12 November 2008

Snazzy Dialogue III: Using Dialogue to Differentiate Characters

Oh my gosh, it's been ages since I had a Snazzy Dialogue post!  I'll try to do better, I promise.  If you haven't make sure you read Part I, and Part II. Here's the next installment, and I hope it makes up for the huge amount of time I've been absent from the blog.

As I’m embarking on new writing projects and editing older ones, I continue to scrutinize my dialogue. The main characters in my current projects are very different women, and they all have different ways of speaking, which brought me to this current post about using dialogue to differentiate characters.

In my critique group, an old member had a few characters who were very similar in terms of race, class, socioeconomic background, education, etc. She was struggling with how to differentiate them, how to make each one unique from the other. One possible way, I think, is through dialogue.

One way to do this is through the content of the character’s dialogue, and using that to express the different personalities, desires, and goals of the characters. For example, having a character simply saying the things that make them different from other characters. However, you can run into the problems of using dialogue too much for exposition, and also being too obvious with the dialogue. What I want to discuss today is the more subtle way to differentiate characters simply by their manner of speaking.

For example, I have two characters in To Call Home who are similar in many ways. Charlotte and Lora are the same age, grew up together in the same town, both white females, similar socioeconomic standings, etc. But you can see the differences when they speak to each other. Charlotte has a tendency to avoid difficult questions through silence or circumlocution. Lora gets straight to the point, asking lots of questions and giving blunt answers. Here’s a small excerpt of an argument between the two girls.

Lora put a hand on her shoulder. “What’s going on with you?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you’re freaking me out a little bit. I’m sorry if it makes me sound like a jerk, but you weren’t even this…crazy—” (she winced when she said it) “—right after your mom died. What’s going on now?”

Charlotte shrugged, exaggerating the movement of her shoulders and slumping her chin to her chest.

“I don’t know what I should tell you. What I can tell you.”

“It’s fucking me you’re talking to,” Lora whispered. “That shouldn’t even be a question in your mind.”

But it was. She couldn’t help it.

“I don’t have anything useful to say right now. I just don’t even know what words should be coming out of my mouth. But please don’t leave right now, okay? Please?”

The content of the dialogue isn’t as important as the manner in which the girls speak to each other. You can see Lora’s dominating personality in the way she asks questions plainly, and doesn’t hesitate to potentially insult her friend by calling her crazy. Charlotte, on the other hand, can’t give a simple answer to anything at this point. She talks a lot here, but doesn’t actually answer Lora’s questions. These two interact like this a lot, no matter what they’re talking about. And it’s much more interesting to see the conversations and relationships develop this way, instead of having Charlotte and Lora say the exact feelings behind the dialogue, which would read something like this:

“You were really depressed and confused after your mom died, but that was three and a half years ago. Why are you still being so immature and evasive?” Lora asked.

Charlotte stared at her. “Because I think I’ve fallen in love with Steven, who you don’t know is our new English teacher. Sorry I didn’t tell you about that sooner.”

“Your summer fling is our new teacher? Crazy! But what’s so bad about falling in love?”

“Since my dad was a rat bastard, I have it ingrained in my subconscious that all men will eventually hurt me.”

“Oh. Makes sense.”

Yeah, not very interesting. Maybe a little funny, but that’s not what we’re going for. We want subtlety.

Very briefly, since this post is getting quite long, I’ll mention a couple other things that go along with differentiating characters through dialogue. You can use speech impediments or catch phrases to make characters unique. You can use a style of speech - more formal, a lot of vernacular, etc. Charlotte doesn’t hesitate to say things like “Jesus!” or “Christ!” But there are other characters who wouldn’t say that. I know a lady from work who always says “How ’bout it?” in her thin, gravelly voice. It makes me laugh. It would make for a great catch phrase for just the right character. These are all just little ways we can use dialogue to add further depth and dimension to our characters.