Friday, December 15, 2017

Creating Dialog: Give Each Of Your Characters Their Own Unique Voice #OurAuthorGang

Joe Bonadonna

My good friend and “mentor” Ted Rypel (author of The Deathwind Trilogy, Fortress of Lost Worlds, A Hungering of Wolves, and Dark Ventures), was of immense help to me in the creation and shaping of my tales of Dorgo the Dowser, star of my (so far) two books in the Mad Shadows series. He writes great dialog, and he’s a master at choreographing battle scenes. He taught me how to write a fight scene from a personal point of view, to put myself inside the fight and write the scene as if it was something I had actually experienced. But more importantly, he taught me how to write dialog, how to make my characters “talk like real folks,” and to him I owe a great deal of gratitude.

The Cecil B. DeMille Syndrome

One of the things I stumble over, especially in the genre of Heroic Fantasy, is that so many writers have their characters “speak” in a very formal manner, like stilted dialog from an old Cecil B. DeMille Biblical movie. Every line of dialog is a declaration, a proclamation that sounds unnatural and unrealistic, at least to my ears. Every character sounds just like every other character; this is something I’m guilty of, too, and I do my best to give each character his or her own distinctive “voice.” Many writers also try to outdo Shakespeare by using way too many words like “thee,” “thou,” “thy,” “thine,” “whence,” “whilst,” etc. In “olden times,” uneducated peasants surely didn’t speak the same way as educated aristocrats.  How many English-speaking people, for example, speak without using contractions? Not everyone says “cannot,” “it is,” “that is,” “will not,” and “shall not.” And slang isn’t an invention of the modern era; surely different classes of people in ancient Greece, Rome, Britain, and other countries had their own dialects, their own slang words and phrases.

When I first started writing, my dialog was atrocious, to say the least. No contractions, too many “Biblical” words and phrases. I didn’t know what my characters’ voices sounded like. I didn’t know how they would talk to one another or what they would discuss. And they all spoke as if I was trying to channel the Bard. While I knew the “show, don’t tell” rule, so much of my narration, my exposition broke that rule, something I’m still guilty of to this day. Then I gradually learned how to turn a lot of my narrative into action, to “show it,” rather than tell. Even more importantly, I learned how to turn narration into dialog, to have my characters tell the reader what was going on in the story while they carried on conversations and discussions. Still, my dialog rang false, and every character sounded alike. I had a “tin ear,” so to speak.

But I was learning. 

The key is: mix it up. Create voices that match your characters. One character speaks in a formal manner, another uses more slang and contractions, another speaks broken English or another language as spoken by someone for whom English is their first language. Be an eavesdropper. Listen in on conversations you hear in public. Pay attention to how people of different ethnic groups speak English, how they pause to collect their thoughts, and even the physical things they do when holding a conversation. Take notes on how people speak, the inflections in their voice, the way they construct their sentences, the way they stutter or trip over their tongues. Listen to how they put emphasis on their words, and which words and phrases they use over and over again, such as “like,” “you know,” “you think?” and “see what I’m saying?” These are their “tag-lines,” their trademarks. One of the things I love about living in Chicago is the diversity of cultures, the many languages and accents I’ll hear sitting in a restaurant for just a few hours. I try my best to capture some of the voices I hear.

Dialogue Is Action

Over the years I’ve encountered many readers who dislike dialog, stating that too much of it slows the pace of a story. They find it needless. They want fast-paced narrative, with plenty of action and world-building. They aren’t interested in the characters so much as they’re interested in the plot, the battles, the monsters, and the sex scenes. But I disagree. Dialog is verbal action: it can and should be used to advance the plot. Character interaction is, in my mind, essential to almost every story. Human drama is a key factor in engaging your readers, making them live the story through the words and thoughts, hearts, eyes and emotions of your characters. Dialog enhances characters; it gives characters a depth and realism that will make them leap off the page. What grabs me, what sucks me into a story is how the characters interact and relate to one another.  Without dialog, what would Shakespeare have done? Without dialog we’d have no live theater, without dialog we’d have no need for “talking pictures.”

