In the previous blog post, we looked at the first two of the four fundamental components to writing engaging dialogue. These were:
The components that form dialogue; and
The context within which the dialogue exists, and highlighting the situation facing the characters.
In this blog post, we shall discuss the latter two of the four fundamental aspects to writing engaging dialogue. These are:
(3) Giving a character his/her personality; and
(4) Enlightening the audience about the world the characters live in.
3 – Give The Characters Their Personalities
Like real, three-dimensional people, every character in a story is a unique person with a unique way of speaking. Once readers become familiar with the character, they should almost be able to recognise who is talking by the words they use.
Thus, dialogue is one of the key ways to convey a character’s personality, whether he/she is the POV Character or not (although particularly for the latter). Extracts 3A and 3B will illustrate this.
Extract 3A – Hermione in Chapter 12 of The Order of The Phoenix
Hermione Grainger (Emma Watson) in The Order Of The Phoenix, where this extract comes from.
“What’s the matter [Harry]?” asked Hermione. “You look absolutely – Oh for heaven’s sake.”
She was staring at the common room noticeboard, where a large new sign had been put up.
Gallons of Galleons …
“They are the limit,” said Hermione grimly, taking down the sign, which Fred and George had pinned up. “We’ll have to talk to them, Ron.”
Ron looked positive alarmed. “Why?”
“Because we’re prefects!” said Hermione, as they climbed through the portrait hole. “It’s up to us to stop this kind of thing!”
Ron said nothing; Harry could tell from his glum expression that the prospect of stopping Fred and George doing exactly what they liked was not one he found inviting.
Extract 3B – Kuni Garu and Rin Coda in Chapter 1 of Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings
Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, which is A Game of Thrones style novel, set in an Asian-style country.
“Coming through! Coming through!”
Two fourteen-year-old boys shoved their way through the tightly packed crowd like a pair of colts butting through a sugarcane field.
“Kuni, I think we’ll be okay just standing in the back,” Rin said. “I really don’t think this is a good idea.!
“Then don’t think,” Kuni said. “You problem is that you think too much. Just do.”
“Master Loing says that the gods want us to always think before we act.” Rin winced and ducked out of the way as another man swore at the pair and took a swing at them.
“No-one knows what the gods want.” Kuni didn’t look back as he forged ahead. “Not even Master Loing.”
They finally made it through the dense crowd and stood right next to the road, where white chalk lines indicated how far spectators could stand.
“Now this is what I call a view,” Kuni said, breaking deeply and taking everything in. he whistled appreciatively as the last of the semi-nude Faça veil dancers passed in front of him. “I can see the attraction of being emperor.”
“Stop talking like that! Do you want to go to jail?” Rin looked nervously around to see if anyone was paying attention – Kuni had a habit of saying outrageous things that could be easily interpreted as treason.
“Now doesn’t this beat sitting in class practicing carving wax logograms and memorising Kon Fiji’s Treatise on Moral Relations?” Kuni draped his arm around Rin’s shoulders. “Admit it: You’re glad you came with me.”
Explanations for Extracts 3A and 3B
From the dialogue in Extract 3A, readers can hear Hermione’s voice and get a great understanding for her personality. Of course, by this extract, we are in Book 5 of the series, so we are well acquainted with her. But, still, what Herminone says in Extract 3A shows that she is a caring friend to Harry, and she has a fixation for the rules. JK Rowling almost did not need to write ‘Herione said’ after Hermione’s dialogue because readers can recognise that its her.
Similarly, readers can hear a distinct difference in personality whenever Kuni and Rin speak in Extract 3B. Kuni is brazen, witty and willing to stretch (even break) the rules to gain an advantage. His friend, Rin, on the other hand is reticent and prefers to follow the rules (even though he is following Kuni on this occasion). In short, what they say reflects their personality.
4 – Enlightening The Audience To The World In Which The Characters Live In
The words a character uses are a symptomatic of their time and place in the world. More than anything, the words used give a flavour for the type of place that the characters come from and/or reside in.
Thus, when writers create a world (regardless of whether it is a made-up fantasy world, or a version of the past, present or future of our own planet), they should make up nuanced terms that fit into the world or era for the characters.
To give a starting point for what I mean, a person coming from the latter half of the 20th-century could say the term “nuclear bomb” in speech because it existed within his/her world. But a person in the 14th-century could not have said this term because nuclear bombs did not exist in his/her world.
The symbol of the main religion in Westeros – The Seven Pointed Star. It is from a blasphemous inversion of this for which characters say ‘Seven Hells’ when they swear.
On a more practical level, characters from Westeros In A Song of Ice & Fire frequently use the term “Seven Hells” when swearing. This tells us something about their culture; notably, that when they swear, they do so by an inverting a mirror image of the Seven Gods that most people in Westeros worship.
Likewise, in Harry Potter, magical spells are discussed as if they were chemical formulas in science; while terms like ‘muggles’ and ‘mudblood’ are used to describe those who do not come from pure wizarding nobility, like Hermione.
Lastly, in the above-mentioned The Blade Itself, Northmen (such as Logan and The Dogman) say “back to the mud” when referring to death. This says much about the (grim and unceremonious) way that they bury their dead.
Fan art of a burial of a favourite Northern character from The First Law Trilogy. In that trilogy, the Northmen say ‘back to the mud’ when someone dies.
This, I am afraid, is for the topic of next week’s blog post. In the meantime, I would like to thank you for reading my posts on the four fundamental aspects to writing engaging dialogue and I hope that you have them useful.
Please write a comment to let me know what you think of these last two posts. Have I missed anything out?
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