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.