatic and natural, and avoiding them is clunky and unnatural. Depending on the character, of course. A stodgy, old-fashioned English teacher might very well say things like “I’m going to purchase a new telephone. I should have done so long ago.” But his student would say, “I’m gonna get a new phone. I should’ve ages ago.”

On a side note, let me help out my fellow copyeditors by mentioning a common spelling error we see: should of when what is meant is should’ve, the contraction of should have. When said aloud, should’ve does sound like should of. And many people who’ve only heard the term and have never seen it written down quite understandably spell it the way they think it sounds. The same thing occurs with other “have” formations, including would’ve and could’ve. But there is no orthographical justification for using of in these instances, and Garner’s Modern American Usage calls it “semiliterate.” Use the ’ve contraction, or use shoulda, woulda, coulda, and so on.

Realism in dialogue

The other quality we look for in good dialogue is realism. That is, that one readily believes that real people might really speak such words to one another. Let’s use our hypothetical Professor and Student again.

Professor: As you know, this class will study the Roman Empire.
Student: Yes, sir. I would have taken this class last year, but I could not fit it in my schedule.

Any time you are tempted to use the phrase “as you know,” take it right out. First, there’s no reason for Professor to point out to Student that she knows a fact. If she knows the fact, then she is aware of her knowledge and doesn’t need it pointed out. And there’s no reason for him to tell her a fact that he is aware she already knows. Writers often use this phrase to put information the reader needs into dialogue. Just don’t. If you can’t put a character in the scene who doesn’t already know the fact—and sometimes it’s just not plausible for an outsider to be present—you have to find some other way to work it in.

The Professor’s line is an example of one that isn’t realistic because he just wouldn’t bother saying it. The Student’s line is unrealistic because she wouldn’t say it that way.

Let’s try that again:

Professor: I hadn’t expected to see you in Roman History.
Student: Why not? I would’ve taken it last year, but I couldn’t fit it in my schedule.

Reading your dialogue aloud—or, better yet, having friends read it to you—will also help you see where you’ve written lines or used constructions that just wouldn’t be said out loud by real people.

To get a feel for dialogue, watch films—and I mean, like, good films, not SyFy original movies—or stage plays, especially of classics. Also, when you’re reading other writers’ novels, pay attention to how they construct their dialogue. Try reading plays, too, and watch how playwrights use fragments, interruptions, and speech patterns to create realistic dialogue.

Keep in mind, of course, that dialog should be realistic, which is different from real. About which more next time.


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