While this is closely aligned with characterization, it really does something a bit more. Good dialogue can make a character pop off the page and that’s exactly what we want to have happen as writers. But it’s not easy to do. Again, I’ll quote one of my favorite novelists:
“Dialogue is my favorite thing to write. It can be an elegant way to package some of a novel’s most crucial information. But you do have to work hard to keep it vernacular and well paced. I construct the fictional conversations in my head and listen carefully. It might seem easier to put words in the mouths of my own invented characters than the historical figures who also appear in the story—Frida and Diego, for example. But really there was little difference. By the time I’d read their personal diaries and everything else, their voices were coming through loud and clear. Sometimes their words came straight from the record. The conversations with my protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, are all invented, of course, but it was engaging to fit everything together. When I went into the studio to record the audio book, I realized I was hearing these characters plainly in my mind, so I did my best to replicate those accents and intonations. This meant acting out conversations between characters who were Mexican, Russian, French, Mexican American, Ashevillean, and so forth, in various combinations. If I thought too much about it, my brain might blow a fuse. So I just channeled the voices as I heard them.”
Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna
And here’s an example from that same novel:
“Señora, sorry to disturb. Olunda sent me to get your plates from lunch.”
“No wonder she won’t come fetch the dishes herself, she’s ashamed of that jocoque.” She glanced up. “Olunda la Rotunda. Do they still call her that?”
“Not if they’re still alive, señora.”
“How does she get so fat on her own cooking? Look at me, I’m vanishing.”
“Fried bread with syrup is her secret.”
She made a little puzzled scowl. “And you, skinny creature. What’s your name?”
“It didn’t please you much the first time. When you wrote it in the ledger.”
“Oh, that’s right, you’re that one. The unpronounceable.” She seemed to wake up, sitting up straighter. When she looks at you her eyes are like lit coals inside the hearth of those shocking eyebrows. “What does Diego call you?”
“Muchacho, mix some more plaster! Muchacho, bring me my lunch!”
She laughed. It was a good impersonation.
You definitely get a strong idea of the personalities of both the young protagonist, Harrison (who cooks and does odd jobs for the famous artists, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo) and the fiery Frida.
Next week, I’ll post something about dialogue in literary fiction, plus a list of techniques given by Karen Joy Fowler, the author of The Jane Austen Book Club. She definitely falls into the literary fiction camp, but many of her techniques apply to dialogue in genre fiction, as well.