I love to write dialogue. I’d guess that in 87% of my scenes, I write the dialogue first and fill in the narrative later. So, deciding what my characters say is rarely a challenge, but making sure their voices are distinct and stay true is.
Writing in both male and female voices is a challenge in itself. Then you have to consider the character’s education, life experience, and regional influences to develop a voice that sounds natural. And you have to repeat that for each of your characters. Ideally, even when your character is not identified by name, the reader shouldn’t have to read very far into a paragraph before realizing who’s speaking or narrating.
In The Brevity of Roses, a few of my characters, for whom English was a second language, didn’t use contractions when they spoke. Because I didn’t want my main character to sound too stilted, as often as possible, I challenged myself to form a natural-sounding sentence without using any words usually contracted in informal writing. Still, after each draft, I made an editing pass specifically looking for contraction slip ups.
Also, in that novel, two characters were upper-educated poets and because I’d written a good bit of the book in their voices, by the time I got to a third major character who was a young, streetwise woman I found myself slipping back and writing words and phrasing, both in dialogue and narrative, that she wouldn’t have used naturally. I had to edit those out.
In one of my current works in progress, my biggest challenge is staying “in character” as I write the parts from my Jesse’s point of view. He was born into a poor mining family in the West Virginia mountains and left school when he was fifteen to hire on as farm laborer in Kentucky. I don’t want to write his voice in dialect as much as I want to give the flavor of his voice. That flavor is not my own and I catch myself slipping out of character often.
In addition to Jesse, I have several characters who speak with just a touch of country and a couple who are pure “city folks.” One of those is the main female character, Nicole, who happens to be an English teacher. So again, I’ve set myself up for several editing passes just to make sure I’ve kept the characters’ voices “natural.” I accept that challenge.
If you’re a writer, what challenges are you facing in your current work?