Character dialogue is something that I frequently mention but rarely meet head-on; which is odd considering it’s one of my favorite things to write and read. Dialogue can save a book or movie for me; even if the plot is weak. For instance, in the movie Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (which I would not recommend to anyone) – the plot was tiny and confusing and the movie itself not that great – but the dialogue and conversations were hysterical. Thanks to the dialogue, my brother and I quote that movie all the time, even though I would not spend the time to re-watch it.
One thing I notice with authors, though, is that no matter how much I love them, over time, their characters’ voices begin to sound the same until I’m hardly able to distinguish one from another. It’s much harder to give characters different voices in books than it is in movies. For instance, with the TV show Once Upon a Time, everyone is completely different. Rumple uses ‘dearie’ and crazy giggles, Snow White is sweet and determined, Emma is harsher and uses more modern terminology, and Regina’s way of speaking is refined and minipulitive. It’s a very good lesson in how characters ought to sound different depending on their personalities.
You may have noticed that my brain works by example. If I’m telling someone about something, I give them an example. If someone is telling me how to do something, I need an example. Therefore, I like giving you all examples, even if they aren’t completely stellar since I’m still a fledgeling author and don’t always know what I’m doing. You seem to like hearing about my babies anyway, though (which is always so ridiculously flattering that I get somewhat giddy) so here are a few different voices out of my characters, for example. 😉
Ariel (Painkiller) – his voice is more elegant and refined, but also slightly morbid. The opening paragraph (when my best friend read it to her mother, she just smiled and said, ‘Mirriam is weird.’ Which I have to agree with, all things considered) is this:
They never told me a girl was coming to live with them. I had to find that out for myself. I know why they don’t want me around her; I may be insane but I’m not an idiot. I’m dangerous. ‘Troubled’ is a word the therapist uses every time he comes to ‘check up’ on me: unstable, masochistic, and deranged. Troubled is my favorite word he uses. Violent and unsafe are fairly eloquent, too; if a bit simplistic. I don’t know what the girl is here for. I only know her name is Calista and she’s going to have a room somewhere in the east wing. As far away from me as possible.
Maybe I’ll cut her with a shard of glass and watch her bleed red, red, red.
Then she could feel the pain, too.
So you already know that there’s something definitely wrong with Ariel, but he’s by no means unintelligent. In fact, he’s very smart – well-educated, with an IQ of 148. He’s been neglected and left in the care of therapists and psychologists who do nothing but offer more drugs, though, so his views of ‘right and wrong’ are skewed with no one to tell him otherwise. Here’s a section from Painkiller, from the scene where Callie first really ‘meets’ Ariel.
Out of the many things I had imagined the person saying, ‘back so soon’ was not among the considered options. “Who are you?” I had meant to say ‘yes’ or something along those lines, but ‘who are you’ came out before I could stop it.
“I think that perhaps I should be asking that question, not you.”
It struck me as an answer both almost ridiculously refined and at the same time, rude. “I know I bolted last night,” I said, trying to be nice and polite and everything I knew I ought to be, “but you did kind of freak me out.”
“I’m so sorry.”
I knew now that it was definitely a guy talking from the other side of the door, but the way he said ‘I’m sorry’ made it impossible to tell whether he meant he really was sorry, or whether he was just being really sarcastic. “What’s your name?”
“Ariel,” he said, almost affably. Like talking through closed doors in a darkened hallway was a perfectly normal way to carry on a conversation. “And yours is?”
“Calista, Callie or Cal,” I said. “Whichever you like best.”
“Calista is too formal,” he said. One of the doors shifted, like he was leaning against it. “Cal, too masculine. Callie. Short for Calista, which I believe means ‘beauty.’”
“Right,” I said. He even knew the meaning of my name. “That’s fine,” I said, trying to get a glimpse of him through the tiny crack where the doors met in the middle. “Why aren’t you coming out?”
“Unwise,” he answered.
I waited for him to expound, but he seemed content to let silence hang in the air like a thick curtain. “…Why?” I asked finally.
“Because I’m violent, unstable, troubled, dangerous, and deranged,” he rattled off like he was reading a Thesaurus.
I blinked. “Are you joking?”
“I have many habits, but joking rarely joins the company.”
Hiro (The Meaning of Always) – he’s different. In some ways he’s far more ordinary than most of my other characters, and in other ways he’s completely unique. He’s fierce, loyal, steadfast, and very emotional; but he usually tries to keep his emotions in check and hides them under a facade of constant optimism. I love him so much, though; he’s involved in some things he shouldn’t be, but behind the bleached hair and earring beats the heart of a hero. (heheh, get it? Hiro? Hero? Hah. That was unintentional. Aha. Hm.) When Skylar first meets him, it’s at the site of his twin/her former boyfriend’s grave.
I rounded the corner and my steps slowed. Someone was spread out on the grass by the grave, the back of their head facing me. Who was crazy enough to be out here this early?
Whoever it was must have heard me walking up because he sat up and looked over his shoulder at me.
It was Hisoka. Except it wasn’t – this was another version; a version with hair dyed pale blond and softly spiked across his face, a version with a silver earring dangling from his left ear.
“Oh,” he said, scrambling to his feet. He smiled at me, showing white teeth, just a little crooked. “Hi.”
