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Here's a critique I've received more than once: "your character talks like a character from a book. He's too eloquent, nobody really talks like that, unless they grew up in a library."

Now, to some extent, characters not talking like we really do is an acceptable break from reality: interjections, pauses when we look for the right word etc. break the flow of the narrative, so they would only be used to that deliberate effect, and sparingly, or they get annoying. (See also TV Tropes: Realistic Diction is Unrealistic and discussion of the trope here)

However, the flip side of this coin is, if I have a modern teenager saying "I will not forsake the land of my forefathers", I'm breaking the readers' suspension of disbelief. My character might reasonably feel like this, but that's not how he would express his feelings. And the moment my character has become to my readers "a character from a book" rather than "a human", I've lost their sympathy for him.

How do I keep to the golden mean between those two problems? What techniques can I use to ensure my characters talk in a way that's neither too bookish, nor too literal? My goal is for the dialogue to feel natural (even though it really isn't - see links above), so readers listen to what is being said, while how it's being said becomes transparent, or else enhances the story - definitely doesn't distract. The question is particularly pertinent for main characters: side characters with little "screen time" can get away with verbal tics that would become annoying in the characters whose speech one has to follow all the time.

  • 1
    If you are looking for a masterclass in dialogue you can do a lot worse than picking up a copy of Talking Heads by Alan Bennett. I studied it at college and it left a lasting impression on me. – Matthew Brown aka Lord Matt Jun 15 at 15:27
6

What techniques can I use to ensure my characters talk in a way that's neither too bookish, nor too literal?

Read more! Read books written in a plain style, with no purple prose or that rely a lot on rare words. You'll pick up that plain, dry style, and you'll be able to use it in your own writing. You could be interested in Hemingway, from what I've seen he uses a very plain style, with terse descriptions, and relies heavily on short, almost child-like dialogue.

Practice simplifying dense prose. Try taking some dense, verbose prose, and put it in simpler terms. For example, take this passage from Dagon by Lovecraft:

Though one might well imagine that my first sensation would be of wonder at so prodigious and unexpected a transformation of scenery, I was in reality more horrified than astonished; for there was in the air and in the rotting soil a sinister quality which chilled me to the very core.

This is my attempt at dumbing down the language without changing the ideas:

The change in the scenery was so unexpected, that my first reaction wasn't amazement, but terror. There was something in the air, and in the rotting soil, something that managed to deeply unset me.

Same principle applies to dialogue: how can you say something in simpler terms, without changing the meaning?

Improvise. Finally, don't overthink dialogue when you're writing. The more you do, the more likely you are to end up with over-embellished lines that don't sound natural at all.

Write down the first thing that comes to mind, as if you were actually talking to someone. Maybe take out an inanimate object (such as a rubber duck), and talk to it.

Write your improvised idea down. Then let it simmer in your head (you know how you always think of the best comeback after the discussion is over?) until you come up with a better version. Of course, by "better" I mean make it wittier, tighter, funnier, etc... -- "how do I make it more complicated?" should be the last thing you should ask yourself.

This quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is very relevant:

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.


Online tools to measure text complexity and word frequency. Since I've written this answer, it has occurred to me that there are two tools you can use to measure the complexity of your text, and decrease it.

The first one is text readability calculators. As the site puts it:

In general, these tests penalize writers for polysyllabic words and long, complex sentences. Your writing will score better when you: use simpler diction, write short sentences.

The second one is word frequency lists. You input a word, and they tell you how (un)common that word is. The interface on this website is a bit clunky, but it does a nice job at highlighting uncommon words.

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    "It's easy to think you'd be amazed, if it happened to you, but the fouled air and rotting soil were chilling." – Jedediah Jun 4 at 21:56
4

You still want your dialogue to be real speech. It's just cleaned up speech.

If you have a critique group, read the scene out loud to them. Ditto if you have people willing to read drafts. You'll catch a lot of the worst sounding parts just in the act of reading. Your group will catch more.

You can also have someone real it out loud to you, while you sit with a separate printout and a red pen. Circle all the parts that are off.

Once you have your dialogue in decent shape, find the readers who are like the character. If you have teenagers talking, recruit some teenagers to listen or to read, but out loud. You won't have to ask twice to figure out which parts don't land right.

When you translate speech from real life to the page, you aren't formalizing it. I think that's your problem; you are changing the way the character says it. Instead, you want to do what radio interview programs do. Take out the ummm's and the stutters and the pauses. Don't have your characters say "like" 20 times in 5 minutes. It's not about making it more "bookish" but in keeping the reader's attention and making it easy to read.

Also consider code switching. A modern teenager speaks differently to peers vs adults. Even when conveying exactly the same information.

4

Great writers do more than just say, "in real life people don't do X, so my characters mustn't do X". They understand why people don't do X, thereby informing their understanding of their own characters' likely in-universe behaviours. (Of course, sometimes writers do something unrealistic anyway, but let's sideline that observation for the moment).

