A burly henchman wearing an eyepatch and a prickly sneer leans against a castle parapet. He stands not three paces away from a knight in glittering armor. The latter of the pair is not happy.
“I’ll ask again,” growls the knight. “Did you or did you not witness the incident in question?”
The henchman thinks on this for a moment. He wads a ball of phlegm in his throat and spits, not far from the knight’s shiny boots.
The henchman says, “For whom do you work, sir?”
And the reader thinks, Wait a second. What?
Dialogue is one of the trickiest components of writing fiction. We authors spend years learning the numerous rules of grammar and punctuation, only to discover they should, almost always, be ignored when writing dialogue. After all, people rarely talk like they write.
Consider the above example. It’s grammatically correct for the henchman to use “whom” in this statement, since it’s a pronoun in the objective sense. Furthermore, avoiding the construction “Whom do you work for?” precludes a hanging preposition at the end of the sentence.
Yes, this line demonstrates good grammar. But it’s still bad dialogue.
That’s because when we write dialogue, we must always remember who’s talking. Dialogue is about character, authenticity, and occasionally plot—it’s almost never about adhering to syntax or grammar.
The henchman’s line feels wrong because everything else he’s done suggests he wouldn’t talk like that. He’s a henchman, he sneers, he spits near people’s nice boots. There’s no way this guy would know the difference between who and whom.
Ideally, dialogue sounds unique to the character speaking it. I find it helps to ask myself, Would this character say that? Or, Is this how this character would say it? Or, Would this character use that word, or another?
Questions like these make writing dialogue both difficult and enjoyable. It’s a challenge, and like any challenge, improvement comes with practice. There are many ways to develop the right voice for characters, but I think the best way is to just write. And write. And write.
Most importantly, let’s not forget who’s talking. It’s the number one influence on every line of dialogue.