Dialogue is so important, because readers like to get to know characters the same way we like to get to know people in real life. They like to hear people talk and see people act.
So if you want your readers to like your hero, you don’t need to tell the readers how wonderful he is. You don’t have to bog the novel’s opening down with backstory telling how hard life has been for the hero and how he’s done great things despite all that.
What you need to do is give him a voice. Throw him into a situation where his good qualities will show, allow him to speak, and let the readers fall in love.
How do you give your characters strong voices?
You do it by knowing your characters. Have a picture in mind when you write. Hear the voice. Think of real people or movie characters. I’m not saying to go for a cliché. I’m saying that if you listen to a lot of dialogue in books or movies or in real life, it will be easier for you to write it, and if you have a specific accent in mind when your character speaks, she will feel more real to your readers.
The accent of a character has to be consistent, but you need not be afraid to write a strong accent for fear of forgetting to put it in. The stronger the accent the easier it is to hear and write.
“Oh, Mr. Bennett, you do delight in vexing me!” Can you hear Mrs. Bennett saying that? Every time she speaks you know what her accent is going to be and you know that she will be talking about her lack of money or her poor nerves. That’s Mrs. Bennett.
Your characters need to have very strong voices, too. They need to be unique and fun, but also predictable. Meaning they need to be so well done that the reader knows who is speaking just by the line of dialogue, without any tags.
Maybe I’m odd, but I take on the accents of other people really easily. One of my friends told me years ago that when I spoke to my kids I sounded just like an Alaskan Native. Well, my sisters-in-law were all natives and they spoke to their children a certain way, so I adopted that way of speaking without even knowing I was doing it.
I do the same thing with writing–only I do it on purpose. If I want to write for a certain magazine, I sit down with ten issues and I absorb the voice of the magazine. The next piece I write, then, has that voice.
I think we have to do the same thing with dialogue. If we want our characters to sound real, we have to have real voices playing in our heads as we write. I had a crit partner who pasted pictures of her hero and heroine up on her cork board as she wrote. So one time it was Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious. She heard his voice every time time she wrote one of his lines of dialogue And her dialogue was some of the best I’ve read.
What about you? Are your characters based on people or characters you’ve seen before? If so, how do you keep them from being clichéd?