How do your characters feel about…
WHO they are with?
Two people are talking about abstract art:
“That’s the point.”
“Well, I assumed. He wanted to be lazy and get credit for it, and he did it.”
“That is absolutely not the point. It’s about making you look at red in a new way. To see it for what it is. To have a new perspective on it without it being influenced by comparison to other colors.”
“Okay. Fine. He succeeded at that too. I am definitely not influenced.”
“You just don’t get it.”
“I really don’t.
“Exactly. See, he did that deliberately. He wanted to show you the color red without it being compared to anything else.”
“Are you sure you’re not giving him too much credit?”
“Looking at art is more enjoyable if you try to trust it.”
“I don’t know. I just don’t get it.”
“It’s not for everyone.”
“Why paint something just red?”
“Because it helps you see red in a new way.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Enough to see red?”
“I will smack you.”
In real life, how we phrase our sentences is highly dependent on who we’re talking to. It should be easy to read, even out of context, how long a character has known someone, how well, and his opinion about that person.
In the first example, the second speaker has no respect for his friend. In the second example, he does, and is just trying to explain his ideas without being rude.
In the third, he argues with his friend just as much as he did in the first, but there’s affinity for his companion. It’s no longer about proving the philistine wrong, but expressing disagreement to someone he likes.
All three convey the same content, but it tells a different story about their relationship.
And, not only does understanding their mood help the author develop the characters and their connection, without that sense of respect and amiability, dialogue comes off as flat.
Even when there is no relationship, a character has an opinion on the person she’s talking to. Does she look down on waiters? Empathize with them? Is she angry at them for her food being late? Is she pleased at the waitress’s jovial attitude?
The lack of an opinion or feelings towards another human being is a strong choice, not a neutral one. If a character barely recognizes a waiter’s existence—the waiter is wallpaper only there to serve, dehumanized—it says something about that character. Also, sometimes a character might be too distracted to even see the person before them, too focused on herself to be worried about what the other character is thinking. This are great choices that will affect how the dialogue is conveyed, but they are impactful ones. When an author unintentionally writes a character who speaks in perfunctory and objective ways, it will create insincere dialogue.
And how does he think they feel about him?
“Don’t get me wrong. I just don’t understand why.”
“What do you mean why? It’s an illustration of a common entity—the color red—giving you a new perspective on how you see it outside its normal context. Basic art move.”
“It’s not complicated. Not even original really.”
“I mean, painting something like that takes a lot of time and dedication…”
“But the concept is pretty simple.”
Prior, the characters were on the same footing. The original example, there was a mutual disrespect, but in this one the naysayer is less confident. He cares what the other person thinks and is struggling to voice his opinion without earning judgment.
How do your characters feel about…
WHAT they are talking about?
“He left eight minutes after three. We should have an hour to sneak in there, get the book and get out.”
“Where did he go?”
“I don’t know. Skipping around some fancy-pants art gallery. Examining trouble souls and past partying through their post-morning sick. He needs to give it a good amount of time to convince people he really cares, so we have a while.”
“The presentation at the Calvin Steins Institute was actually pretty nice.”
“Just come on.”
Again, we could stick to the point:
“Where did he go?”
“I’m not sure. He’s a society guy, so probably a party? We should have some time.”
But coloring our words with opinions are more interesting and informative than conveying information.
“So the guy tries to tell me that it’s a symbol of how we perceive everyday day things, and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
“Can I help you, sir?”
“One coffee. Black. Small.”
“For 25 cents more you can get a medium.”
“Small is fine. Anyway, I go along with it, nodding for a while, tuning him out before I said, ‘Fine. I’m still not paying 10,000 dollars for it.”
“So the guy tries to tell me that it’s a symbol of how we perceive everyday day things, and I’m like… Hold on a moment.”
“Can I help you?”
“Yes. I guess I’ll have… Just a small black coffee is fine.”
“For 25 cents more you can get a medium.”
“Sure. That sounds great. Anyway, I go along with it, nodding for a while, tuning him out before I say, “I can’t pay 10,000 dollars for it.”
In the first the person has done this before, knows exactly what he wants, and has a very firm opinion on coffee, the second does not. How he orders his coffee—and how firmly he sticks to his gumption—changes his reputation to the audience. The first guy is no nonsense, the second is more casual, less firm, less bossy. It’s an inane subject, but can convey two totally different personalities.
How do your characters feel about…
WHERE they are?
Has he been here before? Has he taken possession of the place? Does he like being there? Is he comfortable there?
A character believes she’s alone in her bar, cleaning up, when she finds one stranger standing there, staring at her.
A character believes she’s alone in the post office when she finds a stranger standing there, staring at her.
A character believes she’s alone in her living room when she finds a stranger standing there, staring at her.
What are the first words out of her mouth?
If it’s in her bar, she probably won’t ask, “Who are you?” or “What do you want?” She’s most likely to conceal her fear and jump to a rational conclusion—he is a left over patron who she missed somehow.
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir. We’re closed.”
In the post office, she might swallow her fear and even say, “Hi,” as she passes.
