When Characters Speak

‘You mean that thing called dialogue?’ Nope! Not this time.

One of the earliest– and most confusing– pieces of advice I was given about writing was, “Listen to your characters.” My view of the craft was at such a meta point that this idea was barely fathomable to me. I could maybe understand it, sure, but it seemed either too figurative to be helpful, or just straight-up counterintuitive.

Worldbuilding and consistency are what give your characters a real voice. You don’t have to go full-tilt Tolkien or even full-tilt Rothfuss to get this voice, but it helps. When you as the author have an idea of geography, technology/magic/religion, some sociocultural quirks, you’re establishing an identity.

This identity, then, gives voice to your characters, and you have to listen to them.

Even when I started writing I didn’t feel like I could “hear” them. I was still in control, guiding the story and directing the plot just how I wanted it. Sure, I was discovering it (as opposed to outlining everything), and that’s a fun creative process. But I was still holding the strings.

So what does it mean? How do you listen to the people you want someone else to care about?

Part of it is realism; addressing all the concerns, being aware of the questions your reader will have.

It’s being aware of when your characters say, “Why can’t we just do X to solve this plot issue?” A firm grasp of the situation, and a solid, realistic portrayal of whatever your conflict is, will lead you to some situations where your characters will straight-up ask you the simplest, most direct questions.

And the only response would be, “Well… you could.” And then there’s no conflict.

But you also listen to them to avoid falling into the trap of over-written dialogue. The biggest examples of this can be found in movies. Characters speak for the sole purpose of setting up a dramatic line (usually in the form of “Then what are these things?”). Christopher Nolan is currently my favorite director, but he’s guilty of this a lot. The character drops out of their three dimensional space and becomes a flat rebounding board for someone else– typically the hero– to say something cool and succinct.

It might work, and it gives the narrative that “punch”, but when you’re really listening to your characters’ needs and concerns, you start to hear different dialogue. You hear something more natural.

We know that real life speak, perfectly transcribed, isn’t real dialogue. There’s fiction dialogue, and it’s its own ballgame. Making it work and making it sound natural is tricky. But, if you can listen to your characters, the benefit is that you get that perfect middle ground between ‘Fiction Dialogue’ and ‘What a real person would actually say’.

But tapping into character– the most important element for making your story interesting in real– will allow you to hear them. And if you listen, the other elements fall into place.

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About Jared

Writer, jaredwcooper.com

4 thoughts on “When Characters Speak

  1. Rick Pieters says:

    First we’re a sort of Geppetto, building the character, imagining the history, age, looks, scars, likes/dislikes, etc. ad infinitum, but before long, as they act/react in our story worlds, they take on their own lives. That’s when we need to listen to them. We may not always let them take us where they want, but often, since they’re products of our creative minds, they know where to go, and may direct us to places unexpected and, for them, real.

    As for dialogue, if it doesn’t “sound” natural, it will pull the reader right out of the story, as in a set-up like you mentioned. But if you have been listening, your characters will have their own voices. Still, writing natural sounding dialogue, which we all know isn’t natural at all, can be hard. I find it always helps to read it out loud, not just under your breath, but really out loud, like a table reading of a script. You’ll hear what rings false, stilted.

    Glad you’ve joined, Jared.

  2. True! Dialogue isn’t just speaking…but actions. The “showing” we all harp about so much.

    In the beginning, it’s our imaginations whispering until the characters become real, then they seem to take a life all their own – with huge numbers of quirks, and mind boggling idiocies. I see mine doing things, and the best I can do is warn the screen LOL But let them do it anyway.

  3. Rick Pieters says:

    Same here, TJ, and then, in the revision stage, if their contributions don’t fit, well, killings are in order. 🙂

  4. Deb says:

    It took a while for me to “hear” my characters (it took a while for me to read this, too lol. It’s been in my e-mail for a full month). I’m still trying to not listen to myself in my current project. When your characters become their own person (as weird as that sounds), it helps you make more sense when you write.

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