How to Make Dialogue Sound Natural–Tip #2: How does the reader perceive your character’s words?

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How to write natural sounding dialogue.

Image: iClipart

Just because it’s what people would say in real life, that doesn’t mean it sounds natural on the page.

In the novel I’m currently writing, I have a character who is very intelligent, but she has a tough time saying certain multi-syllabic words. The person who inspired this character is my uncle, Rick Musick.

Uncle Rick is a very intelligent businessman. In fact, he speaks publicly for a living. You see, he’s an auctioneer. That’s right; he is constantly saying stuff through a microphone to an audience, like a rock star.

Okay, maybe not like a rock star, but you get the idea.

I’m very fond of my uncle, and I admire his business sense. As a husband and father, he’s close to flawless. However as an auctioneer, he has only one major impediment… No matter how hard he tries, he cannot correctly pronounce the word “aluminum”.

Do you know how many aluminum objects come through his auction every weekend? Hundreds!

I realize I’ve said it before, but it must be said again. He’s a VERY intelligent man. But if I wrote a story about him, his mispronunciations would make him seem unintelligent for one simple reason: just because it’s what people would say in real life, that doesn’t mean it sounds natural on the page.

The character in my novel, Anjelica, has difficulty pronouncing the word “hypothermia,” and this is a survivalist novel in a winter landscape. So she has to use that word a lot. I was hoping it would provide comic relief by giving Anjelica this little glitch to her otherwise angelic personality.

However my critique partners kept saying, “Why does Anjelica seem brilliant in one scene and stupid in another?”

It’s because on the page, characters are more like caricatures. They’re exaggerations of real-life people. If the character mentions skateboarding once in dialogue, the reader may assume they’re a regular Tony Hawk wannabe. If the character goes for a horseback ride in the desert, it’s assumed she’s a barrel racing cowgirl. Unless…

You’re the author. You can change the way readers perceive your characters through internal monologue, purposeful dialogue, and events.

In my revision of my work-in-progress novel, I decided to have Anjelica make a single statement that changes the way other characters (and my readers) think of her:

“I have dyslexia,” Anjelica said. “Multi-si-ballic words are hard for me to say.”

Aha! Now the reader understands. Anjelica isn’t stupid. She has dyslexia. That’s different.

And the story goes on without anymore misunderstandings about Anjelica’s potential for solving world hunger.

Just. Like. That.

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