A novel, and even a memoir, will have characters and dialogue. You want to make sure dialogue is easy to read, sounds natural, and does what it’s meant to.

Good character development in fiction includes making characters’ voices so distinctive that readers can tell who’s talking without attributes. I’m not saying that’s required or suggested (see an example at the end), just that it’s a good ideal to keep in mind. What I mean by “voice” is what a character says and how s/he says it. How do you accomplish this, you ask? Know your characters well.

A character’s voice will be influenced by education or lack of it; their past and current place in society; region where they grew up; prejudices; and desires for themselves and their lives. What drives a character will drive their thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. Fictional characters, just as real people, are molded by the environment where they grew up and currently find themselves in. This is colored by personal and indoctrinated beliefs and personal intentions, as well as the vernacular and familiar sayings they heard while growing up and may still hear or use. Yet, even if a number of your characters grew up in the same area, culture, or even home, they will still each have a distinctive voice when they think, speak, or write. Each character’s attitude is as unique and distinctive as each real person’s is.

Once you get the voice down for each character, you then need to focus on dialogue that goes on between characters. Dialogue is a great way to provide information to other characters (and readers) rather than use exposition/narrative to do this. Dialogue needs to move everything and everyone forward and must never drag characters, plot, and pace down.

Dialogue reveals the relationship between characters: Good, bad, or indifferent. Dialogue makes characters come to life on the pages so it must be realistic and come across as natural for each character. This is where dialogue can get tricky. You see, it has to sound natural, but cannot mimic the way people actually speak with all their um’s, uh’s, oh’s, wow’s, okay’s, and so forth (junk words), especially at the starts of dialogue sentences. This is how people speak, but it makes dialogue in novels clunky, tedious, and tiresome.

Real people may start and stop when they speak, but fictional characters should be allowed minimal opportunity (or reason) to do that. Dialogue that mimics the way many people speak would wear a reader out, not to mention use up page space (in an annoying way) and drag plot and character development, and pace, way down. That’s not good. The exception is if you have a character that is a teen or from a social culture that, like, you know, like, uses a lot of, you know, words like, you know, “like” and “you know.”

Along with giving each character a distinctive voice and making all dialogue sound natural, you need to be certain that ALL dialogue reveals more about what a character is thinking, feeling, and doing as well as moves the plot forward. It must also convey what’s happening in a particular scene and only that scene, but must always relate to the plot (no scene should be included that doesn’t relate to plot and/or character development in some significant way). Dialogue lets you build tension, as needed. If any dialogue does not fulfill these functions, you need to either rewrite it or delete it.

Even with characters’ distinctive voices, what they say needs to be succinct, and fit their personality. A character that is an adventurous type or thrill-seeker is not going to speak the same way a shy character or one who has a deep feeling of duty and responsibility will. It’s also important to realize that people don’t always say precisely what they feel or mean. Often, people speak in subtext, that is, in a roundabout manner, rather than directly to the point. Subtext dialogue demonstrates what is actually going on between two or more characters. You’ve seen this before: A man and woman snipe at each other for pages and pages, the tension builds, and then they kiss, go on a date, or hop into the sack. Despite what their dialogue included, feelings of love or lust were building under the surface of what they said. Of course, it could be apathy or rage that’s building through subtext. The thing to remember with subtext is that you want to demonstrate it through what is said and not through attributions, also known as tag lines (e.g., he said with anger/she said with great passion).

When it comes to attributions/tag lines the simpler the better. Words like said, asked, answered, and replied do something remarkable and wonderful in a novel: They disappear for readers so that only what’s said or asked registers in their minds. You can use other words like moaned, groaned, shouted, sneered, and so forth if they truly add to the dialogue moment. Just know they’ll draw attention to themselves, which means that for even a brief moment (maybe longer), you’ll pull readers out of the reading experience—out of the movie in their minds—in order to focus on how you want them to hear what was said and interpret mood. It’s better if you use words and actions (things characters do while they speak so they aren’t taking heads on a page) that convey mood.

Dialogue may also lead you to deal with dialect. There’s a school of thought that you should indicate dialect then avoid using phonetic and misspelled words afterwards so that writing and reading it is not tedious. And yet we have success stories like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn written entirely in dialect. And, which Harry Potter fan can imagine Hagrid speaking without dialect. It’s recommended that you suggest dialect rather than use it throughout the manuscript, but use your best judgment about this. If done well, and you feel it’s important for the story, it will add to the story in the way you intend. If you intend to submit to agents, they’ll let you know if they believe it works or not (but listen to your gut—again, imagine if Rowling’s agent had said to get rid of Hagrid’s dialect or if Huck Finn spoke like a well-educated lad). If you decide to use dialect throughout, create a list for yourself so that each time you use words, you’re consistent with the misspellings, and manners of speech.

One more thing about dialogue: Avoid overuse of characters’ names, both in dialogue and in attributions. Make it clear initially who is speaking and use names only if truly needed. You don’t want dialogue to read as follows:

“Hi, Mark. How’s it going today?” Sally said.
“Hi, Sally. It’s going well,” Mark replied.
“Have you had lunch yet, Mark?” Sally asked.
“No, Sally. I haven’t, but I was thinking about it,” Mark answered.

“Hi, Mark. How’s it going today?” Sally said.
“It’s going well.”
“Have you had lunch yet?”
“No, but I was thinking about it.”

“Hi, Mark. How’s it going today?”
“Hi, Sally. It’s going well.”
“Have you had lunch yet?”
“No, but I was thinking about it.”

These are not examples of stimulating dialogue, but they get the point across. Because of the way the first sentence or first two sentences are set up, you have no problem tracking who’s speaking. And keep in mind what I said: no talking heads. Even though these examples don’t provide actions for the characters, give them some actions, even small ones, while they speak. Sally might pause and shuffle her feet or fiddle with her hair or pick up something of Mark’s and put it back before or after she asks if he’s had lunch. Mark might lean back in his chair when Sally first speaks to him or before he answers her.

Have fun with your characters and what they say as they and you move your story from one moment and scene to the next and the plot forward to its rewarding conclusion.

I wish you the best with your writing and progress.

Author's Bio: 

Need a Book Doctor or an incentive to write or complete your manuscript? Let Joyce L. Shafer be your writing coach, developmental editor, or provide a critique. Details about her services at http://editmybookandmore.weebly.com/