...and why characters need to have imperfect speech.
Pro-tip: Don't let the reader remember that you're controlling your characters.
Have you ever replayed a conversation in your head? You might have been in the car or in the shower, going over what you could have said to that person. With each iteration of the imagined conversation, you conjure a better response until you hit upon the one--what you wish you could have said or done in the moment. And maybe, if you're really lucky and just the right amount of clever, you'll land a couple of those witty retorts in the real world. But how often do they happen, really? How often do we manage to say the perfect words at the perfect time in real life?
There's a reason these moments are usually limited to our daydreams. Even the most articulate and confident speakers are imperfect in their speech. Conversations happen in real time, and as a result, we're essentially "winging it" when we talk. Every sentence is a dozen split-second decisions about diction, syntax, and tone (at the very least). We simply cannot choose the coolest, most polished version of our words every time we open our mouths. So why would we write our characters like that?
We simply cannot choose the coolest, most polished version of our words every time we open our mouths. So why would we write our characters like that?
Good dialogue, like any bit of characterization, is a matter of authenticity. And if the most authentic way to portray a person is through their flaws (which I believe it is), dialogue should be no exception.
When everything is cool, nothing is
The classic adage of "everything in moderation" applies here. Characters are allowed to say cool things, of course. But if everything out of their mouth is a clever, snappy comeback? If they always have the right interjection for the right occasion? That character trait will be self-defeating because it will only turn them into a cliché, and nothing is less cool than a cliché.
This problem becomes even worse when we get a constant back-and-forth stream of witty repartee. It's like using an exclamation mark at the end of every sentence. Once is enough! Twice is overkill! Three times is silly! Four times verges on parody! If every statement has an impact, then it becomes a barrage of monotony! Yes, excitement can be monotonous! So, too, can a barrage of clever quotes be monotonous!
How do people talk?
This is a serious question and an important one at that. If you want your characters to feel real, they have to sound real. So, what do real people sound like? Let's examine:
Real people DON'T:
Impart wisdom with every word
Constantly have the perfect joke or remark ready
Use perfect grammar and flowery language in casual conversation
Always say exactly what's on their mind
Always understand each other
Always anticipate what others will say
In sum, real people don't get much time to think through their responses first. Conversations happen in real time. So even if you're putting a lot of forethought into what your characters will say, it shouldn't sound that way.
Real people DO:
Stutter, misuse words, say things awkwardly
Pause to think
Use improper grammar and casual language
Misunderstand each other
Cut each other off
Sometimes give one-word answers or non-answers
Ask clarifying questions
Sometimes have to correct themselves
Use conversational fillers ("um," "uh," "like")
Have their own speaking style
This is not to say all of your characters (or any of them, really) should be an incoherent mess of awkwardness. But consider what real conversation sounds like among you and your friends/family/colleagues/strangers. People don't converse because they already understand each other; they converse in the pursuit of understanding each other.
People don't converse because they already understand each other; they converse in the pursuit of understanding each other.
And, as is the case with any pursuit, there are obstacles to overcome. Inject some conversational obstacles into your dialogue, so the conversation itself can be an authentic exchange of two imperfect individuals.
A case study in authenticity
Let's look at two examples of dialogue. In both examples, the same scene is playing out between Chris and Mary. Note that the narration is kept minimal so we can focus on the dialogue:
"So, what do you say? Shall we head there together?" Chris asked.
"Together?" Mary responded. "That implies equality, and I don't believe you've proven yourself my equal. No, we shall not go 'together.'"
"My, my! Aren't you full of yourself? It was a simple question, and I meant nothing by it. Would it help if we framed it as me accompanying you? Your escort or entourage, if you will?"
"Perhaps, but then I wouldn't get the satisfaction of watching you weasel your way out of your words," she said with a smirk.
"If only I were a weasel, then perhaps I'd elicit a bit of sympathy from you."
"Sympathy, yes. Empathy, no. And I'd wager the latter is precisely what you're seeking."
"What I'm seeking," he insisted, "is your company for the evening. Nothing more, nothing less. Therefore, if your answer is no, our business here is over."
"Over your head, and out of your league," Mary said.
"So, do you want to go there?" Chris paused, then added, "together?" "Together?" Mary responded. "What, like, the two of us? 'Together' together?" "Yes?" "Ok, but don't you think you're a little--well, just that I'm--" "What? "You know," she said. "I'm out of your league." "Wow, ok. Well, would it be better if I just joined you, then? It doesn't have to be a whole thing." "Mm, maybe." Mary's words hung in the air for a moment. "But I gotta say, I like this side of you." "What do you mean?" "Just the way you're being humble about it." "Well, at least I get some sympathy points," he muttered. "Yeah, sympathy points. But that's it. I don't think we're really on the same level yet, you know?" "Whatever," he said with a sigh. "I was just asking if you wanted to go out. If you don't want to, that's fine." "Yeah, I don't think so," Mary said.
Granted, the first example is probably more entertaining. It certainly takes a loftier approach with language. But as we noted, you can only sustain that for so long before it gets tedious. Example B is far more down-to-Earth. We can imagine those characters as real people: they're trying to understand each other and be understood, with some bumps along the way and language that ebbs and flows in its effectiveness. Moreover, we're left to imagine the thoughts and intentions behind those words.
Dialogue is what we or our characters choose to say in a given moment. Therefore, it's refracted by our tendencies, our choices, our moods, our imperfections. Let dialogue feel alive by giving it pacing. Let it breathe, let it stumble, let the conversation find its way. Don't force your characters into clichés by making them say the sort of things you wish you could; let them be just as real as you are.