….Alternately titled, “Or How I Hear Voices in My Head.” That’s mostly a joke, but it also isn’t, in the sense that those voices belong to my characters. Here are a few of my thoughts on writing dialogue, which also involve some segues into the writing process in general.
I’ve been asked many times throughout my tenure as a writer (which has been all of my adult life, really) how I create the dialogue in my novels. To answer that question, I have to back up a bit and lay some of the groundwork for my particular philosophy, which is still evolving as I learn and improve. I write fantasy novels, but at the core of fantasy is reality. What I mean by that is in order to make my readers believe the story I’m telling and experience it along with my characters, I have to inject a certain amount of realism. A fantasy world still has to have its own logic and rules, and the characters, who may not be human at all, still have to interact with one another in an authentic way that can engage the emotions of the reader. So that’s Principle 1: Make It Real. Principle 2: Don’t Belabor the Process. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to write. Every fellow writer I’ve talked to is a bit different. Personally, I’m not a painstakingly organized writer. Perhaps it’s a consequence of my military career, in which everything is precise and ordered, that I am a writer who does not plan, who at most does some research on particular cultures or foreign languages in order to build my own worlds. I don’t diagram or outline my plots, and I don’t try to control my characters in artificial ways. For me, this allows the flow of dialogue between characters in a natural and unforced way. My characters tend to emerge like Athena from the head of Zeus–fully formed, with their own personalities already intact. It’s almost like I’m the scribe watching this fantastic story and faithfully recording it. I don’t have a cast list beforehand, I meet everyone as I go. There’s research out there that suggests that writers and other creative types are constantly processing their current project in their unconscious mind, and that’s how we get this feeling of almost being a bystander to the creation of our own work…but that’s getting a little off topic, perhaps a subject for a later post.
Aside from the “miracle of creation,” I think that life experience has a huge impact on a writer’s work. Principle 3: Observe Everything. A writer should be a keen observer, noting the details of human behavior and translating that into their characters. Again, this is mostly an unconscious process for me, but I must have learned it at some point and it’s a skill that can definitely be learned. Listen to how people talk, don’t be afraid to put pauses in your dialogue, use ellipses and dashes and exclamation points. Dialogue is a key way to “show” rather than “tell.” A character’s attitude and emotions can be expressed beautifully and engagingly through their interaction with the other characters, whereas a writer simply telling the reader the feelings of their characters can fall flat. Part of the human experience is interaction with other people (although I have to say that being a “keen observer” doesn’t guarantee a lack of awkwardness!)
But even the most miraculous font of creativity still needs a firm hand at editing. Principle 4: Accept the Red Pen. After the initial rush of creation, I typically let the work settle for a bit and then read what I’ve written from an experiential perspective, asking myself if there’s anything jarring or out of character in the dialogue. And it’s always important to have a trusted friend or editor looking over your work with a critical eye; it’s easy to be “too close” to a world that you’ve built and characters that you’ve walked with through every trial and tribulation. All those exclamation points, ellipses and dashes might need to be restrained a bit…but the important thing is that the groundwork is there.
Lastly, if you’re an aspiring writer, just write! Principle 5: WRITE. Observe, put thoughts on paper, try different things and find the technique that works for you. I hear voices in my head and write them down, and most of the time it works out pretty well for me.
Happy writing and happy reading, friends. Until next time, I remain your faithful neighborhood fantasy author.