Why aren't people eloquent in real life? Sure, it takes effort. But if you genuinely believed you needed eloquence in a given context, either to be understood or to suitably affect others, you would find a way. People do it; people watch every word when they're slowly working through a sentence in a foreign language to ask for directions, or when they're answering such an obviously slow question coming from someone who can't be expected to otherwise follow the reply, or when they're making a "conventional" political speech. On the other hand, when in most real-life circumstances we can get away with something easier, that's what we do.

To be clear, "ineloquent" speech isn't a sign of being thick or uneducated, or talking to someone else who is - not, at least, if the feedback you've received meant what I think it does. I'm a software engineer, so when I talk with colleagues at work some very heavy-duty concepts fly in every direction. Here's how the conversation might go if someone in the office is new, or new to something specific we're talking about, no matter how many of us have PhDs (I used to work somewhere with one non-PhD coder who got teased for being the odd one out):

"I'm having trouble with the effects of R's parallelisation on string interpolation."

"Why don't you convert any vector arguments to lists?"

"I have discovered interpolation is unusual in applying the SIMD parallelisation characteristic of R even to lists."

"That suggests a need to cast either object type to a string within an argument."

Now here's how it goes if this problem arises, say, a week into us familiarising ourselves with R:

"Darn it, R's looping when I put a list in this message."

"Seriously, a list?"

"Just when I thought it couldn't tick me off any more."

"Guess you've gotta turn it into text."

That's what belongs in your writing. Make your characters cognizant of how little it takes for their speech to have the desired effect on their audience. That "forefathers" example actually works, with the right in-universe audience.

(Also, I've avoided profanity because this is SE, but your writing can differ.)

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I used cleaned up speech; but I only use words I have actually heard people use in casual speech (or at least feel like I have heard used).

I think the trick is to stick with things real people say in conversation. To some extent this depends on the character and how well they are educated, but not very much.

I was a college professor and I am currently a research scientist; I attended college for 12 years. I have worked with (or for) a handful of people that were extremely wealthy. I haven't notice anything but very subtle differences in the casual speech patterns of either the highly educated or the very wealthy. A lack of harsh expletives, usually; but even that is not a constant.

If anything is different in the highly educated, it is occasional specificity; using a technical or medical term when it is called for. But that is seldom called for; they may know their infraspinatus muscle hurts, but unless they are talking to a doctor about it, like anybody else they are going to say their shoulder hurts. Very few highly educated adults are the social dimwits wildly overrepresented in fiction, their knowledge is only on display when they think it will be understood; not to impress somebody or alienate them. If they speak they have a desire to communicate and will use words nearly everyone knows.

There may be one other distinguishing element: They tend to use words correctly and pronounce them correctly (although pronunciation may differ in America, UK, or other countries that vary on the same word; e.g. "aluminum". "uh LOO min um" vs. "aluminium" "ahh loo MIN ee um". Or "petri" may be pronounced "pee tree" in America or "Pet tree" in the UK; though I I've been in American labs where lifelong American scientists only use the UK pronunciation.

The same goes for the wealthy. As proven by Trump and the majority of the Congress that are multi-millionaires, as well as unscripted interviews with very wealthy actors, musicians sports stars and other entertainers, you can't really tell that somebody is wealthy just by listening to their off-the-cuff speech. Even when they don't know they are being taped.

I think this is a simplistic answer; in both senses. A simple solution is to use simple words. For dialogue, use the adverbs and simple adjectives we really use. And use an informal language pattern, but clean out 98% of the non-verbal sounds, pauses, trail offs, sentence restarts, mispronunciations, etc.

For highly educated people talking to others, occasionally interject the right technical term if the other person will understand it, and avoid errors in their grammar and speech. Presume they can use their intelligence to communicate well with almost any audience, without alienating them.

2

As you've pointed out, realism is just a style, your problem is making sure the way your characters talk isn't distracting, which is a function of two things: Consistency and expectation. The first is easy (to describe!): However any given character talks, it should be consistent. If it changes it will call unwanted attention to itself.

The tougher question is expectation --which is what you are running up against. Some of this is stylistic. If your book is clearly less realist, the language can be more fanciful. But if your book is in a realist mode, readers will expect the language to match. By current standards, that will mean that everyone speaks standard English, at a not too advanced level, with a sprinkling of modifications for flavor (a little slang for a teenager, an old-fashioned word or two for an older person, some longer words for a professor, or a judicious amount of non-standard grammar for a person from the wrong side of the tracks). That's because the modern style is typically to hint at distinctive speech patterns, rather than to render them fully (except in cases where you DO want to call attention to the speech patterns themselves). The idea is that the reader grasps the meaning directly, and then automatically translates it into the character's voice, versus having to work harder to grasp the meaning across the barrier of the idiolect.

If you have a character who you want to habitually speak in an elevated register, your best bet is to provide the reader with an explanation --she is a child prodigy, or a heavy reader, or the child of a professor, or an aspiring writer, or so forth. This is basically a form of lampshading. You acknowledge the speech patterns, and give a reason, and that allows your reader to accept it and move on.

