Remember the last time you read dialogue and it didn’t sound genuine? Something was off, odd or not quite believable? Perhaps the wording did not suit the character. For example, unless a man is a decorator, painter or artist, he won’t point to a color and call it sage. In general, men tend to label colors by the eight colors found in the Crayola crayon set they used in kindergarten. Oh, and by the way, more men than women are colorblind, so some men are even more limited in their ability to describe colors. So when a character doesn’t sound believable, often the writer failed to conduct enough research for the character to talk the talk.
The reader wants to fall into the story, to be transported into a different world, to experience things not readily available in her life, whether it is a world of horror, danger, mystery, romance or adventure. It’s up to you to make sure your characters realistically represent their profession, trade, hobby or craft. If your English butler talks like your rural American firefighter, then it’s time to dig deeper.
GATHER BASIC INFORMATION
If your story involves characters in a specific career, then research it. You can learn basic information about any legal job from the Occupational Outlook Handbook, compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ . For hundreds of different types of jobs, the Occupational Outlook Handbook describes: the training and education needed, earnings, expected job prospects, what workers do on the job, and working conditions. In addition, the Handbook gives job search tips, links to state job markets and more. Armed with the basics, you can then learn more about how your character speaks.
DO FIELD WORK
If at all possible, go to places where your character would go. Find a friend or relative who does this kind of job. Listen to how they speak and what they say. At the end of their work day, what hurts? Hands, head, feet, back, ears, eyes? If your hero is a trucker, go eat at truck stops and listen. What do they talk about? How do they express themselves? What specialized vocabulary do they use? Jot down unfamiliar terms and words to look up later. What are the trends and technology that have changed their job over the years? Prepare questions and offer to buy a few of them lunch so you can ask about their work. People rarely turn down the chance to talk about themselves. Many will share stories about their life. Find one who can serve as your go-to expert.
COMPOSE A LIST OF INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
What more do you need to know about your character’s type of work? Write factual questions, to get information, to open discussion. Write personal questions, to elicit anecdotes, to reveal personality and character. Examples: “What’s the most unusual case you’ve ever had?” “What other careers interest you?” “What hobbies do you enjoy?” “What would you like people to know about your profession?” and “What myths and misconceptions do people have about what you do?”
FIND AN EXPERT
If you can find an expert in the field to interview, then do it.
If your character’s career is an unusual profession (airtraffic controller, coroner, animal trainer, circus performer, etc), then contact the publicity representative for an organization of the profession. Another source for locating experts on a topic is ProfNet or Professors Network. This free service is used by journalists worldwide to locate public information officers in government, business and academia. Send in your request to firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to state your purpose for the information.
CONDUCT AN INTERVIEW
In person interviews work best, but phone interviews can also work. Ask for permission to record the interview, if you plan to record it. I write for magazines, so I tell subjects that I flunked shorthand and would like to record the interview so I can quote them accurately. The high-paying magazines require a written transcript of interviews, so I use that reason, but let the subject know why you are interviewing him and how long the interview will take. Time yourself and stick to the time limit you gave.
When I interview subjects, I always ask whom they would recommend for me to talk to for more information. I also ask if I can email with more questions if I need to. Most folks agree to follow-up questions. When my article is published or reprinted, I always send a copy to my interview source with a thank-you note. So far, I haven’t published a novel, but I would gladly name names of people who helped me in the front of the book and send them a copy with a thank-you note.
VET YOUR MANUSCRIPT
Though this isn’t done in newspaper or magazine work, you can ask your source to read your book and tell you if the behavior and dialogue rings true. You are not handing control of the story to the expert, but gaining his opinion. It could prevent a simple goof up. I once had an interview subject tell me he was going to use the Armstrong starter on his seaplane. When he demonstrated it, I realized he meant he was going to hand prop the plane. If I had published that the Piper Cub used an Armstrong starter, every pilot reading it would have laughed at my gullibility. I vetted the article with my husband, who has a seaplane rating. He alerted me to the joke. I kept the Armstrong starter in the article, but used it to show the rogue nature of seaplane pilots.
Because I am working on a suspense trilogy with an FBI agent hero, I discovered that manuscripts, plays, and screenplays that involve characters who work for the FBI, can be reviewed by the Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit of the FBI to ensure an accurate portrayal of the FBI. A sign-off (showing that the manuscript has been vetted) from this unit would be helpful for marketing. This unit prioritizes work based on the likelihood of publication, so be sure to note if the manuscript is under contract with a publisher or producer.
Publicity and Public Affairs Unit, Room 7257
935 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20535
Doing all this work to make the character dialogue sound real might seem extreme, but the top fiction writers create believable characters because they either have familiarity with the character’s work or they have conducted thorough research. Though she probably never worked as a coroner, Tess Gerritsen can draw on her medical degree to create the character Maura Isles. If you want your dialogue to ring true, to reveal deep character, first you have to research what makes your characters who they are. Get to know them so well that you can tell when they are walking the walk and talking the talk.
This article first appeared on the SavvyAuthors.com website. They are revamping their website, so I am posting it again to keep it available.