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People use a lot more contractions in speech than in writing. They’re faster. More sentence fragments, too. People very often use wrong version of lie/lay or “who” instead of “whom” in speaking. (Personally, I never use “whom” in speaking or writing because I want to see that distinction scrapped, but that’s another story.)
The dialogue portion of Vigilante Justice isn’t difficult to describe. The hero is a self-destructive cop named Gary Drake. He is based on a real-life cop, my little brother. So his dialogue was easy because, in my mind, I always heard Gary speaking in Barry’s voice.
For my other characters, I had to find some other voice. For example, voice of Doctor Garrett Allison is, to me, that of Michael Jordan.
That’s right, people. When I write, I literally hear voices in my head.
As a beginning writer, and not a very good one, I read some advice somewhere saying you might want to cut photos out of magazines and use them when writing your physical description, in case you can’t get a mental picture together of your characters. I’ve used this technique, and with some modification I’ve extended it to voices.
As an author, you should always play to your greatest strengths while working to improve your weaknesses. I know many authors who think visually, and I envy them that. I’ve read some stuff that can make you feel you’re skiing down a snow-covered mountain when it’s actually 85 degrees in your flat and you’ve never skied in your life.
One author told me that when he writes, he literally sees movies in his head, then just has to type them really fast because that’s how they’re playing. Lucky him! My novels first come to me in snippets of dialogue. Every character has same voice at that stage. (My voice, of course.)
Tight dialogue is one thing I enjoy when I read. Here are characters at some sort of verbal showdown. I know them, I know their motives, I can read between lines and know what’s being left unsaid. I can just feel tension in air. I’m not so much mentally picturing bulging veins and angry glares as I am just feeling spoken words.
I also have an excellent memory of voices. I always have. Like a dog remembers scents or an artist colors, it seems, I can remember voices. If I hear an unfamiliar song on radio but I’ve ever heard that singer before, I can tell you who it is. I can tell you that guy doing voice of Gomez Addams in original “Addams Family” cartoon is now doing one of voices in Tazmanian Devil’s cartoon series. I can spot an actor like Andreas Katsulas no matter what species of rubberized alien he’s playing, because I recognize his voice, although really that’s no great challenge in his case.
(For record, if you’ve read The Chronicles Of A Madman, Ahriman looks and sounds like Andreas Katsulas. Clyde Windham is Dennis Franz. Wendy Himes is some girl who sold me some horse feed about ten years ago.)
But just “hearing” voices (if you’re able) isn’t enough. The words themselves will be different depending on who’s speaking them, even if they’re relaying same information.
To get back to Vigilante Justice, Gary Drake doesn’t use a lot of words. He almost never describes his own feelings, and if he does he always feels guilty about it. He speaks with a Southern drawl. He tends to use a single swear word, and that word is “fuck.”
Marjorie Brooks, on other hand, mentions feelings and uses whichever swear word is most accurate, except that she never says “fuck.” Doctor Allison doesn’t use as many contractions as rest of us do. These are things I kept in mind as I wrote their dialogue.
Who remembers Mr. Spock? His speech sounds like written language, very grammatical and correct, and that’s deliberate. He’s a scientist, he’s logical, and for him language is only one more tool to be used with as much precision as possible. That isn’t just a different style of dialogue; it helps define his character.
In my The Chronicles Of A Madman, Ahriman used fewer contractions than rest of us and he avoided sentence fragments. He probably even knew difference between who and whom or lie and lay. That’s because he’s intelligent, you see. It kinds of goes with territory when one is evil incarnate.
During an edit I did of a sci-fi book, I saw where author wasn’t using enough contractions. I made many suggestions that he change dialogue of humans to use those contractions, except when military officers were giving orders, because order-giving officers tend to be more “serious” and “thoughtful” than folks just being regular folks.
I also suggested to this author that he change nothing about “stilted” speech patterns of his aliens. English isn’t their native language, you see, and one thing I’ve noticed from living in China is that locals don’t use nearly as many contractions as I do. So I thought that added realism. Plus, contrast should help keep readers keep everybody straight even if they aren’t consciously aware of why.
I remember in one edit where I read some character saying, “I am an historian.” Oh, I hate that phrase. I hate anyone ever putting “an” in front of a word that begins with consonant “h.” Correct or not -- and that’s debatable -- it’s terribly pretentious and I don’t like it. As I kept reading book, I quickly learned that character in question is terribly pretentious. Nobody else in book was throwing “an” in front of “h” words. It was a deliberate contrast on author’s part, and it worked quite nicely.
I suppose point of all this is, remember difference between narrative and dialogue.
In case of narrative, you’re simply trying to describe what happens. There is a famous quote of some sort that says, “Great writing is like a window pane.” Stick to that maxim unless you feel you have a good reason not to. If you’ve got what it takes to make your writing style superior to conventional, and if your story allows it, let that style be an asset of your writing. Otherwise, just stick to rules until you master them.
In case of dialogue, you’re trying to write something that sounds like what characters would actually say, but a bit more organized because “real” speech can be boring. Give every character his/her/its own voice.
Am I joking when I say “its?” Not entirely. The Chronicles Of A Madman contains a short story, written in first person from my dog’s viewpoint. But then again, I would never call Daisy an “it.”
There’s a stylistic decision you can make in narrative, by way. I always refer to animals as “he” or “she.” Some authors always use “it.”
In dialogue, you can let some characters always say he or she, and let others always say it, to contrast feeling with unfeeling. (My heroes never call an animal “it.”)
In end, goal is always same. Make your writing as easy to read as you can. Keep that in mind, and always keep learning, and you won’t go wrong.
Michael is an American living in Hong Kong. He has been working as a full-time author for over two years and as an editor for over a year. He has 4 novels scheduled for publication. He’s proud of the fact that he rarely writes in the same genre twice. One of his novels is an EPPIE 2002 in the Thriller category. His website is at http://free_reads.tripod.com.