Jennifer K. Oliver

Speculative Fiction Writer

Category: Writing: Character Development

Dialogue and Why Not to Forget It

I forget about entertaining dialogue all the time and when I get to the end of a story I often feel that the characters sound flat. I get so tangled up in the many other elements of a story, like the plot and the world-building. It’s another one of those million things I’m still working hard to improve in my writing. When we write we convince ourselves we’re writing snappy dialogue because the dialogue is fast-paced, but it needs more than just pace. It needs to distinguish character, show character ticks and traits, reveal their attitudes and relationship dynamics.

Dialogue also has to sound real and feel organic, which can be tricky to pull off. The standard writing advice is to go out and listen to how people speak to each other, and pay attention to the ebb and flow of your own conversations. Doing is the best kind of research.

There was an excellent article by writer Kameron Hurley a few years ago about writing character banter, and it’s worth bookmarking: Who Cares? On the Importance of Banter and Character-Driven Narrative. Kameron says:

When I went back and looked at my own writing, I realized I was spending all my time trying to be a Serious Writer, and sorely neglecting all the humor and snark that makes life itself bearable. It was the revelation that maybe I should be spending more time figuring out snarky dialogue and fight scenes that eventually led me to write God’s War the way I did.

Sometimes we can get so caught up in something else – worldbuilding, or plot – that we forget about the people, and we forget that the world exists to make the people the way they are and the plot only exists because the characters move it.

Also, I love that Dragon Age: Origins artwork has been used in the post, because Alistair and Morrigan are wonderful examples of good character banter. Actually, I love all of the questing dialogue in DA:O.

Student Writing Workshop – Other Worlds

Back in 2013 I hosted a Creative Writing Workshop with a group of twenty-five Year 10 students at a local school. Year 10, for those of you outside the UK, consists of ages 14-15, though this workshop can be applied to all ages (even adults, depending on your stage in the creative process). The theme of the workshop was Other Worlds.

EXERCISE #1: Come up with examples of Other Worlds you could write about. (10 minutes)

  • Fantasy worlds, set on planets, continents, or in cities that you have created.
  • Fantasy worlds, set on our planet but in a different time (eg. Dark Ages, the Victorian era, in the future).
  • Space. Planets in other solar systems, or set on spaceships.
  • Worlds that exist on a layer beneath our own, such as alternative realities. Think: underground fae worlds, heaven/hell, parallel universes.
  • Dreamscapes.
  • Micro-biology. Worlds that exist in nature, beneath the ocean, etc.
  • Other countries, where you explore cultures that are different to your own.

There were some superb ideas and suggestions from the students in my workshop, with a lot of fantasy world suggestions. Popular ideas were fairies and mythical creatures, but we also came up with some silly ones (“One Direction World” I was half-expecting already. There was an “Ed Sheeran World” as well).

Once the students had chosen one of their Other Worlds I asked them to consider some of the rules those worlds would need to stop things getting unruly. 

EXAMPLE: In the Harry Potter series, magic exists, but it is governed by the Ministry of Magic, which regulates who uses it, what type of magic they use, and when and where they can use it. If there were no magic laws, we would have a big problem and things would quickly fall apart.

Consequences are massively important to how believable your worlds are. As above, if everyone could run around doing whatever they wanted, society would fall apart fast. Everything you invent, every action your character takes, will have consequences. You don’t need to get hung up on this, but just be aware, even if only at the back of your mind, that actions lead to consequences and you can’t just ignore them. Consequences can also bring a great sense of tension to a story, so never be afraid to explore them or let them unfold and take the story in new directions.

EXAMPLE: Consider a world where people never grow old. What are the consequences to this type of society? What sorts of rules might you need to set in place to deal with them? (e.g. Birth regulations, culling the population, harsher death sentences for crime, etc.)

Other things to consider:

  • Climate
  • Technology
  • Language
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Natural resources (fuel, etc.)
  • Social structure (class systems, governments, etc.)

The moral roles your protagonists, antagonists and supporting characters take will often blur. This isn’t something you should shy away from–sometimes your hero will make a bad choice. This is when you can take advantage and show your character learning a valuable lesson. This is the pure essence of character development. Much as we learn and grow as people through our choices and mistakes, so should your characters. Similarly, your antagonist will not always be evil. They must have something about them that readers can sympathise with, even if only logically. Otherwise they will read flat and predictable.

During the workshop we had a go at coming up with some first lines to stories the students hadn’t written yet. I didn’t know how well this exercise would go down as I didn’t take any examples of opening lines with me, mostly because I didn’t want to influence their own creativity. 

EXERCISE #2: Come up with three opening lines to a story you’ve never written. This can be anything. The point is to get started—making that first leap. Generally one good first line will lead to a second line, and that will lead to a third line. Ultimately, this is what stories are: a series of lines that connect up and paint a picture in a coherent way. (10 minutes)

We covered mind mapping to keep a story organised. I have blogged about Mind Mapping for Fiction Writers before.

We also considered writing what you know and how a lot of new authors take this advice too literally. I used my zombie story Shuffle as an example of writing about an important theme that affects most people while still being free to explore a fantastical setting.

We generated characters using a Character Questionnaire. The most important thing is to figure out what your character wants most in the world, above everything else. This makes up the tension and goal of your story and creates boundaries and clear landmarks while writing forward.

I am available to do creative writing workshops, tailor-made for your writing class. Contact me to enquire.

Developing Fictional Characters, Part II

I’d like to go into more depth on developing fictional characters, particularly character voice. I can only speak for the way I do it; some of these methods might not work for others.

