Tag Archives: writing advice

So, my character goes to fight another character that she is a bit stronger than. He’s a guy, but they’re vamps and she drinks more blood. If they were to get in a fight starting at the center of a room that’s about 15 ft across both ways, how long should it take her to get him pinned to a wall?

But, the real question is, how many dots does she have in Celerity?

The problem with a question like this is, whether you mean to or not, you’re basically asking me, “which of my character’s superpowers are better?”

Vampires are rapidly becoming the urban fantasy counterpart to elves. Which is to say, when you use the term, there’s a vague understanding of what you’re talking about, but no uniform, concrete rules.

Hell, when it comes to a vampire’s power scaling with when they’ve fed last, my first thought is actually The Elder Scrolls setting, where feeding weakens them, but makes them harder to detect. While starvation makes them stronger and more feral. But, that one scales over time, not how much the eat.

When it comes to overall power, I tend to lean towards World of Darkness’ generational system, or the idea that they just get more powerful over time, so it’s an age issue, not a feeding issue.

This is all dancing around the point that I don’t know how strong your vampires are. Yes, yours. Unless you’re writing fan fiction, or RPing in an established setting, those are your characters with superpowers you’re defining.

For that, you probably need some kind of system to operationalize your vampires. Your options are to either cook up a system for yourself, or borrow one.

If it’s the latter, then World of Darkness isn’t a bad system to pull from. Basic character generation is really fast, and the system is good for getting a quick feel on what a character’s strengths and weaknesses are. It doesn’t hurt that one of the main games in the series is focused on vampires, so you might end up with some ideas to flavor your setting with along the way.

Vampire: The Masquerade provides the tools for a huge range of different styles of vampires in the core book alone. They’re all, more or less, inside the European immortal blood drinker genre, but it’s still fairly diverse group. And looking at the disciplines (specialized powers characters pick from) should give you some ideas about just how powerful you want your characters to be.

There’s also Werewolves, Mages, Hunters, and Demons. Given the series started in the early 90s, it’s a surprisingly comprehensive look at the common Urban Fantasy lineup. Though Demon: The Fallen was a smaller run, so that one will set you back a bit, if you end up wanting it.

I actually did an article on the setting awhile back, but, right now the main takeaway is looking for a rule system to say, “my character is this strong, and is this good at fighting.”

If you’re familiar with D&D, or GURPS, or really any RPG, and know what their numbers actually mean, then that will probably work just as well for you.

I’m not a fan of recommending D&D for stuff like this because character creation is a fairly involved process. Just crunching the numbers can take awhile. But if that’s the system you know, it’ll still do what you need.

I’m also more of a fan of recommending GURPS for the contents of its source books, over the actual game system. Speaking of, if you want a good quick primer on actual vampire folklore, GURPS: Blood Types spends the first 30 pages on the subject, before going into game systems. There’s also a chunk further in the book focusing on a lot of more obscure varieties of the myth. The discussion on how to make vampires is a little rule heavy, but still worth taking a look at.

-Starke

Strength in Adversity

On the Knight post last week, Brainstormideas made a pretty good point. It was something I glossed over, because I was “doing the math in my head”, and forgot to really explain the reasoning.

@brainstormideas said: If you’re writing a novel, I think this would be an interesting conflict for the story. What with her challenges with training and fitting in. I would certainly read it. If it was too easy it wouldn’t be an interesting read.

This is absolutely true. Your stories need adversity. Without it, you don’t have a story. At the most basic level, creating adversity is trivial; all you need are elements that make your character’s life harder. That’s easy, hard part is balancing that against what your character can handle, to create a compelling narrative.

When you’re creating the adversity it doesn’t need to actually be a physical opponent. It can be an internal failing; hubris and addiction are both classic examples that can create compelling stories without requiring an external foe.

You, as the writer, control your story’s universe. When someone says, “you can’t do this in your world,” that isn’t strictly true. The hard and fast rules that govern the real world don’t apply. They survive as guidelines. “Paint within these boundaries unless you really know what you’re doing when you cross the line.” But, no one’s going to stop you.

You can throw overwhelming force at your character, and have them come through smiling and spouting witty one-liners. No one (outside of an editor) will stop you. But, that also doesn’t make your hero more awesome, or stronger.

Characters don’t suffer adversity the way real people do. Oh, most writers want them to be as close to authentic as they can get, but that’s not the same.

