Here we are again with another post on Dialogue. We’ve tackled topics such as using comma splices in dialogue, using plain “said“, and speaker attribution. This post talks about characterization, and while it seems like a no-brainer, I’d like to go ahead and discuss it anyway. =)
Characterization is defined as the process of conveying information about characters in narrative or dramatic works of art or everyday conversation. (Wikipedia)
So. How do we use characterization in dialogue?
The simple answer would be this: We write dialogue like the way our characters talk. For instance, we can’t have a homeless man speak like the CEO of some big company. I’m pretty sure Mr. Hobo would not use words like “extrapolate” or “ramifications” in his conversations with the Taco vendor.
But you already know that, right? Pfft, you say. This is nothing. Well, I say, good to know we’re in the same page here.
Now, let’s take another look at this from another angle. Consider this passage:
“Hang the boy, can’t I never learn anything? Ain’t he played me tricks enough like that for me to be looking out for him by this time? But old fools is the biggest fools there is. Can’t learn an old dog new tricks, as the saying is. But my goodness, he never plays them alike, two days, and how is a body to know what’s coming? He ‘pears to know just how long he can torment me before I get my dander up, and he knows if he can make out to put me off for a minute or make me laugh, it’s all down again and I can’t hit him a lick. I ain’t doing my duty by that boy, and that’s the Lord’s truth, goodness knows. Spare the rod and spile the child, as the Good Book says...”
(Aunt Polly in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)
Slang and Dialect. Do we really need to utilize slang and dialect so we can SHOW what kind of a person our character is?
There’s a great article by Todd Eastman found here on using slang and accents when writing fictional dialogue. He pointed out the following things to look for:
1. Be careful not to suggest racism. Be aware when you are using stereotypes.
2. If you’re going to use regional speech patterns and accents, do it accurately and consistently.
3. When done correctly, using speech patterns and accents can be effective in fleshing out your character’s voice.
4. Make it sound authentic. Tip: Listen to a speaker who comes from whatever background it is you’re studying.
5. Consider terminology (or jargon) and use them appropriately.
I have a character in my WIP who talks in a folksy way. It’s who she is and you can tell a lot (characterization) just by her dialogue. I’ve gotten feedback–both positive and negative–on this: One critiquer didn’t care for this character’s dialogue (and the character herself). She said my folksy lady was annoying and her conversations tiring. In my mind, I was thinking BINGO! I got it right! Because this woman IS indeed annoying–she likes to gossip, she goes off on tangents, and she is a talker. Mind you, she’s only a minor character so I didn’t feel the need to give her a make-over just because she annoyed one reader.
Another critiquer actually loved my annoying folksy lady. She told me she loves how my characters don’t sound all alike. Their dialogue and conversations convey their individual voices. As you can see, there are differing opinions on this topic.
I’m pretty sure the days of Mark Twain’s dialogue and writing dialect the way they sound (like spile and ‘pear, for instance) are long gone. I know we had a discussion about this over at the old Agent Query Connect site, and there was a vehement, and quite unanimous vote on scratching slang and dialect altogether. Personally, I don’t mind it when there’s a little bit mixed in. When not overdone, or overused, it does give us readers a sense of a character’s personality even when we’re not told what or who they are.
What do you think? What’s your take on this? Or is it so faux pas you’re turning your nose up at me for even asking such a ridiculous question? 😉
By the way, here’s an example of my annoying folksy lady’s dialogue:
“You folks look like you came from the big city. Are you a kin of the Reverend? Nah, you can’t be. All his family got them big noses. You girls are pretty as lilies. My name’s Martha, by the way. But everyone calls me Mrs. Macey. You want to hear about the specials?”