Q: How do you make your characters’ dialogue sound realistic?
- from Susan
I’m a pretty conversational writer. Or, at least I am now. For a couple of decades, I was the spokesperson for college and university presidents, drafting their op-ed pieces, annual report messages, many of their speeches, sensitive campus memos, language for honorary degrees. Conversational language wasn’t appropriate, and a few of those illustrious leaders didn’t embrace informality in any case. Consider: A brilliant nun with an English Ph.D. from Stanford; a smart Southern Ph.D. on a steep upward trajectory in higher education; the former head of worldwide R&D for what was then the largest manufacturing company in the U.S.; an agile administrator who used “shall” rather than “will” all the time – I mean all the time, even when ordering a sandwich; and a 70-year old Jesuit priest.
These days, I employ contractions, the occasional (shame on me) cliché, and bits of slang in my writing, as long as it doesn’t date the character or the writer. As a native New Yorker who lived in New England, New Jersey, Florida, and towns along the Mason-Dixon Line before moving to California, I love regional voices. I also love the voices of kids and teenagers, wise old people and brusque businessmen, idiots and scholars. In my head, at least, my characters are distinctly voiced. The job of getting them onto the page in enough variety without resorting to caricature is the challenge. Readers want and need that and it’s a mark of a good book when someone pulls it off.
I recently read a novel in which the male characters were all white, all seemed to be about the same age, had generic first names, and spoke without any discernable individuality. Ditto the women, who all seemed to be femme fatales with good hair and figures and unrelenting come-hither looks. I flipped the pages back and forth as the plot proceeded to try and remember who Joe was and if Henry was Bob’s neighbor or Barbara’s lover, and who the heck Marian was and why she had a gun. I gave up after about a hundred pages, and was reminded of the importance of dialogue that defines and helps to explain characters, their strengths and weaknesses, their unique senses of humor or malice, how they sound when they’re faced in fiction with the terrifying or ridiculous situations that we real people come up against. That has to be real.
My first book, Murder in the Abstract, was purchased by Avalon Books, now defunct, and the only copy editing I got was someone taking out all the swear words, not that there were many, I promise. I was told that their audience didn’t like ‘bad’ words. The only protest I lodged was when Dani, alone and in the dark, stumbles over a body. “She would not say, ‘Oh gosh,’ ” I insisted, and they compromised by leaving in one lonely “Shit.” Hooray for keeping it real!
I took on a much larger issue of creating good dialogue when I decided to write a mystery set in a small French crossroads town where Americans, a Brit, and the French residents all have speaking parts. In Love and Death in Burgundy, my American protagonist speaks good enough French that she can converse with her French neighbors. Her husband and the young English woman in town can’t. Some of the French speak lovely English, which they use if they want to make sure the non-French know how much they are disliked. At times of stress, however, they revert to their native tongue, which the author can’t use on the page and probably wouldn’t get right anyway.
What was I thinking? And while I am beyond thrilled to have a two-book contract, I have to try and keep this conversational, multiple-voiced, bilingual dialogue going for at least one more story. Sacré bleu!
Note: New e-book edition of Murder in the Abstract just out, available online along with the others in the Dani O’Rourke series. French mystery comes out May 2017. (You’ll hear more…)