The dialogue you write can enhance or hinder your story.
Using some famous (or some might say infamous) tweets as examples, today I’ll talk about how a few lines of dialogue can get across volumes about a character.
Strong dialogue builds and reveals a character in two ways:
(1) through what is said
(2) through how it’s said
Twitter and Trump
All politics aside (really), because he tweets in the same way he talks, the current United States President’s tweets are great way to learn more about dialogue and character.
The tweets – much like lines of strong dialogue – are instantly recognizable as coming from President Trump. They also evoke strong emotions about him and convey how he sees himself and/or how he wants others to see him.
If we could all write dialogue as well as President Trump tweets, our worries about characters sounding too much like one another or slowing the story would be over.
What He Said
Most people, and so most characters, return often–whether deliberately or unconsciously–to favorite subjects and themes.
In one tweet, Trump wrote:
“… Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.”
Later in the tweet and in a second continued tweet, he listed accomplishments, including businessman, TV star, and President.
These two tweets (along with others) show one subject Trump likes to speak about – himself. Specifically, great things about himself.
His words are also efficient.
In one line, he fits in a lot about his resume. Plus we learn he's proud of having been a TV star and he doesn’t worry that this background will keep him from being taken seriously.
This pride reflects both the man and the times we live in.
When Ronald Reagan ran for President, many viewed his “B movie” actor background as a liability. Had there been such a thing as a reality TV star at the time, that would have no doubt taken him down a few more notches.
The content of these tweets also shows a man who believes in tooting his own horn and suggests he grew up and/or worked in a world where bragging was rewarded rather than being seen as tacky or a sign of insecurity.
The topics Trump chose also suggest a concern that his actions appear unstable or unintelligent.
A character who is for the most part forthright and honest rarely says “to be honest” or “I’m a really honest person.” He's confident people will draw that conclusion on their own, or it never crosses his mind that there would be a question.
In contrast, a character who stresses in dialogue that she's honest either has inner doubts or is responding to real or imagined attacks.
With Trump, these particular tweets came in response to attacks on his stability and intelligence in a recent book. If you didn't already know that, though, you might guess it by his words.
Finally, what Trump tweeted shows he cares deeply about what others think of him.
A character unconcerned about the opinions of others wouldn’t devote time or energy to stating accomplishments that are already well known or responding to attacks.
How It’s Said
The wording of President Trump's tweets also tells us a lot about him and is part of why his way of speaking is instantly recognizable.
For example, saying he is “like, really smart” shows he knows his audience.
Most public speakers and professionals do their best to avoid interspersing words such as “like” or phrases such as “you know” that make a speaker sound less polished. But Trump knows his supporters like that he speaks plainly and doesn’t sound like a professor addressing a class of college students.
Further, he has no doubt about his position and place in the world. Only someone who never questions his own authority and position is free to speak in a manner that others would consider far too casual for the situation.
In contrast, when I was a young lawyer (and because I'm female in a profession that still includes more male trial lawyers than female ones), I always needed to speak well so as not to raise questions about whether I was experienced enough or had enough authority to accurately present the law.
Trump's word choice also shows how much it matters to him to be seen as top dog.
When he lists his accomplishments, he doesn’t say he is a “successful businessman” but a “VERY successful business person” (all caps on VERY are his, not added by me). He’s not just a “T.V. star” but a “top T.V. star.” And he didn’t just become president, he became “president (on my first try).”
Someone less concerned with beating others or being seen as at the top of the heap would be satisfied to list the accomplishments and stop at that.
In storytelling, a trope usually refers to particular and expected plot developments, such as an HEA–a Happily Ever After ending in a romance.
But tropes also occur in dialogue.
Turning back to the President’s tweets, using repeated superlatives such as everything being “great” or “the best” or “the worst” is a trope. It’s one of the ways we know immediately who is speaking.
Another trope is his use of negative nicknames.
The two tweets we’ve been talking about referenced “Crooked Hillary.” Trump’s use of nicknames like that one, Little Marco, or Sloppy Steve sum up in two words strong pictures and emotions about his opponents that resonate with many voters. Few people match his skill in coining these types of labels.
This, too, is another way we immediately recognize who is speaking.
Your Characters' Dialogue
So what can you learn about dialogue from this analysis?
When you write your dialogue, consider how your character’s background, self-image, fears, and aspirations affect the way the character speaks and what the character chooses to talk about.
Keep in mind that, as the President’s tweets show, the most effective dialogue goes beyond the obvious.
For example, President Trump is college educated, but he speaks in a way that deemphasizes that, either by choice to appeal to a certain audience or because that's simply how he’s comfortable speaking.
Consider also what sorts of tropes or verbal tics might be part of your character's speech patterns. Not everyone has the ability to come up with colorful nicknames for others, and some who might be good at it might choose not to do so.
You might write a character who quickly sees the flaws of others but chooses words carefully to avoid pointing them out. Another might prefer to demonstrate linguistic ability and cleverness by skewering opponents with apparent praise that hides veiled insults.
Finally, think about what themes and subjects your character might work into almost every conversation.
Someone recently divorced, for instance, might compare a new boss’s challenging behavior to an ex-spouse even if no one else in the workplace sees any similarity between the two.
Someone who compulsively overate as a child might always use metaphors that involve food or dieting.
A strong believer in astrology might link any good or bad development in life to the position of the stars or might ask a person's birthdate within moments of being introduced.
That's all for this week. I hope this article has given you food for thought the next time you’re writing dialogue—or visiting Twitter.
Until next Friday—
P.S. For more on characters, check out my Free Character Creation Tip Sheet.