When a real person gets put through hell and comes out the other side, it’s on them. They suffered, endured, and moved beyond it to survive. When a character gets put through hell, they present the illusion of suffering and endurance, but it’s the author who has to move them beyond it. Push too far, and your audience’s suspension of disbelief will break, killing the credibility of everyone below.

Setting the stakes too high, and then wining through authorial fiat is really a loss. Your characters didn’t overcome the challenges you put in front of them; you cheated for them. And, in the process you created another Mary Sue.

Set those stakes to low and you’ll be left with a character that feels overpowered, even if they’re not. They become “giants in the playground,” and even under the best circumstances, your story won’t work unless your characters are picking on someone their own size.

Properly balancing adversity is not easy. You need to present obstacles that look insurmountable, that you can chip away a piece at a time. You need to make sure your characters are prepared for their opposition, without making it look like you tailored them to overcome this specific issue. You need to make it look like it’s still a continual threat even as you close in on your story’s climax.

If your protagonists aren’t supposed to overcome their adversity, just to survive, then you can actually push much stronger adversity at your character. Let me offer an example of how this works, using the Knight question:

If the goal is to present a character who staggers through her training, battered but defiant, then pushing her into training nine years after all of her peers started is actually fine. She’d be somewhere between a pariah and a tourist for her fellow knights. She’d never be fully accepted, but if that’s not the endgame, it doesn’t matter.

You can even do compelling things with her further down the line, where she has the formal recognition, but not the social connections that come with her position.

If your goal is for your hero to overcome, find acceptance among her peers, become a full member of her knightly order in good standing, then starting her nine years late is a bit too far. Just by being put into consideration by a patron, she’s already going to be marked out by anyone who got their “on their own merits,” even if they were really there because of their own backers.

Just being a teenager provides enough internal adversity to hang a story on it in any setting. You can look at the YA section of nearly any bookstore if you want an example of that.

Having her enter training late will add more tension, even if it’s just a couple years. But, asking her to play catch up for a decade of work is overkill, even if the purpose is just for her to never be fully accepted.

We’ve both see this a lot, even in published work, where the adversity is ramped into the stratosphere on the idea that it will make the characters more badass. When you’re setting up adversity, it is really easy to go too far. Creating a villain that is too competent, stacking the deck too hard against your character, and getting a situation where there is no way your hero can win. If you don’t want your hero to actually win, that’s great.

I don’t think The Empire Strikes Back would work nearly as well, if Luke and Leia cheated a win out of the end. The point isn’t victory, it’s surviving, and in the process, it’s compelling as hell.

But, by the same measure, if you do want your heroes to win, you need to balance your antagonists to allow it without just throwing the whole game.

-Starke

My MC has horrible facial burns and scars (3rd/4th degree) in a setting where healing magic exists. The in-story explanation for why she’s not dead from necrosis/infection/heat-damage to the brain is because, well, magic. Assuming the underlying tissue is mostly normal, how bad can the superficial scarring be without her running constant risks of infection?

It’s just going to depend on how good the healing magic in the setting is. Someone else was mentioning a Warcraft RP in one of the responses, and, granted I haven’t spent much time looking at that setting since Warcraft 3, but burns like that are pushing the limits of what someone can survive there.

On the other hand, I’ve got an Imperial Templar in Elder Scrolls Online who has half of his face, chest, and one of his arms, wrecked with burn scars. It’s one of the preset visual options. But, The Elder Scrolls is a setting where magic is so pervasive and effective, that not finishing someone off means there’s a real risk they’ll pop up later fully recovered, and in some cases (like the player characters in ESO) just killing them won’t do any good.

Depending on how potent magic is in your setting, you could potentially have a character with a partially exposed skull that’s unaffected, because magic is somehow keeping them alive. It’s all in your setting rules, and what the limits are for magic.

-Starke

muffinsticks said: This seems like it went around the question… they asked how bad scarring can be without risking constant infection

Until you introduce magic into the equation, it’s a medical question… At that point, it’s “holes in the skin.” Once the skin recovers and seals it over, you should be mostly fine from future infections.

However, when you say, “but magic,” then it becomes a world building question, and it’s really going to depend on what your setting allows. I’m sorry if I didn’t make that clear in the initial post.

