Last Updated on: January 26th, 2021
Today’s Featured Friday post is a guest post from sci-fi writer Massimo Marino, an award-winning author and scientist. He’s going to talk a bit about dialogue between characters in your novel as well as how they know what they know. He’ll also offer up a few suggestions for authors to consider when creating characters’ personas.
Take it away, Massimo!
The Most Boring Dialogue Ever
Last week I took the tram from CERN to the Cornavin Train Station. It’s a ride of some twenty minutes. At one stop, two young women sat near me. The moment they started to talk I knew they were American: they sprinkled their sentences with “like” and “you know.” I started counting; in five minutes they used the two phrases over a hundred times. “Like — you know — he called and, you know, he said — like — do you want, like, to do something?” “Like what did ya say?” “Like I told him, you know, like…” and on and on and on. Besides wanting to beat the story out of them without all the “likes” and “you knows” it proved me the point that we can’t copy real dialogue. Writers cannot write the way some people talk. Dialogue needs to sound true to the ear — a dilemma at best — and, yes, I admit I eavesdrop all the time, and watch, and have no desire to reform.
But it’s a great way to get story ideas and create personas for characters.
For example, how many times you heard the following conversation? It must be repeated millions of times each day, but it makes for boring reading.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello,” he said.
“How are you?” she asked.
“Fine,” he replied.
What to Do to Create Knowledgeable Characters
Before learning the ropes, many novices make the mistake of putting in too much information, things the other speaker knows already.
“Honey, I cannot take you to your Auntie Helen’s tonight, who lives next door at 113 Embury Avenue, and is married to your Uncle Ed. The car we bought only last year broke down; the red Mustang I use to drive you to work at the same supermarket as our neighbor, Sam.”
No character would ever talk like that! However, even though I exaggerated, I’ve seen things close to that in the first efforts from writers at their first words, especially in sci-fi stories.
Information should be imparted, but it has to be based on information the other speaker doesn’t know.
The information given is then more believable and advances the story as it makes the other speaker aware. Speaking of which, another thing to keep in mind in order to write proper dialogue is how much the characters know. Not all characters are born equal, nor are they just names and physical descriptions.
You have to think in terms of “personas” to understand the “whats,” the “hows,” and the “whys” of each of them.
You need to ask your characters specific questions.
Their answers are unique to each of them.
To do this, some authors create character cards, and build a personality for each character with many details; some characters will never appear in the story, but serve the purpose of creating their “persona” in the writer’s mind.
The important thing to keep in mind is that characters don’t know everything, nor will they in the story.
So, what could we ask our characters to help us understand what, how, and why they will react in a certain way as they travel through the plot?
The answers will help us understand their mutual interactions. It all depends on what they know.
Dialogue can also be used to show character. People can be assigned speech mannerisms like the word “like,” and this is okay, as long as it is not overdone.
Names can be dropped, as well as good manners. A man can talk down to women by calling all of them “Sweetie.”
A character’s educational level can be shown by the vocabulary used. A high school dropout might not use six-syllable words. A pretentious college professor would. However, if we use convoluted language for the professor we’ll lose our readers.
As Authors, We Need to Consider 4 Things
1. What do our characters know?
At any point in time, before any interaction, we need to know the level of knowledge characters have of elements of the plot. And if they do, the level of accuracy of that knowledge. If this information is blurred in the writer’s mind, actions, dialogues, interactions will negate the character “persona” and result phony or artificial, gimmicky and plain wrong to the reader. There’s nothing worse than a character saying or doing things based on information s/he can’t possibly have or suspect.
A cold chill slid up my spine as a pair of eyes stared at me intensely, carving holes into my back; the burning sensation of a bullseye glued to my neck. Rollerblade-girl was breathing hard behind me. “Thanks for coming,” I said, still seated and about to change position. I had the impression Rollerblade-girl jolted when I opened my mouth. “Who are you? And stay as you are, don’t turn to look at me! You didn’t trust me, I do not trust you.” She sounded determined. I didn’t move.
“Well, I do trust you now. I would not be here sitting like this otherwise. The people you saw are my wife and daughter. And they were worried for me. They still are. They…I…we wouldn’t have hurt you.” “Where are you coming from? Do you know what happened? Is everyone dead? How can that be true?” “From out of town, in the countryside, and could you stop shooting questions like darts?” “Funny you’re saying this.”
