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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Dialogue: world

I love world-building. I love geography, I love building cities, I love creating situations where oddities are perfectly reasonable. How people go about their everyday life in strange places fascinates me.

All of that world-building and cultural development influences the dialogue that comes out of characters' mouths: people are products of their culture, either by conforming to it or rebelling against it.

Culture and technology
The vocabulary your characters learned as children was defined by their surrounding culture, their family, and their education. On the most obvious level, nobody in a pre-industrial world knows what an airplane is. Do clockworks exist, even?

If your character grew up in a coastal village of a pre-industrial world, what sorts of words are going to dominate his vocabulary? What will he have heard his family talking about? That depends on what they did for a living. If they were fishermen, the talk over dinner would be different from what a boy in a wealthy merchant's house would hear.

This impacts vocabulary, sentence structure, and one's place in society as well. A fisherman's son may have learned swearing as a form of punctuation, for example, and give it no more thought than that. Note, though, all of the other assumptions that jump to your mind with that thought -- it's not surprising, is it, that a boy raised poor, working menial jobs, uneducated, would use four-letter words with abandon. It rings true.

How many people are feeling a need to mess with that assumption, now -- show of hands?

The fisherman's boy is also going to describe things he sees in terms of things he knows. Have you noticed how computer terms have crept into how people describe non-computer-related things, lately? It's what we know, now. What does the fisherman's son know? Fish. Nets. Boats, sails, and wind. Rope and canvas. Muscle pain and iron hooks.

The subject matter that a character focuses on derives in part from personality (as noted yesterday) and in part from what he's been told is important. If a knight believes his honor is of utmost importance, everything he says is going to revolve around maintaining his honor, giving it to those he deems worthy, and denying it to the unworthy. Maybe this involves particular forms of speech or special vocabulary.

In addition, there's a filter of the ideas available to the character -- ideas about government, religion, equality, etc. These will also contribute to what the character prioritizes and how he speaks about them. How a man speaks to a woman he considers his equal is quite different from how he addresses a woman he believes is his servant, after all. Eavesdrop on how restaurant patrons address their waitress, and you'll hear the difference. (For extra fun, compare to how they address a waiter, if you can.)

Concepts will influence their behavior as well as their speech, and that's all part of the inter-connectedness of a story.

I have stuff to crit, hooray! I will post at least one today. Don't be shy -- if you have some dialogue you'd like fresh eyeballs on, send it in: unicornbellsubmissions at gmail dot com.


Charity Bradford said...

L, I'm so glad you joined us. More great stuff on dialogue. When pointed out this is all obvious, but how many of us forget these things when our muse is sending us ideas?


L. Blankenship said...


I sketched out a conversation recently where one of the characters very clearly said "Bring it, bitch!" but no, he can't say that, it's an alternate-world fantasy... that's what he meant, but I need to figure out how his culture would frame that.

Strong, succinct phrase and I can't use it.

1000th.monkey said...

I would submit something... but dialogue is a minimum in my writing, especially what I'm working on now.

mshatch said...

I don't know, Joe Abercrombie manages to use all the familiar swear words in his world and somehow manages to make it work.

Liz said...

All good things to remember. Thanks.

Alicia C. said...

I was once told that I can't compare everything to the culinary world. Which is true. (And maybe in a way, not) But it made me think about how narrow I was being in how I view things. And I have such a huge range of stuff to grab from. It's challenging to NOT write what you personally know. But when you try to view something for another's perspective (Which sounds rather obvious if you're of a naturally open minded bent)...that's when world building opens up.

LD Masterson said...

Excellent post. My stumbling point is the profanity. It's tough when you'd rather not lace your dialogue with f-bombs but you're writing about gang members.