-Starke

hey that ‘how to design a good ___ character’ post is really problematic, it uses the terminology ‘same sex’, equating sex with gender which is really wrong, and the transgender one says ‘give them a different gender at birth’ which is just… a rlly useless concept bc it still has the idea of there only being two genders and that u are born with a gender (when u are actually just assigned one), and it uses transgender and transsexual interchangeably. i’d recommend u delete that post tbh

Ignoring for a moment that we can’t actually “delete” this post, because it’s a reblog? I mean, I’m flattered you think we can rack up eighteen thousand notes in less than a day, but we’re nowhere near that big.

Is that really what you want? I mean, honestly. Are you that eager to throw the baby out with the bathwater, because you don’t like the word choice?

That’s not a rhetorical question either. It’s easy to point at something and say, “you used a word I didn’t like and I’m offended.” It’s an easy, knee-jerk reaction, and we’ve all been there. But, it’s just as easy to completely miss the point, get caught up in the semantics, and never see what was being said in the first place.

The post is about viewing your characters as people, instead of stereotypes. It’s not saying there’s only two possible genders, that’s not some kind of malicious omission. It’s saying, again, that people (fictional or otherwise) are human beings first. Male, female, heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual, and/or belonging to another ethnic group as a distant second.

It’s about viewing people without labels, outside of boxes, and away from genuinely harmful cliches.

This is about providing information. You can always contribute. That’s an option available to you. You can say, “there’s more here than just two states.” That’s fine, that’s constructive, and honestly, I encourage you to do so, if you feel it’s appropriate. But, in saying, “no, burn this whole thing down,” you’re encouraging a situation where writers will create more hurtful material with the best of intentions.

Take this dev blog from Bioware’s Patrick Weekes about the character of Krem in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Emphasis added.

On the writing side, I wrote Krem as best I could, and the editing team looked at every line and cleaned up dialogue and paraphrases that could give the wrong impression. I then passed him to two friends in the GQ community… at which point they showed me where I was absolutely messing things up and gave me constructive feedback on how to improve. In the first draft, Bull was the one who brought up Krem’s binding as a friendly joke. My friends pointed out how incredibly hurtful such a callout was for many trans people in real life (“Hey, by the way, you’re actually a woman, just wanted to remind you!”) and that it made Bull into an incredibly offensive jerk. This was not at all what I wanted—people playing now will note that Bull and Krem give each other grief about little things all the time, but never attack truly sore spots—and I rewrote the scene so that Krem is the one who brings it up first. This makes it clear that Krem is comfortable discussing being trans, and the player will not be offending Krem by asking questions about it.

In the investigate hub where you can ask Krem about his past in Tevinter, the first draft had him deserting after fighting off someone who discovered his secret and tried to assault him. My friends noted that this played directly into the sad “attacked trans person” cliché, and while it was plausible, it was an ugly event that could well trigger trans people who have experienced harassment in real life. The goal was for Krem to be a positive character who was living his life happily now, and I revised his departure from Tevinter accordingly.

This is the result of someone trying to be progressive. But, without access to anyone in the community, and without access to any good resources, making mistakes like this is unavoidable.

So, if you want to contribute your observations, please, do. But, you just want it all to go away because you disagreed with one part of it, that’s actually a very bad idea, and it works against anything you could be working for.

-Starke

I have a question & I apologize if it has been answered before but– I am writing a medieval/fantasy novel & my MC is a very hard working farm girl who ends up getting into a quest that will need her to use some kind of force/weaponry. I don’t want to do the clichéd “very natural with no training with a sword/bow” but I need her to be decent with some kind of weapon. I am thinking an axe would be the most realistic for her past, or possibly a flail/mace. Any help is greatly appreciated.

I’d give her three weapons: one ranged, two close combat. I’m basing my choices below on her background and I’ll explain why.

Sling

Staff

Dirk/Dagger

These three cover your basic necessities while giving you the ability to branch out over the course of the story. Let me explain each in detail:

The Sling – the sling is the weapon of the farm child, one children still use to defend their flock from attackers both animal and human. It’s a great weapon, easy to maintain and use with ammunition everywhere with the potential for deadly accuracy.

Like the sword, the sling comes with it’s own thematic history when found literature as it was the weapon of choice for David when he fought and killed Goliath. It is a literary flashcard that this person is an underdog meant for great things.