1

Yeah I talk like I swallowed a thesaurus at birth, my writing is even worse, I get around it by rarely writing characters who could be construed as being poorly educated.

When I need to write a character who doesn't have the equivalent of a masters degree I write the basic dialogue as I would say it then reverse thesaurus it, taking the polysyllabic terms I'm familiar with and reducing them to the simplest synonyms I can find. Then I look at word order, if you change some sentences around they sound distinctly low brow. Sometimes it also pays to foreshorten certain terms, properly becomes proper as an example.

One of my favourite examples goes as follows:

"Speak English properly, like I do."

Becomes

"Speak proper England like what I do."

My solution for you is the same one I give a lot of people about a lot of issues in writing particular styles: find someone who writes the style you want to use, read all their works that fit with that style until you understand the key points you need to hit and can do so consistently. In this case find someone who writes a good working class character with a working class vocabulary and working class sensibilities and read those characters until you can recite existing, and then improvise new, dialogue parts for them.

One final thought get the extremes and the middle will take care of itself, individual characters will rarely be as highly educated, nor as uneducated, as you can make them once you master the top and bottom of the vocabulary scale but once you can work at both ends a moderate character who fits somewhere on the middle ground is relatively easy.

  • Do you mean to say "speak proper England"? – Cyn Jun 2 at 18:14
  • @Cyn Yes it's a somewhat facetious why of suggesting that while the person saying it means to impugn your use of the English language their own standard of English isn't much better than what you have demonstrated. I hear it used most often when someone uses non-existent contractions like "ain't" in a sentence that goes "ain't's not a word you should speak good England like what I do." – Ash Jun 2 at 18:29
  • I wasn't sure :-) – Cyn Jun 2 at 18:32
  • @Cyn Fair enough, it doesn't write out as well as it works as audible speech that's for sure, normally you use a cockney accent. – Ash Jun 2 at 18:33
  • Ahhhh...that would be better. – Cyn Jun 2 at 18:46
1

I have characters like this, and a lot of teen characters at that. There are teens who will talk like this (Nerds who read. Socially Awkward kids. Motivational speeches trying to sound important, debate team nerds, drama nerds, and occasionally class clowns who are mocking the older diction).

One of my favorite scenes I ever wrote went drama nerd approach where the two buddies in the drama club are discussing the roles they want in the schools upcoming production of Othello. The protagonist wants to try out for the character of Iago, the Villain of the work. His buddy is insisting that he go for Othello because he's a great actor and really should get the lead role (for the record, the protagonist is African-American but the work is set in a future of about 50+ years from modern time... this part was to subtly set up that no one really cared about skin color. Othello is traditionally an African Man in an otherwise all European cast.) Any so they're having this fight when a third friend, who's never read the play, sits down and they ask her what she thinks on the matter. The buddy makes his case, followed by the Hero, who argues that Iago is the best villain of all time. The third friend looks at our hero with wide eyes and responds "The PARROT?!"

It got a better laugh from the table than I thought it would, but I felt that the argument from two teenagers was getting a little too intellectual for their age. It had served the purpose of establishing their intelligent side that we would need to rely on having, the nature of the world they lived in, and established some nice forshadowing or irony for later. Character number three was brought in to bring it back home because, even though teenagers are capable of having intellectual debates about Shakespeare and other works of literature, there still are those that are so well read and will default to something less high brow (Not a slam against Disney, I think they are generally producers of quality products, but they aren't Shakespeare).

Another good way to fix these is to do something from "Angel" season 5. The Character Gunn has something important to discuss with Angel and approaches his office only for the secrtary to tell him he's in a meeting with long time argument partner Spike (the two are vampires and are from the same line... and they typically can't agree on much but can work together). Gunn can't wait and barges in on Angel in Spike engaged in one of their more heated arguments and getting into a very, very intellectually fueled debate about some threat to them that will need to be solved and how to best go about that. Gunn finally interrupts and asked what the problem is and if it's something that he should raise with the rest of their gang. Angel and Spike look around in a sheepish matter and finally admit what they've been shouting about for 45 minutes prior to the scene starting: "Who would win in a fight between Cavemen and Astronauts?" Gunn tries to help settle it for them and asks if, in this scenario, weapons were allowed. Both combatants in unision agree the answer is a resounding No, in a tone that suggests that they decided only after one nearly killed the other over the point.

Here, the dialog works for two reasons: First, the two characters are easily at each other's throats all the time on the show, and often have bouts back and forth over other alarming concerns they have to deal with. Without context, the two characters sound like they are actually dealing with a very serious matter of great importance. Secondly, it works because the debate Modern vs. Primordial Who will win becomes a driving element of the entire plot of the episode and the initial debate is being discussed by other characters who heard of the silliness subject of the fight... only for both characters to take sides... priming the audience for when the hypothetical debate becomes very very closer to home and the crisis of the week.

TLDR: Use it with some humorous retorts and twisting.

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