My mother-in-law’s birthday and we are at a steak place. This is not just a steak place, this is a Steak Place. Dim lighting, comfortable seating, well-dressed serving staff, and even fancy menus, makes this one of the nicest places in town to buy a steak. The meal gets to us and after this perfect cut, perfectly grilled piece of meat is set in front of her, my mother-in-law says, “Can I get some 57 sauce?”
This woman is one of my favorite people in the world. She is supportive, and wise, she is kind and loving, but when she puts sauce on a perfect steak my blood goes cold. I turn my head away from her blasphemy as I hear my son beside me jokingly say, “I ain’t gonna use no 57 sauce.”
Then he laughs at me. He winks and says, “I bet you hated that.” He giggles. “You’re a writer. I bet you hated every bit of what I just said.”
My answer, “I loved and hated it. As a writer and a father.” He smiles. “So which loved which, did the writer hate it or the father?” I ask him.
“The writer hated it.”
“Wrong, the father hated it. The father wants his son to be eloquent, well-understood, and well-spoken. The writer loved it. Want to know why?”
For a writer fighting to reveal a character, there are many tools, exposition is the worst. Don’t tell me about what the character is like. Show me. Show me through action for sure, but don’t forget to illustrate your character through dialogue.
If a character says the line my son said, what do we know about them? We can say they have a low amount of education. We can tell a bit about the environment they were raised in. We can almost see the people who raised them. We can see how they are dressed, can see their level of hygiene.
Now as I write this, I am disgusted with myself. Making these assumptions about a person because of a slice of dialogue they spoke is appalling. When a person in life uses slang and improper grammar, when they use double negatives and the like, I do not jump to these conclusions. However, when I write, it is a different matter.
Revealing the character is a job that needs to be done as quickly as possible. It needs to be done with subtly and guile, the use of stereotypes is at times necessary. I would never use “Gonna,” “Ain’t,” or a double negative when writing a cultured, intelligent character.
Dialogue is a tool that can reveal a character better than almost anything. Look at Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. No matter how you dress her up, no matter the jewelry she wears or the parties she attends, there will always be a rough quality to her. You can’t clean up her history. You can’t change 20 plus years of background.
For myself, I was raised working class. My family cursed, drank, fought and worked. My background is rough and I am fiercely proud of it. I do not try to curb the person I was raised to be. I have learned to speak in ways and about things that are more suitable to the situation I am in, but in my heart I will always be a street kid from a gangland section of a big city.
When I speak, you can hear the ghost of that life in my words and my slang, in the things I talk about and the tone in which I speak about them. I curse loud. I laugh loud. My character is revealed in my dialogue.
It always will be.