Who a character is affects how that character speaks and the content of the dialogue. To examine how that effect, I looked at passages from the same two books from last week's article Dialogue, Pace, and Genre.
Time Period, Character, And Dialogue
When a character exists in time influences who that person is. Time frame also generally changes how all the characters speak.
The Seven Sisters (published in 2015) takes place in two different time periods: present day and the 1920s.
In The Seven Sisters, compared to the 1920s characters (Bel and Laurent), our present-day characters (Maia and Floriano):
- use more contractions
- speak in shorter sentences
- more often use casual language, such as “thanks” rather than “thank you” and “okay” rather than “yes”
Phantom Prey (published in 2008) takes place in present day. Compared to all four characters in The Seven Sisters, in Phantom Prey, characters Lucas and Weather:
- use more contractions
- speak in much shorter sentences on average
- use casual phrasing more often
What The Characters Care Most About
The content of dialogue changes based on the key conflict of the novel. The protagonist, and most side characters, are most concerned with that conflict, so it's the focus of most of their conversations.
For instance, in The Seven Sisters, the present-day plot revolves around Maia, who was adopted, finding her birth family. Bel, the protagonist of the 1920s story, faces an arranged marriage and a restricted life and longs to be a freer spirit. The two stories are connected through a sculpture significant to both their families.
In keeping with these conflicts, on 87-92, Maia and Floriano (present-day) talk about:
- a famous sculpture
- Maia's quest to find her birth relatives
- the history of the part of Brazil where Maia was adopted
Bel and Laurent (1920s) on pages 194-197 talk about:
- Laurent's life as an artist and assisting a sculptor in Paris
- Bel's unhappiness with her family and life in Brazil
- Bel's arranged marriage
- The freer life Bel could have in Paris weighed against her obligations to her family
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Phantom Prey is a crime and suspense novel. On pages 25-29, Lucas and Weather talk about:
- Weather's friend, whose daughter is missing, hoping Lucas will look into the crime
- Blood found in the friend's house
- Details of a separate murder
- A police investigation
Chatty Or Not
The nature of the novel's main conflict also affects how much of what I call chatty dialogue the book includes. Chatty dialogue sets the stage or shows daily interactions among the characters but doesn't move the plot.
Throughout The Seven Sisters characters say good morning and hello, ask how one another are, and talk about what they'll have for breakfast. This type of dialogue reflects that the book's conflicts are primarily about relationships among the characters.
For example, on page 84, these lines of dialogue appear when Maia answers the phone:
“It's Floriano here. Where are you?”
“In a taxi on my way to see the Cristo. I'm just near the train station now.”
“May I join you?”
In contrast, Phantom Prey rarely includes any dialogue of the “hello, how are you” variety.
In fact, the first line between Weather and Lucas is “I saw Alyssa today.” Alyssa is the woman whose daughter disappeared and in whose home blood was found.
While Lucas and Weather, who are husband and wife, also joke round about eating cinnamon rolls and about sex, that happens toward the end of the conversation and is part of a push and pull between them over whether Lucas will investigate or not.
The Characters' Profession Or Position In Life
The position of characters in society and/or the jobs or careers they have also affect how they speak and what they talk about.
Lucas is an investigator and former police detective and Weather is surgeon.
When they discuss a murder, they talk about the force that was used, the organs damaged, the amount of blood, and other specific details. If Weather were a stay-at-home mom or an accountant, she and Lucas probably wouldn’t have such graphic discussions.
Bel’s focus on her marriage and the limits of her life arise from her position as the daughter of a wealthy man who seeks society standing. Her marriage can help achieve that for her family.
Also, earning her own living in the 1920s in Brazil is not much of an option for her. While Floriano suggests that she could become a model in Paris, such a profession is far outside of what her family would ever be comfortable with her doing.
Maia is the adopted daughter of a very wealthy man who dies at the beginning of the book.
She also has another personal issue that makes her feel isolated from her adoptive family. And she has the financial means to research her birth family. All of that influences what she talks about.
I hope this analysis helps as you write your own dialogue.
That's all for today. Until next Friday, when I'll talk about batching your work to save time and lower stress—
P.S. For more on developing your characters, check out my Free Character Creation Tip Sheet.