Yes, it’s the weapon of the child but your character starts the story young. This is their coming of age. Besides that, it’s a great weapon and one you don’t have to worry too much about when it comes to logistics. The only downside is that its themes indicate someone who is intelligent, canny, and cunning, who performs the unexpected, and breaks the conventional rules to change to odds to their favor. (It also takes way less time to set up than the bow.)

The Staff – the staff is a basic, easy to use weapon that has an advantage over the sword in terms of reach and provides the base for training in more advanced polearms like the spear or the halberd. The learning curve is quick, it’s easy to practice, and it’s the weapon of the wizard/traveler.

If your character is going on a journey, she needs a walking stick. A walking stick that stealthily transitions into a beat down stick. She’s not professionally trained so taking on a city guard or knight early in the story is going to be a last resort, but she couldn’t have done that with an axe or a flail/mace anyway. If asked by the local city guard or lord, she has a convenient justification for carrying it and given that she is a peasant this is probably a good thing.

The Dagger – the dagger covers basic hand to hand, if she can’t get to the staff or the sling, then she can fall back to this. The dagger will give her the advantage in an unarmed/unarmored fight which she needs because she doesn’t know how. She may need someone to teach her how to hold it and strike with it, but it’s another weapon that is very easy to learn the basics of.

Other suggestions: a club, a cudgel, or a hand axe (like a hatchet)

On the mace/flail/morningstar: these are weapons meant for armored melee, specifically against enemies in plate. They won’t do your character a lot of good if you’re not planning on having her go after guys in mass melee wearing heavy plate. Since she hasn’t been trained to use it or fight them anyway, I’d suggest avoiding it.

Between the three, she has better odds than if you give her just the one. Also, the one weapon concept is really, really stupid. She’s going to face a variety of challenges over the course of her journey and there is no one weapon fits all. Different tools for different challenges. This is necessary to understand if you ever want to break out into more specialized weaponry because it’s important to remember that a highly specialized weapon only has an advantage under a very specific set of circumstances and combat variables. Any of the above weapons (ignoring the flail, the mace, and the morningstar) are weapons that would be ones she’s grown up with and make sense given her background.

There are some important things to remember: The weapons I’ve suggested won’t help her when it comes time to take on a professional warrior a la a knight but given your character’s background there’s no real helping that anyway. The axe won’t help her either. They will help with encountering bandits on the road during her travels and defending herself in tavern brawls, weapons that will provide her with the opportunity to fend someone off and give her time to adjust to her new surroundings. Some weapons like the sling are preemptive and can be used dangerously when at range to take out men in armor if they’re not wearing helmets. It won’t help her if they see her and catch her.

Combat is about skill and experience than it is about any physical qualities. Not all weapons are created equal and it’s best not to underestimate the training of the enemies she will be facing. It’s best to remember that these guys are dangerous to her and direct force like taking on a whole garrison full of guards to get to one single target may not be the wisest choice. (Is it ever?) Despite their lack of experience, your character has a unique perspective to apply when solving situations. Let them live in that place. Little John wasn’t a super fighter but he still managed to dump Robin Hood in a river.

A hero is made a hero by their brains, not their brawn. By understanding their limitations, you’ll be better able to work out how they might uniquely solve their problems. Fighting a better equipped enemy on the enemy’s terms is not cowardice, it’s stupid. Your character will never be able to “catch up” to other characters that have been training to become warriors since childhood, just like how during the Star Wars Original Trilogy Luke never really became Vader’s equal in martial skill. He matches him in other more important qualities and those qualities are what cement him as a hero.

-Michi

Violence Is Currency: A Pacifist Ex-Con’s Guide To Prison Weaponry

Violence Is Currency: A Pacifist Ex-Con’s Guide To Prison Weaponry

Do you know any good ideas or tips on creating your own mythos and world?

Weirdly enough, the first thought that comes to mind is actually the Sun Tsu axiom about knowing yourself and your enemy.

If you’re building a world from scratch, you need to look at this one. You can see us do this on a fairly regular basis, especially when people are asking about putting together a fantasy setting.

Study history. Study the time period (or periods) your setting is roughly based on. Learn what you can, extrapolate what you want.

Further, study “why?” When you’re looking at a given era, pay special attention to the reasons behind the decisions people made. Find out why forces were arrayed the way they were. Find out why the weapons of the era were used, instead of others. Why some cities were valuable, and others weren’t, especially how those values changed over time. Look at why people’s value systems developed, and how they understood their world, right and wrong, ethics, morality, religion. Look for the causes that lead to their understanding (this one is a bit of a tall order, but, seriously, try it).

