Dialogue is one of the biggest indicators of the separation between the amateur and professional writer. Too often in Wattpad serials or self-published novels, you’ll find numerous monologues where characters go on and on, revealing their deepest, most personal emotions to everyone in the entire world. It’s easy for anyone to look at these books, snicker to themselves, and snarkily say, “That’s not how people really talk.” But in order to find the root of the problem, you have to consider, “How do people really talk?”, and, more importantly, “How do characters really talk?”
This distinction is incredibly important. People in books and movies and TV shows don’t talk like everyday humans. Conversations in the real world often repeat, oversimplify, and wind like a backroad going nowhere. There are very few instances in life where these moments have weight and purpose. In stories, everything the characters say must have both weight and purpose.
Novel dialogue has a somewhat similar purpose to film dialogue. An easy way to think of dialogue initially is to consider it in the context of a scene. In scenes, there are two ways to forward the pacing: action and dialogue. Paired together, they take the scene, and the novel as a whole, from one point to another, whether positive or negative.
One of the best ways to enhance dialogue is to consider how different characters react to the same situation. Character traits always impact their word choice; you find it in the difference between someone saying the party is “huge” and someone saying the party is “overstuffed”.
What characters don’t say is more important than what they do say. When someone is having a bad day in a movie and their parents ask, “How was your day,” most of the time they won’t say, “Well, Mom, my girlfriend dumped me for my best friend, I flunked my geometry exam, the lasagna gave me food poisoning, and I stepped in dog crap on the way home, so all and all it’s been a pretty dreadful thirteen hours.” Instead, they’ll say something like, “I don’t want to talk about it,” or, “Same old, same old,” or simply, “It was fine.” It seems corny, but it’s true: less is often more when it comes to dialogue. Only in moments of extreme, well-earned catharsis will a character ever reveal their true emotions fully, but the reader can often infer how they feel through a combination of their actions and inner thoughts.
In short, dialogue is one of the most complicated and fascinating aspects of a novel. It requires more thought than many realize at first, and often takes draft after draft to refine and perfect. When done wrong, it takes less than a second to break immersion. When done right, however, it makes your world and your story more believable than ever, and proves to your readers that they are in capable hands.
Do you have specific questions about dialogue that weren't answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will answer it when our next entry is posted. Note: Comments posted after 11/12 may not be included.
Questions from "Character Part 2":
What is the best way to create an antagonist that is an understandable character yet also an intimidating force?
Something to keep in mind for this is a sympathetic character vs. an empathetic character. A sympathetic character is one you believe is truly in the right, an empathetic character is one where you can understand how they got to that point. Think Thanos: you can understand his fears of overpopulation and how he came to the conclusion that limiting every population will protect the ecosystem. But that doesn’t mean you believe his execution is the right way to go about it.
Give your antagonist empathetic motivations. Then give them flawed executions. Their goals and motivations should lie in the “right,” like fighting for a loved one or wanting to improve society. And then have their trek to their goals dive down the more evil path: corruption, manipulation, violence, doing whatever it takes to achieve that goal.
How can I make a compelling redemption arc with my antagonist/flawed character without throwing away all the work I did to make them seem evil/very human?
Redemption arcs can’t happen overnight. They take time, they take effort. Characters with flawed outlooks have to completely rearrange their ideals in order to reach redemption.
Something has to first trigger their desire to be redeemed. Maybe someone near them gets hurt, or they have a challenge to their ideals that doesn’t match what they earlier believed. From there, they have to start second-guessing their actions. Were they in the right? What did they do wrong? What is right? Chances are the redeemed character will have a guide, someone to help them along their arc. It would be easy to make the redeemed character reliant on this guide, but there’s always a better way. Small actions get corrected, so the character starts to make their own “correct” decisions. Corrections get larger and larger scale until the climax of the arc arrives. Some big choice between good and evil, and they choose good. The stakes don’t have to be life or death, but they should be high.
As for retaining the evil aspect - they’ll still have to suffer the consequences of their actions. The rest of the world didn’t correct itself from a redemption arc. Even if a character changes, that doesn’t mean their characterization was for naught. Let that characterization have an effect on a wide scale.