Dialogue can be difficult. It has to sound authentic. It has to get across the point the character (and ultimately the author) wants to send. It can’t be too long, but it must be long enough. It shouldn’t sound phoney, or forced, or stilted. The reader should be able to feel the emotion (or lack of emotion) in the voice of the character. And the dialogue should never get in the way of the story. It can’t be something that trips the reader up. It has to flow.
Dialogue would be hard enough when all a writer did was express their own unique voice. Imagine how difficult it becomes when the author speaks in the voices of others. A particular problem comes up when a woman writes in the voice of a male character and vice versus.
I recently read an article on the Writer’s Digest site about creating believable gender-specific dialogue.
This article got me thinking about the way I write when I’m trying to be inside my male character’s heads. Is it harder? Is it feasible? Am I making my male characters speak the way a woman would like a man to speak, rather than how a man actually sounds?
In the Writer’s Digest article, writers are advised to pay attention to the fact that men ask specific questions, resist giving detailed explanations, and then tell you what to do. (OK – I added that last bit myself. Sorry.) Men tend not to talk about feelings unless specifically stressed into such activity. (Usually by a woman – shoot, I added that part, too.) Men don’t speak in abstractions – they are direct. They don’t check for details, and they don’t go out of their way to seek approval.
Women sympathize and share their own experiences rather than giving advice or telling other’s what to do. Women don’t brag themselves up, they are often self-deprecating when they speak of their own accomplishments. Women tend to be indirect and manipulative rather than outright aggressive (Who wrote this? Male or female?) Women seek out details and they regularly check out the emotional temperature of others by paying attention to body language.
Hmmm . . . Men get to the point, women skirt around the edges of issues seeking something men are either not interested in or don’t even know exist.
Now to be fair to the stereotypes, I don’t see the guys gathered in the photo at the top of the post stopping what they’re doing to check out how each other are feeling, or to say, “Geez, those pants look so comfy. Where did you buy them?” But maybe a bunch of women photographers, wouldn’t stop for such things either.
I could see these women stopping the whole shoot to talk about how great those heels look. And the boots on the one in the orange top – awesome. I wonder where she bought them?
When I write in the voice or the head of the opposite gender, I want that voice to be authentic. Still . . . I’m not sure about using stereotypes to guide my writing.
My only answer to this dilemma is that we have to know our characters, inside and out. We have to get up close and personal with them. We need to live with them for a long period of time. If we don’t hear their voices in our heads, we can’t write them.
The article listed a couple of exercises that seemed sensible.
- Listen to real men and women talk, and take mental note of what you hear.
- Read your dialogue out loud and try to be objective. Does it sound right? Does it ring true with your personal perception of the character?
- Have a member of the opposite sex read your characters dialogue out loud and honestly listen to how it sounds coming out of that person’s mouth. (So, if you are a woman, have a guy read your male character’s dialogue out loud.)
I say, don’t give into stereotypes, unless of course, those stereotypes move forward the story you want to tell. Get to know your characters and stay true to their unique voices. Let them tell the story. Everything is in the service of telling the story. Nothing else matters.
I love writing dialogue – it’s my favorite part of writing, and I like to think it flows okay…at least most of the time. 😉 I think you’re absolutely right, though, about knowing your character well before you can determine how that character speaks, but I also often find myself doing the reverse – how my characters speak lets me know who they are. I’m a total pantser, so I usually figure out my story and characters as I go along, and then do a whole ton of revision later to fix all my previous mistakes.
Great post, as always! 🙂
I love the way you’ve turned things upside down – hearing them speak lets me know who they are. So again, you listen and pay attention. How you get to the finish line is irrelevant – finishing is what matters. Go mystic cooking.
I don’t stress too much about whether my male characters sound “manly” enough, but I do worry that I have a tendency to make them use more words to explain something than men typically do. So, that’s something I look for in my revisions, trying to make certain they get to the point quickly. It’s good practice for me, anyway, since it helps me tighten up dialogue in general.
Great point, Kira, on the good practice to tighten up all dialogue. On the other hand, you might end up with a character who really has to go on and on because that is his or her way and it is an important part of the story. Let that character ramble. All stereotypes aside, most men I’ve known are not big on explaining – you’re onto something there, for sure.
I actually do have a rambling character and he is male. My other characters have a hard time making him get to the point because he’s easily distracted by tangents.
Great post. I’ve never thought about changing dialogue to fit with the gender of the character before – definitely something to think about now!
Each character we create is no doubt a part of us, but they’ve all got to have a unique voice for the reader. I find this easy when the character is like a part of myself I know really well. Then the dialogue just flows. I have to work to get to know the guys sometimes. Really listen to their voices. According to Gwen – I made it work – LOL. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Laura.
This is a great post, one that’s really made me think. There are so many challenges in writing effectively, and trying to capture the opposite sex accurately without stereotyping is no exception. If my opinion as your reader means anything, I think your male characters in Disappearing in Plain Sight were very well done. Their voices were distinct, and to me did not come across as men-written-by-a woman. The dialogue was one of many features I loved about your novel. You’ve got this one, Fran.
Thanks, Gwen. I’m coming up with a big blue ribbon that says number one fan – LOL – guess who is going to get it? The dialogue is always my starting point. I hear what they say, sometimes before I even understand why or where or how. If you looked at my pages of notes (what I do before I actually write) you would see something that looks like scenes for a play – dialogue and sometimes in brackets little asides like – he frowned, she started to cry. The rest gets filled in later.
Awww…thanks! I’m proud to be your number one! Dialogue often makes or breaks a novel for me. This is how characters come alive on the page.
I found your great blog through the WLC Blog Follows on the World Literary Cafe! Great to connect! Maria (fellow author).
Thanks for stopping by, hope you’ll come back again.
Interesting and relevant Francis. But guess what, I’m going to trust myself and my characters without worrying if my men sound too girly 🙂 It’s not going to work for me if I overthink it.
I totally agree, Roy. You go with your instincts. Enjoying Tess so far, by the way. I’m about halfway through.
Excellent post, Francis. Very interesting breakdown of the difference between men and women in how they ask questions and seek information. (And I’m still smiling at your added details for each group.)
Thanks, Marylin. I wouldn’t make a very good reporter as I can’t resist layering my own thoughts on things.
[…] happens all the time. Here’s another example. The last blog I wrote contained two pictures. I wanted people pictures, one of women and one of men. We have a massive […]
This was a witty yet informative post. I loved it! -Angela
I just got the chance to read this. I agree. If you go with stereo types people who fit them may relate, but many others won’t. I fit almost none of the things that Writer’s Digest mentioned. If your character is a writer, or an artist, or an inventor, or something other than a ranch hand he may not fit that either. Can you imagine Mark Twain or Albert Einstein not being talkative or not ever speaking in abstracts? Coming up with highly detailed character profiles and thinking about how that person would act in each situation is better than just going with what people might expect. A story is supposed to break out of the “norm” anyway that’s why we read them.
Great take on this idea of writing gendered dialogue – we get to know the unique person of our characters, that’s all it takes. And a story should break the bonds of normal – take flight and all of that. Thanks for weighing in.