In the scene above, the two characters know nothing of each other. It is their first encounter. Rollerblade-girl can see the main character — 1st person narration — and information is exchanged. Also notice that in the whole dialogue we made use of only one “said.” You can show who’s talking by using action, and by using the information only one of the speaker can possibly know.
2. How do they know it?
This is a scene from Once Humans (Daimones Trilogy, Vol.2). Two characters meet, Dan and Marina. Only this last knows about the details of some disruptive events. Dan knows something happened and he’s enquiring and worried, Marina is evasive and pensive, but she has made already her mind up.
“Please, leave us alone.” I waited until the Council secretary left and closed the heavy wooden doors behind him.
“I was waiting for you,” Marina said.
She sat at the massive oak table, the centerpiece of the large Council Room and played with a sheet of paper, tearing pieces apart and making little balls that she placed in front of her. The balls formed an octagonal shape. “We cannot ignore it any longer.”
“I know,” I repeated and sat next to her. Her brown hair combed in a bun with two braids encircled the perfect oval of her face.
“The Moîrai have asked if we want them to intervene,” Marina said, and ripped another piece of paper.
“That is out of the question. We already discussed this. Did you change your mind?”
“No, not at all.” She looked straight into my eyes. My eyes held hers, captured. “I am glad your words match what I sense from you.”
“You know where I stand, Dan.” A smile rose to her face, and her hazel eyes, if possible, smiled even more than her full lips.
“How many are involved?”
Marina placed a new ball on the table. She sighed. “They don’t leave many traces behind. They’re careful, very careful.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything less. Did they leave the same sign?”
With a quick gesture, Marina gathered all the tiny balls and threw them into the garbage bin. “The same.”
Here again, notice the use of only three tag lines, twice ‘said’ and once ‘repeated.’ There’s no doubt who’s saying what.
3. What are the restrictions on what characters can tell and/or know?
The following takes place in The Rise of the Phoenix (Daimones Trilogy, Vol.3)
The Chief Scientist cleared his throat. “Well, the activated astrocytes have the ability to respond to almost all the neurotransmitters we embedded in the drug molecules and, upon activation, release a multitude of neuroactive molecules, which, in turn, will influence neuronal excitability.” He looked at his fellow scientist, who nodded with a smile. He smiled back. “Noxious signals will be followed by an action potential carried by nociceptive—or pain sensing—afferent neurons in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. At this stage, the Glioblastoma Multiforme of enhanced Grade VI will have started to spread causing cranial nerve disorder, and extensive areas of necrosis and hypoxia.” The two scientists freewheeled with scientific details and left us way behind. I watched them in awe for a few seconds. “The tumor growth,” the Chief Scientist continued, “will cause a breakdown of the blood–brain barrier, thus opening the way to the nanoparticle-mediated delivery of neoplastic enhancing molecules to further spread the tumor.”
“Hold on, hold on! We don’t follow you! What are you talking about?” Manfred erupted and slammed his fist on the table. “You’re not here to teach a lesson and impress your students.” The scientists blushed and would’ve replied, but Manfred hadn’t finished yet. “We’re risking annihilation as a race. Stop patting yourself on the shoulders—we’ll have time to honor your research if any of us gets out alive from this!”
Even if you can’t know from the above scenes who the scientists are — or Manfred — the words of the chief scientist resonate as if he’s lecturing an audience, satisfied with himself, not caring whether anyone but his fellow scientist understands: “He looked at his fellow scientist, who nodded with a smile. He smiled back.”
4. From what point in time, relative to the action you are describing, do the characters become involved with what they know?
How do you decide what your characters know? What strategies do you use to create personas for your characters? Do you make character cards? Let’s discuss these issues in the comments!
About Massimo Marino
His last work is a post-apocalyptic trilogy, the “Daimones Trilogy”. The human race is culled by one of the dominant races in the galaxy with plans for a transgenic new human race. Find out more about Massimo Marino on his website, connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+, and buy his award-winning books from Amazon.
Massimo Marino’s Awards
The “Daimones Trilogy”:
2012 PRG Reviewer’s Choice Award Winner in Science Fiction 2013 Hall of Fame – Best in Science Fiction, Quality Reads UK Book Club
2013 PRG Reviewer’s Choice Award Winner in Science Fiction Series
2014 Finalist – Science Fiction – Indie Excellence Awards L.A.