Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Hi! Hey! Hello there. Pleased to meet y’all. Charmed, I’m Cathy Ace

How do you make your characters’ dialogue sound realistic?

The way a character greets someone can be the first clue to the reader about the nature and background of that character; just consider the different types of people who'd use the salutations in the title of this piece, for example. Once the ice is broken, it’s imperative the character’s dialogue continues to use the correct patterns and figures of speech that sort of person would use, or the illusion is shattered. So, yes, the dialogue used by all characters is critical to the success of a book: one of my personal aims is to tell a story without the words on the page getting in the way of the storytelling, so any dialogue “clangers” can distract a reader who knows those patterns of speech by breaking the spell.

However, to be honest, I think successful dialogue in a book is anything BUT realistic – it’s writing it in an unrealistic way that SEEMS natural/true for the character that’s the trick, I believe.  

How do I try to be true to the character? The first thing I decided was that all my main characters would be from backgrounds with which I am extremely familiar (I don’t write Southern Belles, LA hardboiled PIs or New York cops, for example). In my Cait Morgan Mysteries my main characters are Cait Morgan – a Welsh Canadian university professor in her late forties – and her Canadian retired-cop partner in life and crime Bud Anderson. Cait uses my mode of expression (because I’m Welsh Canadian) and Bud uses the form of Canadian English I hear around me every day, living in British Columbia. Because Cait travels to a new location for each book the characters specific to that book tend to come from the country in question – I only use locales with which I am deeply familiar (ie I have either lived there or have spent at least months, or years in total, visiting there). 

In my WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries my five main protagonists are Welsh, Irish, Scottish, English and a mix of all four – again, speech-patterns with which I am familiar (having only left the UK when I was forty years of age), but which differ from each other. I know a good number of people with each of those accents, so all I have to do is listen to them “talking” in my head for a while before I write for that character, and I’m just about alright. But re-reading after a time-lag is critical. 

Me with "half of Annie Parker"
One of the things I have to do most often is to remove a piece of recurring speech (a writing tic, if you will) that read well when I put it in, but becomes repetitive after a fast read of a manuscript. Case in point? Annie Parker, the English “WISE Woman”, is a true Cockney born of St Lucian parents. (She’s based upon two of my real friends, “mashed-up” into one character, then given personality traits neither of them possesses.) She uses the words “Gordon Bennett!” to express great surprise, great displeasure etc. In real life a person who uses such an expression might do so on many occasions each day. What I’ve learned is that if that expression appears more than four times in a book of 80,000 words, someone will write a review saying something along the lines of “…the character’s always saying it…” So I’ve brought it down to three times maximum, per book. I’m hoping that helps. I really don’t want to break the spell! 

What dialogue have you read in a book that has truly cemented that character in their “place” for you? 

Cathy Ace writes the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (book #2 THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER was published in hardback in February, and book #1 THE CASE OF THE DOTTY DOWAGER was published in trade paperback on March 1st) and the Cait Morgan Mysteries (book #7 THE CORPSE WITH THE GARNET FACE was published in paperback in April). Find out more about Cathy and her work, and sign up for her newsletter at   


Allan J. Emerson said...

Love the WISE women! Thanks to Annie, I've expanded my knowledge of British slang. I looked up "Gordon Bennett" on a site called "The Phrase Finder" and discovered Bennett was an extremely colorful 19th century character who, among other things in a very eventful life, disgraced himself with drunken antics, was publicly horsewhipped by his fiancée's brother, and then remained single until the age of 73 when he married a baroness.

Catriona McPherson said...

Such great advice! Blimey O'Reilly was my Gordon Bennett in one book and I didn't catch it.

Cathy Ace said...

Allan - so pleased to know your research is as thorough as my own! I'm pretty sure most people who use the phrase (and it's really very popular) have no idea of its source :-) "Colourful character"? You betcha!

Cathy Ace said...

Catriona - we've all got them, those phrases a character uses that sneak into our writing unbidden, and largely unheeded until an editor highlights them. Even then, readers can be impacted in a way we didn't envisage. That's why writing is a constant learning process - love it. (Also love Blimey O'Reilly!)

Susan C Shea said...

I can't think of an American character who has become a slang exclamation, although I can think of quite a few who qualify. My overuse is more pedestrian. In real life, people frequently start a sentence with "Well,..." and in my first drafts they do too. So "well" is a document search every time because even if verbatim dialogue tics are true in life, they will drive readers crazy in print!

Unknown said...

A WISE column from the new Chair of the Canadian Crime Writers organization!

I agree with your statement that catch-phrases have lost some of their power over the years. Back in Dickens's day, he used catch-phrases and specific repetitive descriptions to remind his readers over a 19-month period (in many cases) which characters were which; we don't need or want such triggers much these days.

Dialogue IS unnatural; call and response type conversations happen in real life, but should never happen in fiction because when characters get what they want (straight answers to questions, for example) tension disappears. Keeping your detective from getting what she wants is paramount--if she doesn't struggle you'll lose tension and your reader will lose interest. I remember when, in the seventies, a TV program showed characters speaking transcriptions from the Nixon tapes. It was AWFUL to hear actual conversations of real people. Boring and lacking tension.

Taking a breather from your work and then going back and reading dialogue aloud also helps. And when writers read their work aloud at author events, they should ALWAYS adapt it, again taking a lesson from Dickens, the master. Drop most of the dialogue tags, even cut sentences if you have to. But that's a topic for another column, Cathy...

Cathy Ace said...

Thanks for your interesting contribution Christopher (and your kind and witty salutation!). You're right - episodic works need/ed those catch-phrases/figures of speech to allow readers to immediately re-identify characters, but we all know how quickly a novel is read by some (as an avid reader I, too, gobble up a book in such a tiny fraction of the time it took the author to write it that sometimes I feel quite guilty about doing so!) and those repetitions jar. There are always lessons to be learned from reading that can be put to good use when writing :-)

Cathy Ace said...

Ah ha, Susan - it's not just me then! "Well...." "But...." "Then..." "Very..." Oh those searches are such fun (and give alarming results!) :-)