My dear storymakers,
One of my writing friends is working on a fantasy novel set in a medieval-style world, and she wanted to know how she could make the characters’ dialogue sound more natural.
The basic advice is to write dialogue the way people speak—but when you’re writing about people in a different world, planet, or time period than your own, there’s a lot more to think about.
So how do you write realistic dialogue for an imaginary world?
I can’t give the definitive answer on this, of course, but here are some tips that I’ve used in fantasy writing. Let me start with the basics, though:
Two universal rules for writing natural dialogue:
# 1: Start with the spoken word!
If there’s only one take-away from this post, this is the most important one: start with the spoken word rather than the written one.
What I mean is don’t start by writing down what you want your characters to say. SPEAK what you want your characters to say, and then write it down. Seriously. Talk to your bathroom mirror. Whisper as you sit at your computer. Let the conversation flow however it sounds most naturally to you. Then jot that conversation down, work it into your story, and then read it out loud again. Say the lines out loud every time you read it.
Yes, you will be talking to yourself a lot. You don’t have to shout, of course. You can say it quietly or while your voice is drowned out by the shower, but say every line before writing it, and continue to tweak the wording until it sounds right.
I don’t know how else to get dialogue to sound natural than to hear it!
#2: Listen carefully
As you’re trying to get your characters to sound natural, do a little eavesdropping. Pay attention to casual conversation and note the speaking patterns of the people around you. People interrupt one another, start sentences and never finish them, or say just a few words at a time. Listen for patterns that you can mimic.
Even in a fantasy or sci-fi setting, the back-and-forth nature of conversation is likely to be the same, and it will immediately feel natural for your reader.
So how do I write dialogue for people in fantasy and sci-fi?
Once you have an idea of how to write natural dialogue, how do you make it fit into your imaginary universe? Don’t revert to something fancy or stiff or bookish because that’s how fantasy is “supposed” to sound—you’ll make your characters sound stuffy and boring. Make sure it sounds like real human speech (even if they happen to be fairies or aliens, you probably want them to sound relatable to your readers), and then consider how you might adapt it.
Here are a few things to consider:
First of all, cut out any slang or contemporary expressions that don’t fit your universe. A monk training in the secluded temples of the sacred forest will not talk about being “a total fail” at “adulting.” These terms are too closely tied with our current culture.
But also watch out for other, less obvious modern words. Someone living in medieval times wouldn’t use terms that came out of the machine age, such as “automatic” or “robotic” or even “meltdown,” and they wouldn’t call something “cool.”
You don’t have to do a full search of the history of every word that we use, of course! Just be aware of the really obvious ones that could be a distraction.
If you’re building a new culture, it’s fun to think about expressions and idioms a group of people might have developed based on their everyday life. Is their world primarily agricultural? Urban? Technologically driven? What would be some unique ways they’d use that imagery to describe feeling sad or surprised or angry?
For example, in Escape to Vindor, the character Nikterra is a Kavannan centaur—a people group whose world revolves around farming. So when Nikterra wants to accuse someone of lying, she doesn’t say their comment is baloney, she calls it “vine-rot.” Even though I made the expression up, it’s clearly agricultural and the meaning in context is fairly clear.
In my upcoming book, I have a Nomad girl who lives on the open plains. She calls another character a “lying toad” because a toad is probably one of the least pleasant creatures in her experience.
Let your imagination be the guide here!
Cultural speaking patterns
A character’s culture can also influence how they express themselves. Consider—do people in your character’s hometown tend to use long, flowing sentences, or short, abrupt ones? Do they love artistic metaphors and speak in abstract word pictures, or are they quick and to the point? Do they make a lot of puns? Enjoy insulting one another? Find ways to hide what they actually feel?
For the Huntsmen, I borrowed the speech patterns from Old English poetry. (I studied it in college, and yes, I am a nerd.) Their sentences tend to be a bit longer with a deliberate cadence to it, and they also use something called kenning, in which they connect two words together in order to describe something. For example:
“Here we are—my very own earth-abode,” Boath said. “However long you’re here, you are a welcome guest.”
And this exchange:
Dunwulf stiffened. “This is no laughing matter, Ragged-Robe.”
“Perhaps she doesn’t understand the art of Huntsman dream-raveling,” Boath said, a smile playing on his lips.
Dunwulf scowled. “Neither do you, Boath Ill-Luck.”
They’re subtle things, but it makes their speech patterns distinct from other people groups of Vindor. It makes them sound a bit otherworldly, while not compromising their ability to argue or interrupt one another.
Finally, consider your individual character and what would shape their speaking style. Are they impatient and want to get straight to the point? Are they evasive and try to hide their true meaning behind a bunch of long-winded sentences?
I’ll use Nikterra the centaur as an example again. Nikterra doesn’t speak stiffly—she still has natural speech patterns and unfinished sentences—but she also uses some elevated vocabulary. She doesn’t say an unpleasant thing is gross, she says it is “vile.” To me, this is partly from her background, but also unique to her. It’s is tied up with her pride—she likes to speak in a way that emphasizes that she’s just slightly smarter than you.
Whether you’re writing with the dream of publication, or writing purely for fun, these tips should help you develop more natural-sounding characters and a more robust world.
I wish you all the best in your storymaking endeavors!