Thursday, 18 March 2010

Hearing Voices - the Do's and Don'ts of Dialogue

First posted at the Awfully Big Blog Adventure which can be found here, these are some thoughts about writing dialogue.

If hearing voices is a form of saintliness or madness, all authors are mad saints. Creating characters means knowing them from the inside out and being able to ‘hear’ how they think and how they talk. An out-going, confident character will reflect that in his or her speech. A nervous character will sound diffident, hesitant, or perhaps more formal. The goal is to create a distinctive voice for each of the main characters. They should not all sound alike.

This is important even if you are writing in the first person. First person narratives can be in danger of sounding anonymous and samey. I’ve read a few first person teen novels which, apart from the names, you could be forgiven for assuming were all about the same heroine, a sort of generic ‘15/16 year old modern girl’. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s an expert at work:

You know that old film they always show on the telly at Christmas, the Wizard of Oz? I love it, especially the Wicked Witch of the West, with her cackle and her green face and all her special flying monkeys. I’d give anything to have a wicked winged monkey as an evil little pet. It could whiz through the sky, flapping its wings and sniffing the air for that awful stale instant-coffee-and-talcum powder teacher smell and then it would s-w-o-o-p straight onto Mrs Vomit Bagley and carry her away screaming.
(“The Dare Game”, Jacqueline Wilson, 2000)

And we know this girl. She’s exuberant, imaginative, funny, a rebel – Jacqueline Wilson’s ‘Tracy Beaker’. It looks easy, but it’s not. It would be VERY easy to write something similar but far less engaging:

There’s an old film they often show on the telly at Christmas, the Wizard of Oz. I’ve always loved it, and my favourite character is the Wicked Witch of the West. I like the way she cackles, and her green face, and all her special flying monkeys. I’ve always wished I could have a wicked winged monkey for a pet…

This has lost all its energy and sounds written down, not spoken.

Then there’s the pitfall of dialects and regional accents. Here, a little goes a very long way. Unless you yourself are steeped in a dialect or accent, it’s easy to get it wrong and sound phony. Avoid “begorrah’s” and “eeh, by gum’s”; avoid too many dropped ‘h’s’ and rhyming slang. Of course, if you are really at home with an accent, it can add enormously to your writing. In this extract, an eighteenth century Yorkshire drummer boy walks out of a hill – and out of his own time:

“I wasn’t so long,” said the drummer. “But I niver found nowt. I isn’t t’first in yon spot; sithee, I found yon candle. Now I’s thruff yon angle, and it hasn’t taken so long, them bells is still dinging. It’s a moy night getting. But come on, or they’ll have the gate fast against us and we’ll not get our piggin of ale.”
“Who are you?” said Keith.
“I thought thou would ken that,” said the boy. “But mebbe thou isn’t t’fellow thou looks in t’dark.”

“Earthfasts” William Mayne, 1966

If you’re not this confident (and most of us aren’t), be sparing in your use of dialect words. The reader will be able to use a few subtle pointers to ‘fill in’ the accent from his or her own experience, and that’s better than getting it wrong. Slight changes to grammar will sometimes help. A nineteenth century servant girl might be likely to say, “What was you thinking of, talking to the missus like that?” rather than, “What were you thinking of?” Be consistent, though. If she starts out talking like this, she has to keep it up.

If you are writing historical fiction, it’s better for your dialogue to sound timelessly modern, than to wallow in a sea of what Robert Louis Stevenson used to call ‘tushery’: peppering your dialogue with phony “forsooth’s”, “tush-tushes” and “by my halidom’s”. Modern writers are less likely to make this mistake, but note that ‘timelessly’ means you cannot use modern colloquialisms. Cavaliers and Victorians cannot convincingly use 20th century idioms like ‘OK’. Check the Oxford Dictionary if you’re not sure. There are always surprises. ‘Kid’ for ‘child’ goes right back to the eighteenth century.

Then there’s a disease to which fantasy writers in particular are terribly prone. I call it ‘Wizard’s Waffle’, and it involves using grammatical inversions and a stilted, archaic vocabulary in an attempt to make your character sound wise (and sometimes to conceal the fact that neither you nor he actually have very much to say.) It’s partly Tolkien’s influence: he uses deliberately ‘high’ or heroic language when he wants to emphasise the importance of an event. At the end of “The Return of the King”, characters sound positively Biblical. Aragorn, accepting the crown of Gondor, says:

“By the labour and valour of many I have come into my inheritance. In token of this I would have the Ring-bearer bring the crown to me, and let Mithrandir set it upon my head…for he has been the mover of all that has been accomplished, and this is his victory.”

