I recently got some email from somebody enthused over my comics parodies (it happens), and they asked a question I started to answer in email but then, after realizing how much I was writing to them, that I might as well turn it into an article for the site.
The question was “how do you write dialogue so well?”
People may call me immodest for saying this, but I write good dialogue. (Modesty is just passive aggression described as a virtue anyhow.) I’m not nearly so good a descriptive writer as I am with dialogue. It’s a knack. Some people are just good at drawing, they have the natural instincts to make it all fit together even before they learn the skills to really improve themselves. I got dialogue. Go figure.
This is not to say that I am without flaw in this area. I tend to be overly verbose. My style is recognizable after a while (I can live with it, considering you can say the same about Warren Ellis or Joss Whedon). I have certain systemic tics in my writing that I only notice after I finish and start going back and editing (a tendency to start sentences with “and”, for example, is one of my big ones). But I am good at it.
One of the reasons I’m good at it is because I think a lot about character voice. I get the little bastards talking in my head and I know how they should be talking after a while of listening to them. And a trick I learned years ago to codify this is the revoicing trick.
The trick, which I pass on to you, is very simple and you’ve probably seen it elsewhere before, is this: take a famous passage, preferably a speech. Now rewrite that passage as if the character you want to write is saying it. I myself favour the Gettysburg Address, because it’s distinctive, not so long to make the work tedious, but not so short that you don’t learn anything in the process, and because it’s dramatic – Abraham Lincoln could write one hell of a speech. (Another good trick: imagine the character telling “the Aristocrats” joke.)
Consider, for example, Brainiac Five’s rendition of it.
Eighty-seven years ago our ancestors created a new nation here, dedicated to the principles of equality and liberty. Now we war against our own, and now we will learn if this experiment will work. Today, we come to Gettysburg to dedicate this cemetery to those who have fallen in battle – but our dedication pales in comparison to the dedication of those buried here. Long after history forgets my words, it will remember their sacrifice. It falls to us, today, to resolve ourselves to continue the struggle, that we be willing to sacrifice as greatly as they. We cannot allow their deaths to become pointless. We must ensure that our nation, our belief in equality and liberty, triumphs in this dark hour. We must.
Now, that’s my Brainy saying that, rather than Keith Giffen’s or Mark Waid’s or whomever. But I think it works. Consider what you learn about the character voice by doing this.
No flowery language. He’s a scientist, not a poet. Brainy uses long words when they’re technically appropriate, and the rest of the time he speaks for maximum comprehensibility (not least because he hates having to repeat himself). Also note: “eighty-seven” instead of, say, “eighty-seven point two one six”. He’s not a computer, and no reasonable listener needs to know down to the thousandth decimal point how accurate the timeframe is. (He knows the decimals, but you don’t say everything you know, after all.)
Stark, firm rhetoric. Brainy’s an idealist. He frames his moral argument in absolutes as much as possible – This Is How It Is, and This Is How It’s Going To Be. And his tone, while compelling, isn’t particularly friendly. Note “cannot,” rather than the more comfortable, personable “can’t.” Note the use of active voice wherever possible (which is just a good idea generally, really, but for a character like Brainy, a must).
No sarcasm. This isn’t to say that Brainy isn’t sarcastic – he is – but there’s a time and place, and this time and place aren’t appropriate for that sort of thing with him. (Conversely, Plastic Man might launch a few bombs.)
I hope that explains a bit to the person who asked how I try to build character voice up in my head. Remember that different characters should sound different, even when they’re saying the same sort of thing – but also remember that different characters should sound different because they are different characters, if that follows.
And, as another example, here’s somebody else. I’m curious to see if people can guess who it is: I’ll just say that it’s a major comics hero(ine) with their own title and leave it at that.
Ninety-odd years ago, our mothers and fathers made a new country out of nothing, where we were all free and we were all equal. Now we’re in the middle of a civil war, because not everybody agrees with the whole “free and equal” part nowadays. Here, where our friends and family have fallen, we’re going to build a final resting-place for them. They deserve that – but they also deserve our solidarity, because they paid the ultimate price for our freedom, and we owe them the willingness to pay that price ourselves, if we have to. We have to remember what they did for us, and we have to use that memory to keep fighting, for as long as we have to fight. And we’re going to win, because we have to win.