In her bedroom, of course, she might skip the words and go straight to a scream.
It also applies in more subtle situations. Being in a large hall with an expansive table as the characters discuss what to do about the oncoming battle will encourage calm, logical, and formal discussion. Take the same people sitting around a campsite after a hard day, and they’ll use very different words to explain the same thing.
The less extreme the setting of the scene, the more important it is to consider the details. We don’t always consider how the room makes them feel, forgetting things like chill or the hardness of chairs, but just being aware of the small discomforts—or their opposites—can greatly enhance the nuance of language.
WHEN did he come up with what he was saying?
The words we choose are based around how long we’ve been planning them. A guy who has been trying to say, “I love you” for six years is going to have a very different method than someone who realized it then blurted it out.
It looks like it wouldn’t be important in most circumstances—Who cares when he decided he was going to order a cup of coffee?—but the devil’s in the details makes this sort of choice change the generic to natural with a little effort. Having characters who vary with their pre-planning is interesting and easy to express. When a story presents each person walking in and knowing exactly what they want immediately, and saying they want it right when they think of it, it looks fake. When, however, the protagonist is the only one among many who can make snap decisions, all others waiting until the last minute to know what they’re going to do/order, it becomes a personality choice. Also, because it is typical for authors to make the “incubation” time of a thought the same, breaking that, having him sometimes jump to conclusions or mull it over, will lead to creative choices the writer might not have thought of before.
And, on that same note, when does he think his conversational companion came up with what she was saying?
Does Mistress Starbucks say “Have a nice day,” to everyone, a preplanned response to all customers? Or is it individual to him and spontaneous? Individual to him and planned? It might be, “Have a nice day, sir,” she said, turning abruptly to rinse out the sink, or, “Have nice day! See you tomorrow!” or She held back the cup, holding him there an instant before releasing. The barista smiled shyly at him, “Have a nice day, sir.” While these might not all be options in context, each adds more information other than he got a cup of coffee. We might know the coffee shop or the city is unfriendly or hurried, maybe that he’s attractive and gets hit on a lot. Some options might not be options at all, but it wouldn’t hurt to know they exist, which is what asking when each character came up with a thought does.
WHY is he saying it?
So, most of us have heard the words “super-objective” and “motivation,” but for those of you who are lucky enough to work outside of the loop, these are literary terms that refer to the characters’ goals.
Why a character does what he does and says are what create the underlying message of who he is. All actions are motivated and all of them should be, yet those reasons are rarely ever outright stated. It doesn’t make sense for a character to do something he doesn’t see a benefit from. Even if it’s trivial or vague and not likely to happen, even we don’t believe that it will happen, there is something propelling us to make each decision: I sit down because I believe it will feel better than standing up.
More importantly, because this is true for real life, the writer has certain motivations in making the choices he did (whether he is aware of it or not), and it is up to the motivation of the character to conceal the meta-thinking of the writer. We want the reader to believe, “Man, the villain is an ass,” not, “Man, the author wants us to think the villain is an ass.” We do this by motivating the villain’s actions, rather just saying, “An evil guy does an evil thing to look evil to the readers.”
A person’s motivation is the primary factor in their tone of voice, their timing, and the words they use. Their tactic is based around what they hope to achieve.
For instance, if Julia finds out that her boyfriend cheated on her, and she wants to punish him, she might break up with him in the loudest, most public way possible, starting by shouting, “So you like whores do you?” as he sits in a bar with his friends.
However, if she was filled with doubt and wanted to find the truth, she might do it privately and start nonchalantly, “I ran into Chelsea today.”
Her motivation may lead to her not confronting him at all. Instead of having a conversation, she packs up her things and leaves, just wishing to be done with it. What good would talking about it do if she just wanted the relationship to be over?
When the author wants to do something, especially deliver information, the dialogue can come out just like that: the characters sound like they’re trying to tell the reader something, not like they’re talking.
So we motivate them by asking, “What do they have to gain from saying this to the person they’re saying it to?”
If an author wants to convey that this couple is blissful, and he does so by having the man tells his girlfriend of six years that he loves her so the audience knows he loves her, it might read false. If, however, the author has the man tell his girlfriend he loves her because he feels like the happiness will explode if he doesn’t get it out the writing is more likely to naturally come out as real.
HOW does he think it is going to turn out?
This is different than why he is saying it. The first one is about what he hopes will happen, this second one is about what he thinks will happen. Again, his tactics will change based on success level. If he knows she loves him back, he’s going to be more straightforward and take more risks admitting he loves her. If he thinks she’s probably going to slap him, he’s more likely to keep a distance, stammer, or do it quickly. He still says it because the possible benefits of having her love outweigh the possible, more likely consequences. It is worth it to get slapped on the off chance she might love him back.
This also defines character. A man might not tell a girl who he’s pretty sure loves him back because if, on the slight chance she doesn’t, it would ruin their friendship. But another man might think that having her love is worth risking the friendship. How we prioritize possibilities and likelihood varies based on who we are.
His perceived success rate will alter his tactics and his response to her response. And his response to her response is exactly what a dialogue is.