Studying “why” does two things: it lets you start to understand what will change when you start tweaking the world, and it helps you to understand people a little better, which is incredibly important as a writer.

Take a cause and effect approach to building your world, rather than the effect preceding the cause. A lot of the time, when we start building a world, that’s you, me, and probably most people reading this, it comes from a basic premise, “here’s a cool thing I want for my world.” On it’s own, that’s fine, it’s a starting point. But, immediately after that, you need to decide what caused that, and then, after that, resist the impulse to add another “cool thing” because you want it. Instead start looking for other consequences that come from your first cool thing, and expand out.

Because the great cool thing happened, people reacted (preferably like people), which lead to this other thing happening, which lead to people reacting, and more consequences, more reactions, more consequences.

You could call this hierarchical world building. You start with your basic cause and effect in mind, and then start working out all the thousand little cascading events and consequences.

Finally, people aren’t smarter now than they used to be. There’s a real truth to the line about standing on the shoulders of giants. When you’re building your world, don’t resort to people being idiots in order to explain their behavior. They may not have all the information, but they’re going to try to solve the problems they’re facing to the best of their abilities. If they’re ultimately working against their own interests, it’s going to be because of things they don’t know or understand, in their world, not because they’re stupid.

-Starke

Hello! I am writing about a serial killer in a fantasy setting and he uses a knife/dagger to kill his victims. My question would be, what kind of a knife/dagger would be good for this? His victims don’t have weapons on them and are smaller than him if that makes any difference. Thank you!

Any knife or dagger would be good for this. It doesn’t even have to be a “professional” knife or combat oriented weapon. It can be a kitchen knife, a butcher’s cleaver, a meat hook, a surgeon’s scalpel, anything you want really. If he or she is a savvy serial killer then they’re most likely to use a knife that leaves a minimal amount of forensic evidence. However, unless you’re basing your magic and fantasy setting around a modern 21st century understanding of medicine, detective work, criminal profiling, and forensics, it doesn’t really matter. He’ll use whatever is within the range of he has access to and maybe has special meaning (maybe not), perhaps a knife with an interchangeable handle and one that is easy to clean. It really depends on what type of killer he/she is and since I don’t know the character, the setting, or the type of law enforcement in question it’s really difficult to guess. (I say he because most of the serial killers we know of and profiling circles around are male, but historically there have been several prominent female ones.)

While serial killers have probably existed for as long as humans have, our understanding of their psychology (and even the use of the term “serial killer”) really only dates back to the 1960s-1970s before that they were something of a mystery.

I’d actually step back a moment and look at serial killers. I’m going to pull a passage from Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Hunting Serial Killers for the FBI by Robert K. Ressler and Tom Shachtman dealing with the profiling of “The Vampire Killer” aka Richard Trenton Chase. Ressler, arguably, coined the term “serial killer” in the mid-70s, and is one of the originators of modern serial crimes investigation.

Here, in the original (and not entirely grammatical) notes written at the time is how I profiled the probable perpetrator of this terrible crime:

“White male, aged 25-27 years; thin, undernourished appearance. Residence will be extremely slovenly and unkempt and evidence of the crime will be found at the residence. History of mental illness, and will have been involved in use of drugs. Will be a loner who does not associate with either males or females, and will probably spend a great deal of time in his own home, where he lives alone. Unemployed. Possibly receives some form of disability money. If residing with anyone, it would be his parents; however, this is unlikely. No prior military record; high school or college dropout. Probably suffering from one or more forms of paranoid psychosis.”

Though profiling was still in its infancy we had reviewed enough cases of murder to know that sexual homicide — for that’s the category into which this crime fit, even if there was no evidence of a sex act at the crime scene — is usually perpetrated by males, and is usually a intraracial crime, white against white, or black against black. The greatest number of sexual killers are white males in their twenties and thirties; this simple fact allows us to eliminate whole segments of the population when first trying to determine what sort of person has perpetrated one of these heinous crimes. Since this was a white residential area, I felt even more certain that the slayer was a white male.