If you have a very long passage where one character is addressing a group of people — I call it “Giving the Speech” — and it goes on for a page or more, break up the dialog with a little bit of “stage business.” Have the character pause to drink some water, light up a cigarette, blow his nose, or have the speaker be interrupted by other characters . . . anything to make it more exciting. While dialog can drive the plot forward, long passages of it can “slam on the breaks” as surely as endless descriptions of what people are wearing or what a room looks like. The trick is: never preach, never lecture for pages on end, unless the scene involves a sermon or a lecture, of course. Make the dialog fun to read, make it sound natural, add some humor to it.

A Few Tips and Tricks

If I can’t find my character’s voice, I look to old movies for inspiration, to actors and actresses whose voices and patterns of speech I think will be suitable, and I try to emulate those voices. In the stories I write for Janet Morris’ Heroes in Hell™ series, two of my recurring characters in the series are Doctor Victor Frankenstein and his lab assistant, Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. For Victor, I gave him the voice of Colin Clive, the actor who played the infamous physician in the 1931 Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff. For Quasimodo, I gave him a bit of actor Charles Laughton’s voice, from the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, although I try to add a bit more eloquence, and sprinkle his dialog with some French words and phrases, and have him speak like a Frenchman for whom English is a second language. And that’s something else I’d like to pass on to you.

During a screenwriting class, the instructor gave me a suggestion for one of my screenplays, in which I have an American woman, an Irishman, a Spaniard, and a proto-feline, alien medic. I had the woman speak like a hip, modern-day woman. For the Irishman I chose actor Victor McLaglen’s voice, using words and even some old phrases my Mom and a few Irish family members used. For the alien, I chose some odd phrasing for him, but what he never does is use the words “I,” “me,” “my,” “mine,” etc. He always refers to himself as “this one” or “this mewling.” Example: “This one would like very much to try this beverage.” Or “This mewling is so very much unhappy.” But for the Spaniard, I had some trouble. The instructor suggested I have him speak English as if he was speaking Spanish. Hombre gordo in Spanish is “fat man,” with the adjective following the noun; so he would say, “O’Hara, you are a man who is very fat.” The Spaniard, as it turned out, was the most eloquent of the three characters, and I finally found his voice in actor Pedro Armendariz. That screenplay, by the way, became the basis for my space opera, Three Against The Stars. For my German, Dutch, Italian, and other ethnic characters, I’ve done the same as I did with my Spaniard, often relying on the voices of various actors to help me nail it all down. In Waters of Darkness, (co-authored by Dave Smith) the main character, the pirate Captain Angus “Bloody Red” Buchanan is Scottish. Now, how to capture his voice? I didn’t want to go the route of H.P. Lovecraft, and misspell words to sound the way a character speaks, although I did substitute “dunno” for “don’t know.” What I did was watch a few movies to help develop my ear, but my main inspiration was actor James Doohan — Scotty, from the original Star Trek television series. So I used words in different patterns for Bloody Red, just to give it a Scottish flavor without going overboard: less is more. He never says “I will not do that” or “I won’t do that.” He says, “I’ll no’ be doing that.” In place of “my lad” or “my bonny lass,” he says “m’lad” and “m’bonny lass.” Instead of saying “The man who buried that treasure,” he’ll say “The man what buried that treasure.” Just little things like that. I didn’t want to overload his dialog with too much of a Scottish accent that I felt would only be distracting for the reader.

Create some signature line or phrase for your characters. Think of Gollum’s “My precious;” John Wayne’s “That’ll be the day!” from The Searchers; or the oft-quoted, “I’ll make ’em offer they can’t refuse.” It’s the little things that often carry the greatest effect you can create for your characters. And don’t forget: not everyone is grim and dour; put some humor into your dialog. Cops, soldiers, mobsters . . . they all joke among themselves; they all tease and bust each other’s balls. Drama is more effective with humor, and comedy has a sharper bite if there’s some drama behind it, some element of danger. If you can’t come up with a signature phrase, use the way a character speaks, his tone of voice, his attitude. Is he arrogant and sarcastic? Vulgar and mean? Respectful and proper? Sardonic and overly dramatic?  A little of this can go a long way in helping to shape your characters, define who and what they are.