Years ago when I was trying to strengthen my character voices, I watched, read, and listened to stories that had solid, distinctive characters. I took note of the rhythms and phrases those characters used—not only in their speech, but also in their internal monologues. There are subtle differences between “Please make me a cup of tea” and “So are you gonna make me some tea, or am I gonna have to do it myself?” The latter is wordier, yes, but the voice is more distinctive. Voice, be it dialogue or thoughts, doesn’t need to be spectacular in early drafts. But how characters talk and think should be considered during later drafts and editing.

Here’s a trick to see how distinctive characters are: take a scene or chapter where there’s interaction, and select only the dialogue. Paste the dialogue into a fresh document without any speech tags, names, or other identifying descriptions. Read through it, or have someone else read it, and check where the voices merge or sound too similar. Is there confusion as to who’s speaking? If yes, either try loosening up one of the voices or make it more formal. Give one of the characters a verbal tick (like the tendency to say ‘you know?’ at the end of some of their sentences), or a light accent (though use accent carefully) and then re-read it. Better? It should be.

Another way of tempting out voice is figuring out how your characters feel about what’s happening. This will inform their attitudes and moods, and consequently what they’re saying and how they say it. Have them react, let them feel, give them passion and the ability to speak up. Let them tell lies. We all do it. An angry character might speak faster in short, snappy sentences, and they might swear or exaggerate, whereas someone speaking calmly and formally might use longer, more complex sentences and have a precise thought process.

Listen to conversations on the street, in your workplace and at home. I’ve mined real people I know for turns of phrase and verbal ticks. But also remember to look for people who are more guarded, who speak neutrally and try to maintain status quo. You can have fun with a conflicting internal dialogue and thought.

I mentioned in the previous post shoving characters out of their comfort zones, and this also goes for shoving them at other characters. Bring in the type of person they despise, or someone they’re intimidated by, or someone they’re attracted to, and see how it changes what they say and how they speak. Character/character interaction drives plot and gives scenes energy. If everybody gets along all the time, dialogue can become lifeless. Even if your characters are friends, have them disagree regularly, or give them a rivalry that you can mine for little tensions.

Most importantly, you’ll only get to know your characters well by writing them. Outline and do questionnaires and mind-map them, too, but they have to act and react to really shine.

If you missed it, you can read the first part of this topic here: Developing Fictional Characters, Part I.

Developing Fictional Characters, Part I

Developing fictional characters can be tricky. A well-rounded character has both good and bad traits, much like we do. A character doesn’t have to be particularly likeable, either, but readers must be able to empathise with them in some way. This is what readers connect with (and how we keep them reading). They see a little of themselves or someone they know in a character. Yep, even in the bad guys.

When I’m trying to find a character’s unique voice, I always use their surroundings to influence how they would speak and act. I try to consider the time period, the social background, even the genre I’m writing. All these things will (and should!) affect voice. Saying that, I also think we often worry too much about finding a voice before we’ve even started, when all we really need to do is write and uncover it along the way. (Of course, it’s always nice if a character comes along with a strong voice already.)

And if they still refuse to cooperate, you can always throw them into random and difficult situations that take place outside your main story. Write some drabbles or flash pieces and toss your characters into a crisis. Dig up someone from their past and make them deal with it. As their actions and decisions take place, you should get to know them better. It will help you figure out what makes them tick.

Also, the naming process often does my head in and sucks up hours of time. Three great resources I’ve used in the past for finding names and name origins and meanings are Behind the NameBaby Names, and The Surname Database. Total nerd out when a character’s name has a hidden meaning!

Research is good, but ultimately I find the best way of developing my characters is to just write them. Write them in their own stories. Write them in side-stories. You can even shove them into other people’s stories.

I’m going to post a follow up to this post going into more depth on character voice. Watch out for Developing Fictional Characters, Part II soon.

On Countersinking: Showing and Telling

This article about showing and telling is inspired by Turkey City Lexicon – A Primer for SF Workshops. It’s worth checking out the full article because it highlights some of the common clichés and pitfalls that clog up a story. The article has sci-fi in mind, although a lot of their points relate to all fiction genres.

The one I’m focusing on is countersinking. This one makes me grin because I used to do it a lot in my early writing. A couple of years ago, me and a friend set about workshopping our earliest pieces to see what we could learn. We wanted to track our improvements, see where we made creative leaps and bounds. The workshops were a riot—seeing ourselves as young, bouncy authors full of excitement and dreadful clichés. We lacked finesse and attention to detail but we had so much fun writing and developing our styles. It’s a bit like travelling back in time to meet the kid version of yourself. It’s also extremely eye-opening.

I’m way more conscious of countersinking nowadays and rarely find it slipping into my prose, but I do stumble upon it when reading other people’s work—sometimes even popular published authors. It happens to everyone.

Here is an example of countersinking:

“You have to get out of here,” he said, urging her to leave.

This is what’s happening: 

A form of expositional redundancy in which the action clearly implied in dialogue is made explicit.

Or as I like to call it, “showing and telling”. A writer shows something with action or dialogue and then immediately explains what it is with description, which is completely unnecessary. It’s obvious from the dialogue that somebody urged someone else to leave, so the explanation urging her to leave is redundant.

Newer authors tend to do this due to a lack of confidence, but like I said, some pro authors do it too. I’m quite sensitive to countersinking; it slows down a story, it’s clunky, and it makes the writing feel loose and flabby. When doing a round of edits that focus on dialogue, I’m always on the lookout for sneaky show-and-tell. And if there are any? I kill them.

It’s strange how writing peeves can bring up so many nostalgic feelings.

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