Now, I made a guess along a great division line that we in the Behavioral Sciences Unit were beginning to formulate, the distinction between killers who displayed a certain logic in what they had done and whose mental processes were, by ordinary standards, not apparently logical— “organized” versus “disorganized” criminals. Looking at the crime-scene photographs and the police reports, it was apparent to me this was not a crime committed by an “organized” killer who stalked his victims, was methodical in how he went about his crimes, and took care to avoid leaving clues to his own identity.  No, from the appearance of the crime scene, it was obvious to me that we were dealing with a “disorganized killer” , a person who had a full blown or serious mental illness. To become as crazy as the man who ripped up Terry Wallin is not something that happens overnight. It takes eight to ten years to develop the depth of psychosis that would surface in this apparently senseless killing. Paranoid schizophrenia is usually first manifested in the teenage years. Adding ten years to an inception-of-illness age of about fifteen would put the slayer in the mid-twenties age group. I felt that he wouldn’t be much older for two reasons. First, most sexual killers are under the age of thirty-five. Second, if he was older than later twenties, the illness would have been so overwhelming it would already have resulted in a string of bizarre and unsolved homicides. Nothing as wiles as this had been reported nearby, and the absence of other notable homicides was a clue that this was the first killing of this man, that the killer had probably never taken a life before.

Whoever Fights Monsters, Robert K. Ressler and Tom Shachtman, pg 3-4.

Sir Also Appearing In This Book: Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”), Charles Manson, Edmund Kemper, Peter Sutcliffe (“The Yorkshire Ripper”), Richard Speck, and Jefferey Dahmer. If you’re planning to write about a serial killer, even a fantasy based one, I recommend reading about what the experts who caught actual serial killers have to say before turning to recent television like Dexter or Hannibal. The book also includes some discussion of the various crime scenes and killing which may provide you with some (admittedly rather gruesome) inspiration.

What kind of killer is your killer? Organized? Disorganized? If we’re discussing someone who routinely uses the same weapons over and over again, I’m going to guess these aren’t crimes of chance. Though whether or not this was the weapon he first began killing with (and holds sentimental value) is probably a question worth thinking about. If it is, then it’s likely a common one that’s valuable to his daily activities.

Is he stable (and capable of holding down a job) or mentally unstable? Why does he kill his victims? In the case of “The Vampire Killer”, he believed the people he was killing were tied to a secret Mafia organization that was poisoning him for his mother. In his trial, he firmly believed this was his chance to out the truth. We know untreated paranoid schizophrenia often results in these sorts of delusions.

Why your killer does and who he targets are going to be much more important than what he performs his killings with. Women? Men? Girls? Boys? Nobles? Merchants? Prostitutes? Religious minorities? Is he punishing his targets for some perceived slight or sin (stalking and killing prostitues because they represent immorality and corruption, coupled with a repressed sexual desire)? Is he trying to save the world? Are his killings just hack jobs or do they have a theme?

It’s all up to you really.

References for Further Reading/Viewing:

Whoever Hunts Monsters by Robert K. Ressler and Tom Shachtman. I’ve already said why this should be on your shelf if you’re writing serial killers, but I’ll say it again: FBI expert and discussion of real case files. When it comes to research: Reality > Fiction.

Seven In this famous thriller, Morgan Freeman and a young Brad Pitt star as two cops chasing down a serial killer who performs crimes based on the seven deadly sins. (Yes, Supernatural fans you can finally learn “what’s in the box” though you may wish you didn’t.)

From Hell by Alan Moore. One of Moore’s lesser known (i.e. less popular than Watchman) works surrounds the investigation into the possible identities of Jack the Ripper. Not only is it very good, it’s also very thorough.

-Michi

How do I improve my dialogue

Since you’re asking us, I’ll make the assumption that you’ve already checked elsewhere and gotten the basics. If you haven’t, then, there’s decent primers here and here. With thanks to The Writing Cafe for compiling this list of general writing resources.

Stephen King’s On Writing scatters dialog advice through the book. It’s more holistic, and interested in talking about how to be better as a writer, but, if you haven’t read it, grab a copy.

If you’ve already done all that, and wanting more advanced advice, then I can offer some random thoughts:

When it comes to fight scenes, remember that talking is not a free action. (With thanks or ire directed at D&D and TV tropes for that phrase.) Everything your character says in a fight is time they could better spend recovering and preparing for the next strike. I know it’s a genre staple in anime and manga, but outside of a deliberate homage, it’s just going to be bad writing. Cut your combat dialog down as hard as you can. It needs to be information that really cannot wait, or at least that the characters think can’t wait.

