It’s a sad fact that, in fiction, characters occasionally have to speak. That speech can be stilted, boring, and utilitarian, or it can be something that the readers look forward to. There are ways of making it the latter, and we’ll look at authors who have mastered them.
Garth Ennis: Making Each Character Sound Different
Garth Ennis is a comic book writer who had celebrated runs on The Punisher and Hellblazer and created series like Preacher, about a renegade preacher who has a score to settle with god, and The Boys, about a group of people who have a score to settle with superheroes. He has a rare quality among writers. His characters all sound different. This isn’t required for fiction—some writers are more interested in evoking a unified mood than making their characters distinct—but it’s a skill that many could stand to learn.
Ennis was born in Northern Ireland, which probably helps. The Brits and the Brit-adjacent can’t walk twenty feet in any direction without hearing a different accent, which I think gives them a leg-up on the great swaths of American linguistic uniformity. Still, it’s interesting to see how each character gets a different cadence, a different level of energy, and a different set of assumptions which steer their conversation. In a world where a lot of characters just talk like the person writing them, that’s impressive.
Hilary Mantel: Conversations that Make the Characters Think
In novels, we don’t just observe the characters talking. We get to step into and out of their heads while they talk. It’s better when they do mix the exterior dialogue with interior monologues, because both a wall of text and pages of exclusive back-and-forth are irritating to read. So what’s best are conversations during which each character can take a little time to think about what they are saying.
Hilary Mantel often writes books that are right on the edge of genre fiction. Her work, Fludd, is possibly about a religious visitor to a bleak English town, and possibly not. Her work, Beyond Black, is possibly about ghosts or possibly not. Her most famous work is the Wolf Hall trilogy, about Thomas Cromwell, counselor and, some would say, henchman to Henry VIII. The novels span decades and include a wide cast of characters, so each conversation has to both entertain us, and give us an update, and a wider view, or a look into the secret aspects of someone’s character.
‘Late,’ Master Stephen says unpleasantly.
He is bland. ‘Me, or your good self?’
‘You.’ He waits.
‘Drunks on the river. The boatmen say it’s the eve of one of their patron saints.’
‘Did you offer a prayer to her?’
‘I’ll pray to anyone, Stephen, till I’m on dry land.’
‘I’m surprised you didn’t take an oar yourself. You must have done some river work, when you were a boy.’
Stephen sings always on one note. Your reprobate father. Your low birth. Stephen is supposedly some sort of semi-royal by-blow: brought up for payment, discreetly, as their own, by discreet people in a small town. They are wool-trade people, whom Master Stephen resents and wishes to forget; and since he himself knows everybody in the wool trade, he knows too much about his past for Stephen’s comfort. The poor orphan boy!
Master Stephen resents everything about his own situation. He resents that he’s the king’s unacknowledged cousin. He resents that he was put into the church, though the church has done well by him. He resents the fact that someone else has late-night talks with thecardinal, to whom he is confidential secretary. He resents the fact that he’s one of those tall men who are hollow-chested, not much weight behind him; he resents his knowledge that if they met on a dark night, Master Thos. Cromwell would be the one who walked away dusting off his hands and smiling.
‘God bless you,’ Gardiner says, passing into the night unseasonably warm.
Cromwell says, ‘Thanks.’
The pissiness of one character lets us explore the real-world reasons why he is pissy, and gives us a break before passing on to the next part of the book.
Gail Simone: The Sounds of Friendship
Gail Simone is known for weaving comedy into her writing. From her early work on the Deadpool-inspired Agent X to her later, darker work on series like Villains United and Secret Six, she peppers her writing with quirkiness and one-liners. But light or dark, what she’s done most over the years is write team books, in which a group of characters have to sound like they know each other well, even when they’re not talking about each other.
Letting two people be on the same page while one person lags behind, having everyone muse about a subject (romance, honor, eggs for breakfast) instead of constructing a back-and-forth conversation, and letting people immediately flip-flop on their previous positions because they feel comfortable enough to reverse themselves, are all ways to let the readers know that the characters are attached to each other and casual. They have their guard down.
Lois Lowry: Using Inarticulateness to Make a Point
Maybe it’s the fact that she’s a young adult writer, but Lois Lowry is at her best when her characters can’t quite get out what they want to say. One major problem when people write kids, especially as secondary characters, is they come across as miniature adults, able to describe exactly what they want, need, or observe. One of the problems with childhood is being intellectually stumped, or bowled over, when you’re trying to get a concept across to someone with more experience. Here’s a key conversation in The Giver, between a boy and his parents in a futuristic, dystopian society.
“Do you love me?”
There was an awkward silence for a moment. Then Father gave a little chuckle. “Jonas. You, of all people. Precision of language, please!”
“What do you mean?” Jonas asked. Amusement was not at all what he had anticipated.
“Your father means that you used a very generalized word, so meaningless that it’s become almost obsolete,” his mother explained carefully.