Films As A Source Of Inspiration

If you’re having trouble finding a voice for one of your characters, turn to films for inspiration. In Sunset Boulevard (screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett), washed-up silent film actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), when talking about the silent film era, tells Joe Gillis (William Holden) “We had faces then.” Well, I look to old movies of the 1930s thru 1950s for my “voices” because “They had voices then!” This is just personal preference, and not everyone enjoys those old films. But I learned a lot about writing dialog from many films of that era, such as Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch; based on the play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison); and The Front Page (based on the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who was the father of Hawaii 5-0’s James MacArthur; the film was later remade as His Girl Friday, by director Howard Hawks, with a screenplay by Charles Lederer.)

In the film industry there’s a phrase pertaining to dialog that is obvious, straight to the point, with no dissembling and no attempt to hide a character’s motives or true self. This type of dialog is called “on the nose.” Characters don’t always say what they mean, or mean what they say. Subtext goes a long way, and it can be fun, too. While being “on the nose” in a novel or story is more common, using subtext can enhance a scene, make it more interesting. In the glory days of Hollywood, before the sexual and verbal revolution, screenwriters had to walk a high-wire act. Subtext was king. For instance: in the first screen version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, (screenplay by William Falkner, Jules Furthman, and legendary fantasy and sci-fi author Leigh Brackett,) there’s a scene where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall are flirting and sizing each other up, sexually. What they’re doing is obvious. But their dialog isn’t. They’re discussing horse racing, but the subtext of the scene is not about horse racing, it’s about sex. Likewise, in the film version of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, (screenplay by Raymond Chandler and director Billy Wilder), there’s a hot scene where Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck are also sizing each other up, but they’re discussing being pulled over for speeding by a traffic cop. The dialog doesn’t match the looks the actors are exchanging, or Macmurray’s fixation on Stanwyck’s ankle bracelet, but the subtext is there, boys and girls. They’re talking about S-E-X. If you get it right, subtext can be fun to read, and fun to write.

In Closing

My advice to young writers is always first and foremost: know the genre you wish to work in. Don’t just write with an eye towards trends and fads; look for ways to twist things around and make them your own by branding your tales with something different, something unique. And you can find ways to do all that by reading outside your genre. For over 20 years, starting in the early 1960s, I read nothing but heroic fantasy, sword & sorcery, horror, and science fiction. I’ve read enough to know the genre, I think, and I’ve surely been influenced and inspired by all that I’ve read. But I broke away to read other genres: mystery, crime, WWII thrillers, westerns, and even a number of romance novels. While I still dip an occasional toe in the water of the genres I write in, I don’t enjoy reading those genres as much as I used to. I like my histories, biographies, and fiction from other genres. As for my tales of Dorgo the Dowser, some of the authors who have influenced me are: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, and Chester Himes. I’m sure everyone has their favorite authors, authors who influenced and inspired them. I am not a scholar or a literary genius, and I certainly do not play one on TV. I just wanted to share some tips and suggestions with you, and I hope my blog has been of some help to you.

A note about the great Leigh Brackett

In an era when men dominated the pulp magazines and Hollywood studios, and many women wrote under male pseudonyms, Leigh Brackett was a pioneer, a force to be reckoned with. She wrote everything: science fiction, fantasy, and hard-boiled crime. She was known as the “Queen of Space Opera,” and was the first woman to be short-listed for science fiction’s Hugo Award. Her novels and short stories are considered classics: No Good from a Corpse, The Long Tomorrow, Lorelei of the Red Mist (with Ray Bradbury), The Ginger Star, The Hounds of Skaith, The Reavers of Skaith, The Sword of Rhiannon, and many, many more. Besides the films mentioned in this blog, she also wrote and co-wrote a number screenplays, including the John Wayne films Hatari, El Dorado, Rio Lobo, and Rio Bravo. Her last project was writing a draft of The Empire Strikes Back. If you haven’t read any of her books and stories, I highly recommend that you do. She was the consummate pro and storyteller. 


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