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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Your Characters Talk Funny

     I reread a few old favorites of mine recently and I've noticed one thing in a few of them that makes me absolutely crazy: Characters using each other's names in dialogue constantly.

Was this a writing trend of some sort that I didn't know about? I ask because a lot of authors I really enjoyed have done this to the point where it distracts me from the story. I guess it mustn't have bothered me to this degree back before I started writing seriously, but now? It makes me lose my mind. One book had a long paragraph of dialogue and the hero used the heroine's name three times in that stretch. It was so jarring that I stopped reading and counted.

I've blogged about this before because it really is hugely annoying and it's very unrealistic. Two people alone having a conversation will almost never use the other's name. I promise you this.

If you're a writer, listen to a conversation with only two people present. Listen to as many conversations as you need until it registers. People rarely use each other's names when they're talking unless there are more than two people and someone is speaking specifically to one person and not the group.

Character dialogue should mirror the way people truly talk in some ways—like almost never using names—and not in others. (An example of this is no one wants to read the boring, pointless small talk that's part of real life.) I always do a search for my hero and heroine's names while I'm revising my story and I look for instances of use in conversation. Nine times out of ten, I delete the name. You don't need it.

If you're worried about making it clear who's speaking, do it with a simple he said, she said. Or with movement/emotion:

Mary put her hands on her hips and glared. "If you think you're putting my sister behind bars, you better think again. She's innocent and I'll prove it if it's the last thing I do."
"You go right ahead. We have enough evidence to lock her up for a good, long time." John pulled his hands from his pockets and moved behind his desk.

Rough, but you get the idea.

Don't believe me about how two people don't use each other's names when they're talking? Go some place easy to overhear conversations. Park yourself there and listen.

This will also help you to write different people than what you're used to hearing every day. I've been doing a lot of listening since I moved to Atlanta. I'm being exposed regularly to very many different ways of speaking, of putting sentences together, than what I was used to hearing in Minnesota. There are two men from Tennessee in my department, but one's from the east of the state and the other from the western side, one rural and one urban. They talk very differently from each other and have different accents.

That cube also has someone from New York. Next cube over from there has someone from Boston. Across the hall is a man who's from Greece. My cube mate is from Texas and doesn't have what I think of as a Texas accent. There's also Alabama, California, and many other states represented. I'm learning. This is what a writer does. You listen. You learn. You take this education and bring it to the page when you write your characters—especially dialogue.