Saturday, 3 March 2012

Workshop: Dialogue to Develop Character

Walter Shuler blogs here about how dialogue can develop character. Today I want to look at that and see if we can apply that practice to our writing in a meaningful way.

As Shuler writes:
The interactions between your characters not only flesh out the people that populate your fictional worlds in the minds of your readers, but they’re windows on the way your world works. That’s true whether you’re writing the next sprawling heir to Tolkien’s fantasy crown or a hard-boiled detective novel. Without good dialogue, your readers will eventually lose interest and leave.
In other words, dialogue not only characterises the cast of your fictional world--it also characterises that fictional world itself. Language implies culture and context too.

So let's take a look, for example, at a slice of dialogue from Pulp Fiction (quoted here, as is, from IMDb):
Jules: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa... stop right there. Eatin' a bitch out, and givin' a bitch a foot massage ain't even the same fuckin' thing.
Vincent : It's not. It's the same ballpark.
Jules : Ain't no fuckin' ballpark neither. Now look, maybe your method of massage differs from mine, but, you know, touchin' his wife's feet, and stickin' your tongue in her Holiest of Holies, ain't the same fuckin' ballpark, it ain't the same league, it ain't even the same fuckin' sport. Look, foot massages don't mean shit.
Vincent : Have you ever given a foot massage?
Jules : [scoffs] Don't be tellin' me about foot massages. I'm the foot fuckin' master.
Vincent : Given a lot of 'em?
Jules : Shit yeah. I got my technique down and everything, I don't be ticklin' or nothin'.
Vincent : Would you give a guy a foot massage?
[Jules gives Vincent a long look, realizing he's been set up]
Jules : Fuck you.
Vincent : You give them a lot?
Jules : Fuck you.
Vincent : You know, I'm getting kinda tired. I could use a foot massage myself.
Jules : Man, you best back off, I'm gittin' a little pissed here.
So first of all, what do we notice? Firstly, Vincent's dialogue is much shorter than Jules'. Vincent is more to the point, he's drier, and more sarcastic. He seems calmer. Jules, on the other hand, uses more contractions and non-standard expressions. If we look at some of his more verbose outbursts throughout the film, his language is also more colourful and creative than Vincent's. Though Jules may not be an educated man, he is clearly an intelligent one and a man with passion.

Tellingly, Jules also uses the term 'bitch' to refer to a woman. This suggests class, attitude and culture. This is the language of gangsters and of the 'ghetto'. Even if you haven't seen the film, from Jules' use of the double negative and street slang, you might deduce that he is black. This is relying on stereotypes, of course, but stereotypes give broad brushstrokes of recognition, and so can be useful in subverting or establishing audience expectations.

The trick, of course, is to develop stereotypes into something three-dimensional. This is done by adding nuance and depth. For instance, Jules waxes lyrical about scripture and attempts to make amends for his past actions by seeking a new, more spiritual direction in life. Meanwhile Vincent, a heroin user, is revealed to have plenty of knowledge of popular culture and trivia. He has a sense of honour, which includes loyalty to his 'boss' and a kind of old-fashioned chivalry (compare his use of 'lady' to Jules' 'bitch'). He is shown reading on the toilet and so, even though his dialogue is less complicated than Jules', we get a hint of depth and reflection, echoed elsewhere in his behaviour. He is not the quiet, loyal killer (the samuarai) we might initially expect. Neither is he your run-of-the-mill junkie.

Such details don't always justify a person's negative traits, nor should they need to. But they do humanise characters and therefore increase the audience's empathy for them. This means characters become more than sketches.

You might, of course, choose to invert a stereotype. This in itself, however, can still be two-dimensional if the concept isn't taken any further. White rasta stoners can be as irritating in writing as more familiar stereotypes, precisely because, on their own, they're lazy realisations--inverting a stereotype requires only slightly more thought than using a stereotype as is. It reduces characters to concepts rather than believable, compelling personalities.

Looking beyond the characters themselves, we can see how the dialogue also sets the tone of the world. Tarantino's characters have a fascination with consumerism. Their hip dialogue establishes theirs as a glossy postmodern world of surface. This gives us a key for how to read the film and the events that take place in it. But we also learn this is a brutal world, where misogyny, homophobia and racism are present. Violence is omnipresent, and the on-screen brutality of the characters' actions is reinforced by their frequent swearing and the brutality of their language. Nevertheless, the characters revel in life and inhabit their postmodern world with relish. They obsess over detail and the trivial; they divert attention away from the horrors around them as readily, at times, as they draw attention to it.

Consider also the use of slang and the common expressions a character uses. Let's take, as an example, a fantasy world where all the 'good guys' are vampires. Perhaps theirs is a largely nocturnal world, where sunlight rarely appears. If sunlight is damaging to these vampires, their language might reflect this. Such phrases as 'the sunshine of my life' and 'sunny disposition' would have very different meanings on such a world. Instead characters would be more likely to see the darkness as safe and nurturing, and sunlight as dangerous and harmless. But it goes beyond inverting 'the sunshine of my life' to 'the darkness of my life'. Think about the cultural significance of words like 'black', 'dark', 'gloomy', etc. Would lightness be preferrable to heaviness? Would warmth still be valued over cold?

This example can be extrapolated to other settings. In a world where drug use is an accepted and encouraged part of daily life, the word 'teetotal' would carry very different connotations than it does now. There are also differences between contemporary real-world cultures that should be reflected in dialogue in order to flesh out the reality of your story. If your character is a Thai Buddhist, her attitude to feet would be very different to those of a foot-worshipping BDSM slave. Calling someone 'conservative' at a Republican dinner party would carry different values than at a socialist rally. How you develop the language of your characters shapes the way we see your world.

Now get out your pen and paper (or open your word processing software) and get writing that dialogue!

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