By Annette Lyon
The last time I blogged on dialogue, I mentioned keeping each of your characters true to themselves in relation to their age, gender, education, geographical differences, and so on.
This time, I'll expand on that idea and provide some examples:
The following is an actual quote. The basic age of the speaker is probably easy to determine:
“Mama, I can’t sleep without Teddy. You look for him everywhere you can think.”
I’m betting you could tell that the speaker isn’t a 60-year-old chemistry professor. It's my 4 1/2-year-old daughter the other night as I tucked her into bed.
How can you tell? Not only because of the topic (her teddy bear), but because of her word choice ("look for him" rather than something like "search for it," since we're talking an inanimate object) and her syntax ("everywhere you can think”).
Similarly, teenagers talk differently than preschoolers do. Twenty-somethings will sound different than seniors. And so on. Even all your adult characters shouldn't sound the same.
In my critique group, we’ve had some lively discussions about what is natural for men and women to say. It’s happened more often now that a couple of men have joined, and I welcome such discussions, because my male characters are much more masculine than they’ve ever been as the guys have called me on the carpet. (“A guy would never use that word; it’s too feminine.”)
Take a wild guess which is the female and which is the male in the following examples:
“The walls were golden—almost buttery.”
“The walls were yellow.”
Not hard. Generally speaking (no pun intended), men tend to not notice or care about the subtle differences in shades of color. For them, a sweater is just orange—not salmon, coral, or apricot.
But bring out a car engine, and the story changes. Suddenly it’s not just pistons that are firing. This time it’s the women who bow out of the conversation. To them, it’s just a hunk of metal.
Granted, these are whopping generalizations. You might have a female character who is a grease monkey, and a male character who is an artist and does know and care about all the subtle shades of white and can tell ecru from egg shell.
Great! Those differences are what make your characters stand apart, make them different in their speech and characterizations. But by and large, know the differences in large categories in speech such as gender. Know what your readers expect (and even what they don't know they expect). Knock their socks off which how specific you are.
How do men and women talk differently? Pay attention and try to duplicate it. Colors and engines are just one tiny example. One book that I've found eye-opening in discussing how men and women talk differently in the real world is socio-linguist Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand. She didn't pen it for writers, but I couldn't help but read it as one.
The level of education a character has—or doesn’t have—will show up in how he or she speaks; it’s inevitable. When people don't know how to read or write and don't know basic grammar, it only makes sense that they’ll speak in one way, and if they grew up with a private education, they’ll speak in a different way.
Very often that education will go hand in hand with how well-off that character is. More money often means more education, which will likely play into your story.
Regardless, it should definitely play into your characters’ speech. Pretend we have two witnesses on the stand in court:
“I’m sure I seen her done it,"
will be spoken a witness by a very different educational background than someone who would testify,
“Goodness, I’m sure I would have noticed if the accused had crossed my path that day.”
Different areas of the country develop quirks of their own, and people from those areas use them. Even if they have a high-level education, move away, and don’t use those grammatical quirks in their jobs, they’ll often flip back into them (use those “registers”) when on vacation with the families they grew up with. It’s sort of a dialectal thing.
One example: “That pile of dishes needs washed.”
Technically, the sentence above needs something to be “correct” standard English (it should be that the dishes need “to be washed” or need “washing”) but this type of construction is common in some areas of the country.
The West, South, New England, and even the Northwest all have such quirks. Some ethnic groups have them within those geographical areas. Learning about them can help spice up your dialogue and make your characters feel that much more real.
All of this is not to say that you should make your characters stereotypes of any age, gender, or background. To the contrary, the more you know about any generic group, the more you can create new variations on an old theme (the female grease monkey, for example).
It’s the common adage about knowing the rules so you can break them. But learn those rules first. Learn what your reader will expect from your characters. If you have a ten-year-old boy in your book, know what your average ten-year-old boy behaves like, talks like, and enjoys doing. If your character is an eighty-year-old woman and lives in New York, find out how elderly female New Yorkers usually talk.
The more vivid you can make your dialogue, the more your characters will pop off the page and become alive in your readers’ minds.