Writers love words and words are part of dialogue. Witty banter between two characters or a frenzy of tagless ramblings running the length of a page adds flavor to fiction the way under notes of oregano and basil and toppings of bubbly cheese add flavor to pizza.
But unlike pizza — anything does not go when writing fiction and writing dialogue. Because as silly as it sounds, fiction must be believable and that includes the way characters talk to one another, to themselves and sometimes, depending on your book’s POV, to the reader.
For realistic fiction – which is how I usually think of most women’s fiction – you have to nail it. Kids have talk like, um, kids. Adults must speak clearly but within character — like in real life. What happens when you talk to a friend and he or just “just doesn’t sound right” to you? Either something is wrong or they’re trying on a new way of talking. And the same is true with characters in fiction. Your readers will want to know and trust that they understand who your characters are, especially when they’re relating so closely to the main character in a work of women’s fiction. An “off” sentence that is unintentional, not meant to indicate a change, can really throw off a reader off the story’s trail. The best advice I ever received – and it’s nothing new – is to read your dialogue aloud. It’s a good idea to read all your writing aloud but I read dialogue aloud as I’m writing it to make sure it sounds right.
To me, dialect and regional idiosyncrasies are fascinating. I think this is so because I lived in one place for twenty-six years and when I left I realized not everyone says “Yo” to get someone’s attention. Yes, regional colloquialisms come with a learning curve and I was happy to oblige.
I now live near Chicago, so I carry a purse. But where I grew up, in Philadelphia, I carried a pocketbook… and something fancy might have been a handbag. A purse was where you kept your coins.
So if I was writing a character who lived in Chicago or a fictional Chicago suburb like in THE GLASS WIVES, those characters would never utter the word pocketbook. Even if I didn’t live in the midwest, I’d have to have done the research to know the right lingo. Oh, also in THE GLASS WIVES my characters sit on the couch. I grew up sitting on the sofa (often with a clear plastic slip cover, but that’s another story).
Another thing I learned is that no one in the Midwest sits on a stoop. And neither did I growing up in Philadelphia. I sat on the steps. I also ate water ice — not, not, not — Italian Ice.
In THE GLASS WIVES as well as in my short story, The Kindness of Neighbors, I use a bisele Yiddish – bi’-seh-leh – a little bit. It fits the characters – one old and one not-so-old. They are words familiar to these characters and I hope the way I write them makes them familiar to the readers. It adds something that reminds us the characters in those scenes are Jewish, or at least that they enjoy a good kvetch.
It’s important to know how your character would refer to someone or something so that the dialogue sounds real, so that the voices have a lilt or a twang or a joy or a hurt. Add to that the words that fit the time and place and person and it’s going to read real. If you’re writing two best friends, the dialogue is casual and familiar. You might include private jokes. If you’re writing adversaries or strangers the words would be different — perhaps more formal. When you read some of your dialogue aloud try imagining people you know saying the words instead of your characters. It’s an exercise in detachment, and Friend A might not be like Character B, but it’s a good way to “picture” and “hear” the words. You might actually be able to imagine another fictional character who would be comfortable with your dialogue. I think TV characters are great for those purposes. (I’m a big TV watcher, so it works for me)
Of course there are also ways to add elements to your characters that have no basis in anything real, like the nickname one friend calls another, or someone’s favorite regional meal. Those are the bits that make your characters themselves, something that a writer must keep consistent and believable throughout. The last thing you want a reader or editor to say is, “So-and-so would never do that.” Characters can (and should) evolve and change but they must still remain true to themselves — and this comes out through their mannerisms and thoughts and dialogue.
At some point during one of my six-thousand revisions of THE GLASS WIVES over the past three years I compiled a list of the idiosyncrasies and verbal acuities associated with my main characters. I realized that the decadence in both reading and writing dialogue and dialect, is in the details.
Which words, phrases or verbal idiocyncrasies help to define your characters? And how do you make sure you get it right?