Jonas stared at them. Meaningless? He had never before felt anything as meaningful…
“And of course our community can’t function smoothly if people don’t use precise language. You could ask, ‘Do you enjoy me?’ The answer is ‘Yes,’” his mother said.
“Or,” his father suggested, ” ‘Do you take pride in my accomplishments?’ And the answer is wholeheartedly ‘Yes.’”
“Do you understand why it’s inappropriate to use a word like ‘love’?” Mother asked.
Jonas nodded. “Yes, thank you, I do,” he replied slowly.
This problem doesn’t leave us in childhood. We all get flustered sometimes and are unable to put a concept, or an explanation, into words—even if later the explanation seems straightforward. Accurately portraying these moments of inarticulateness is as important as actual conversation.
Paul Cornell: Putting the Right People in the Room
Comics are an industry that relies on a lot of stunts. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Stunts force people to be imaginative and audacious and weird and, at the same time, self-aware. It doesn’t have to be about over-the-top crazy events. It can be about the right people getting together. The most sparkling conversation doesn’t have an impact unless it’s between characters who have something to say together.
Paul Cornell knows to throw together the heavyweights. He’s written on Doctor Who (a show that allows writers to bring together the best characters from all space and time), and done work on a huge variety of comics, but he showed he knew who to pick—from a universe full of characters—when he did a story about Lex Luthor. First we see Lex Luthor have a talk with Death herself:
It’s a review of his life, during which they talk about morality, skepticism, atheism, the state of the universe, and why Lex Luthor can’t be anything other than a supervillain. (He makes essentially the same speech as Satan from Paradise Lost.)
Then, just to top it off, we get to see how Lex Luthor fares with the other arch-fiend of the DC Universe, the Joker.
It doesn’t go well.
Mary Doria Russell: Give the Characters Common Interests
Russell’s books, which range all over the map from science fiction, The Sparrow and Children of God, to moody westerns, like Doc and Epitaph. One common thread among them is that the characters are passionately interested in a few subjects, and that they gravitate to other characters who are interested in the same thing.
Done the wrong way, this can lead to the kind of conversations that play out in college dorm rooms, but it can also be interesting. In The Sparrow, a group of characters are sent to a distant planet to make first contact with an alien race. Not all the characters are interested in the same thing but it’s a research team going on the Catholic Church’s dime, so certain members are intensely interested in subjects like theology, linguistics, geology, and, because the first thing they heard from the world was music, musicology.
They talk about these things, sometimes all of those things in one conversation.
“We all make vows, Jimmy. And there is something very beautiful and touching and noble about wanting good impulses to be permanent and true forever,” she said. “ . . . .But two or twelve or twenty years down the road, the lawyers are negotiating the property settlement.”
“You and George didn’t go back on your promises.”
She laughed. “Lemme tell ya something, sweetface. I have been married at least four times, to four different men.” She watched him chew that over for a moment before continuing, “They’ve all been named George Edwards but, believe me, the man who is waiting for me down the hall is a whole lot different animal from the boy I married, back before there was dirt. Oh, there are continuities. He has always been fun and he has never been able to budget his time properly and - well, the rest is none of your business.”
“But people change,” he said quietly.
“Precisely. People change. Cultures change. Empires rise and fall. Shit. Geology changes! Every ten years or so, George and I have faced the fact that we have changed and we’ve had to decide if it makes sense to create a new marriage between these two new people.” She flopped back against her chair. “Which is why vows are such a tricky business. Because nothing stays the same forever. Okay. Okay! I’m figuring something out now. . . . Maybe because so few of us would be able to give up something so fundamental for something so abstract, we protect ourselves from the nobility of a priest’s vows by jeering at him when he can’t live up to them, always and forever.”
Giving characters a common interest—and having them be passionate about it—lets readers watch them attack that interest instead of simply listening to utilitarian dialogue.
Douglas Adams: Engineering Misunderstandings
Misunderstandings are tough to write because they require questioning all the assumptions that people make when they’re trying to convey information. To make a misunderstanding happen, two people have to have a dialogue, sometimes for pages, each believing that they can only mean one thing—while they’re talking about two different things.
Adams makes these misunderstandings broad because he wants to be funny. In Life, the Universe, and Everything, a whole sequence starts with a pun:
“I have detected,” he said, “disturbances in the wash.” …
“The wash?” said Arthur.
“The space-time wash,” said Ford. …
Arthur nodded, and then cleared his throat. “Are we talking about,” he asked cautiously, “some sort of Vogon laundromat, or what are we talking about?”
“Eddies,” said Ford, “in the space-time continuum.”
“Ah,” nodded Arthur, “is he? Is he?” He pushed his hands into the pocket of his dressing gown and looked knowledgeably into the distance.
“What?” said Ford.
“Er, who,” said Arthur, “is Eddy, then, exactly, then?”
The pun and the setting are unusual, but a misunderstanding is the most usual thing in the world—ask any lawyer. One of the most common types of conversations are the ones that leave each person with a completely different impression of what was said. And this can cause major problems later on—but we’ll get to that when we discuss plot.