“…H-Hi,” I said uncertainly. I had come to the cemetery expecting to be left alone, and instead I was talking to the ghost of my dead boyfriend?
The boy looked down at the headstone. There had not been enough time for grass to grow over the mound of dirt, and it lay there like a corpse itself in front of the stone that proclaimed, ‘Hisoka Kimui. Finally home.’ ‘Finally,’ as if he had been waiting for it for so long he could hardly wait to get there. I wanted to scratch out those words, because Hisoka had not been waiting to die, he had been waiting to live. He was only eighteen; it wasn’t like he was on life support, dying of old age.
The stranger broke my confused, angry silence. “He’s glad to see you.”
I stared at him, but he only put his hands in his pockets and walked past me with a kind of easygoing saunter. Turning to watch him go, I observed that he was careful not to step on any of the flat grave markers; the ones I walked over to get here.
Vey (Acceso) – He’s a toughie to write. He says the opposite of what he’s thinking unless he’s talking to someone he’s actually interested in (which is rare). He has an enormous sense of humor, but it’s embodied in dry, bitter remarks and thoughts. He also has a habit of comparing people to dolls or figurines. If I could describe is personality in three words, it would be ‘acidic,’ ‘tormented,’ and ‘hopeful.’ When he and Leila have their first conversation, it doesn’t go exactly how he plans, and he really has no idea how to react to someone who penetrates his defenses – especially since she doesn’t mean to; she’s only making conversation.
She’s nothing special to look at. Brown hair, long, pulled into a hair band, a small mouth, big eyes. She looks a little like a doll, but not like Hillary. Hillary was the kind of doll people order for an insane amount of money and then hide inside a glass case.
She’s more like the kind you buy and accessorize yourself, the sort you play with. Not quite so fragile and breakable or worthy of a showcase. Cute, but not hot.
“Your sister?” I ask. She’s still watching me.
She nods her head. Her smile is a little bit embarrassed, a little lopsided.
“Ah.” I look down at my wrist, wrapped by leather and chains. “Just wait until she passes out, then drag her away.”
She raises her eyebrows. “Do I look big enough to drag her?”
I looked her up and down. Petite. “Sometimes people who look weak are strongest.”
She leaned forward, propping her chin up on her hands. “Then I guess some people who look strong are weakest.”
An interesting point; strange to be discussing philosophy while sitting outside a nightclub, I thought. After all, I look strong enough, but slice me open and watch me bleed to death. Poke me and watch me bruise.
I snorted and ran a hand through my wild hair.
She began to hum and I shut my eyes, let the melody – lost, obviously she didn’t know where she was going with it – sink in through my pores. I shook out the unneeded notes and created something from nothing in my mind. I could hear lyrics; a little bit sad, a little bit hopeful. Not like the sorts of things I usually hear.
“What’s your name?”
I look at her again. “Vey.”
“Don’t you have a last name?”
I curl my upper lip just enough. “You’re a prying one, aren’t you?”
She looks offended and blushes again. “No!” She hugs herself; a thick knit sweater over a long-sleeved turtleneck. She wears long tights, ankle-high boots, and a knee-length skirt. I lean back, feel winter brush my neck, my stomach, my hands. I don’t mind the cold, but it looks like she does.
Most people do. Maybe she is fragile, after all.
She blinks at me. “What?”
She smiles. It’s a cute smile. It scrunches up her nose and eyes. “Cool name. My name’s Leila.”
“It sounds like a cartoon character,” I say.
She blinks a few times, twisting her mouth up as she considers it. “I guess. You look like you came from a manga.”
“Thanks,” I say with just enough sarcasm to make her scratch behind her ear, uncomfortable.
“So, do you play here every night?”
“Do you ever have a night off?”
I sigh. “Sometimes.”
“Do you like it?”
“My nights off, or playing?”
“Playing.” She scoots around, so her skinny legs are stretched toward me, along the step. If anybody comes out, they’re going to break their necks. I grin at the thought of a hapless tumble.
“Why do you want to know?”
She tilts her head, brown bangs sliding to the side. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, why do you want to know? Are you making conversation because you’re bored? Are you just curious, or do you actually care and want to know what I think?”
She stares at me, dumbfounded. Most people do that when I ask that question, because up until then they don’t realize. They don’t care; they just ask to fill the empty silence.
“Are you avoiding the question?”
Now that’s a new one. Am I avoiding it? I narrow my eyes at her. “Why would I do that?”
She shrugs. “I don’t know. You don’t seem like the kind of guy who likes people asking him questions, like you’re afraid to answer.”
I stare at her. I lick the corner of my mouth, lick the scar again. And then I laugh, a sharp sound that almost hurts my ears. “Your sister’s probably passed out by now,” I say, and stand up.
I walk down the steps, down the street, away from the girl who knows too much.
You see how every character’s dialogue should be different. And by the by, a character’s ‘dialogue’ includes their thoughts, mannerisms, clothing style, hairstyles, accesories, etc. Everything they do is their ‘dialogue.’ Make yours unique, and readers will love them. 🙂
And one last note – if you like cookies and Christmas, make these and eat them. Because they are the most magical-tasting cookies I’ve ever had, and that’s saying something.