I have a minor preference for hearing dialog over reading it. Which means when it comes to dialog sampling, I put a slight priority on watching TV series with good writers over extensive reading, but, I also go read some of what they’ve written, and this isn’t a free pass to just binge watch whatever you want and say, “no really, I’m learning to write.”

Don’t try to copy another writer’s dialog style. You’re not Joss Whedon, and actually nailing the idiosyncrasies of his dialog takes a lot of work. It’s not that you’ll never be able to mimic another writer’s dialog patterns, but it’s a really bad way to start because he’s breaking rules you shouldn’t. Also, I’m singling out Whedon because I see so many writers (both amateur and professional) try to ape him, usually with disastrous results.

Whedon’s schtick is the way he mutilates the English language. It’s part, “in ways science never thought possible,” part teenager with an undefined attention deficit disorder (I’m not throwing this out there as a pejorative, his work reads like of someone trying to sound like they have an amalgamation of ADD and ADHD). Obviously, it works for him, but he’s walking a very fine line between sharp dialog and sounding like grammar is a thing that happens to other people.

Obviously, I’m not just talking about Whedon, though. Chances are, wherever you’re going to look at good dialog, you’re going to see a writer that habitually breaks the rules. Be that something like Aaron Sorkin’s obsession with context misalignment and high tempo conversations that run headlong into walls, or Straczynski’s habit of dumping entire pages of exposition into his dialog.

Look at them, study what they do, but don’t try to copy their styles.

Collect and study idioms. This is one of the things to do when you’re listing to other people talk, or reading other writer’s work. Just keep a mental list of idioms. Make sure you know what it means, and where it’s used. No, it wouldn’t make sense for your SoCal teen to say, “that dog don’t hunt no more.”

Also, remember that idioms are language specific, and are consistently one of the hardest things for a non-native speaker to pick up. So, non-fluent character probably shouldn’t be breaking out complex idiomatic phrases.

The reason is fairly simple: while idioms might follow normal grammatical rules, the meaning is, completely, arbitrary. “That dog don’t hunt no more,” has nothing to do with hunting or dogs. “Butter them up” has… well, none of those words actually mean anything. And of course, your reflexes are too good for metaphors to go “over your head…” …or something.

The insidious thing about idioms is, you already have a huge library of them. They’re a byproduct of how we use language on a day to day basis. What you need to do is step back, filter them out, and make sure they’re appropriate for your character, especially when your character comes from a vastly different background. Then, listen for ones that you don’t know.

Also, please resist the urge to re-purpose an existing idiom into your non-modern setting. “Like a cop eating doughnuts” getting adapted into your high fantasy story is like what Garfield strips are to comedy. Just, don’t do it.

On a related note: keep track of dialect changes. America doesn’t have a completely unified dialect. Cambridge was doing studies and surveys on the subject a couple years ago, though most of the easily accessible information now is just raw data. This isn’t huge stuff, but just word choice between things like “soda” and “pop” will change depending on where in the country you, or your characters, were raised. This is easily one of the hardest things to get right because of how subtle it is.

Keep track of verbal crutches and tics. Using words like “like,” “literally,” or “actually,” as flavoring particles. It’s something a lot of real people do, but be careful to moderate your characters, so they don’t use them too much, and so their verbal tics don’t match your own.

Just because you know what your character is trying to say doesn’t mean your other characters will. I mentioned context misalignment with Sorkin, earlier, because it’s something he uses for laughs. But, your characters are separate individuals, while dialog is about them interacting, it doesn’t mean they’re approaching the world with the same perspective, even if they think they’re agreeing with one another.

Actually, while we’re on this subject, remember your characters are separate people, with different interests, motivations, and backgrounds. It may seem unrelated, but it is important to keep your individual characters in mind when writing their dialog.

Do not try to be “enigmatic” with your dialog. Dialog is there to convey information to the reader. Conveying information between characters is a happy accident that happens along the way. Having someone trying to be deliberately enigmatic without a very solid character justification is just asking for messy, obnoxious dialog.

Also, note that pissing characters off with enigmatic dialog can be conveying information to the reader, it’s just not what the person is saying that matters. Just, be very careful with it.

If your characters need to use some kind of verbal code, make sure you translate that for the reader.

Don’t break the fourth wall in dialog. It’s fragile enough, it doesn’t need you taking a sarcastic claw hammer to it.

That should give you some things to start with.

-Starke