It’s grand, but it’s dull: Aragorn’s character is completely submerged by the style. If he talked like this all the time, we would soon lose interest in him: fortunately, for most of the book, he doesn’t. But at least Tolkien, a Professor of Philology, knew how to handle archaic grammar and cadences. Many modern writers don’t – so if you are irresistibly tempted towards the ‘what-say-the-elves-on-this-matter’ type of dialogue, get the grammar right. The verb ‘to be’ used to be conjugated thus:

I am
Thou art (familiar singular)
Ye be/you are (polite singular)
He/she/it is
We are
You are (plural)
They are

This, of course, is why the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ with its thee’s and thou’s is actually the familiar way of speaking to God – not, as I used to think when I was little, a special dressed-up sort of way.

Two more often-misused verbs:

I have
Thou hast (familiar singular) 
You have (polite singular)
He/she/ it hath
We have 
You have (plural)
They have

I do
Thou dost (familiar singular)
You do (polite singular)
He/she/it doth
We do (plural)
You do (plural)
They do

Commit all this to memory and you will be preserved from Monty Pythonesque dialogue along the lines of, “Fair knight, I prithee tell me if ye art Sir Lancelot? For the omens doth foretell that only he canst save me.”

Mind you, in the right hands, all these rules can be creatively bent, twisted and broken. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld characters frequently say things like ‘OK’ and it doesn’t matter a bit, because Discworld is really our own world in a carnival mask – and Pratchett has wise and wonderful things to say about it.

When I was writing the Troll series, set in a Viking-Scandinavia-that-never-was, I tried my best to make the characters sound fresh without being too obviously modern. Vocabulary was one way. It may sound obvious, but you can’t have ‘battleship grey’ at a time before there are any grey battleships, for example. Angry people may ‘shout’, but should not ‘explode’, centuries before any grenades or bombs. At one point I thought very hard before allowing myself to use the verb ‘corkscrewed’ to describe a twisting underground passage. Clearly, Vikings didn’t have corkscrews. But I decided that, in context, no image of an actual corkscrew would spring incongruously to mind. I don’t mind the occasional anachronism – so long as I know it’s there…

In my latest book “Dark Angels” (“The Shadow Hunt” in the USA), set in the 12th century, there’s one character who sounds more modern than the others. His name is Halewyn, and he is – or masquerades as – a wandering jongleur, a sort of intinerant juggler-cum-minstrel. The boy, Wolf, is angry because Halewyn has brought an unguarded flame into the stables where the mysterious elf-girl is kept.

Halewyn stood in the glimmering drizzle, hanging his head so extravagantly that the donkey-ears on his cap drooped.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. He pounded his thin chest. “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Anything you’d like me to do in penance? Turn a somersault? Do three cartwheels across the yard, dodging the puddles? Sing a song standing on my head?”
Wolf couldn’t help laughing. “No, it’s all right. Just remember, flames are dangerous in stables and barns.”
“Oh, I will. I’ll be very, very careful.” Halewyn perked up. “At least I saw her,” he said buoyantly. “And now, take me to your leader.”

‘Take me to your leader.’ Why would I put such an iconic modern phrase into the mouth of a 12th century character? And the answer is: Because Halewyn isn’t quite what he seems. He is  – well, I'd better not say, but he’s immortal – and being immortal, I think he can transcend time and speak ‘out of turn’ and out of his century.


  1. I agree first person voices are tricky to get right... I spent ages working out a "horse" voice for the Great Horse with a special horse vocabulary and everything, yet had to keep deleting bits that sounded too much like me. Still, the horse was easier than trying to write a first person boy's voice. (I had a go at this in my Genghis Khan romance, but obviously failed miserably since it remains unpublished!)

    A book that impressed me was Kevin Brooks' "Candy" with a first person teenage girl's voice written by a man.

  2. I thought Bucephalos's 'voice' worked wonderfully, Katherine, so all your work certainly paid off. And that's the point - you do have to work at it! I haven't read 'Candy', but 'Till We Have faces' by C.S. Lewis is - I think - a fantastic success at writing in the female first person - his best book, in my opinion, and oddly from a man who in other respects did not have many women in his life.