Writing Dialog If Your Character Is a Scientist

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I talk with scientists a lot, as I’ve mentioned before. But until this last weekend, when, due to the fact that it was time for us all to March for Science (and I hope everybody did), what I’ve mostly thought about when I talked with a scientist was what words I would use if I needed to translate what the scientist was saying into Regular English. Translating Science, after all, is my job.

But I’ve been writing fiction for some time now, and a writerly mindset seems to be taking over my brain. Instead of doing as I usually do, and mentally translating the March for Science speeches into the common language of most of the crowd, I found myself analyzing them for the specific characteristics of Science-ese that really define the way a scientist speaks. I was trying to figure how to subtly incorporate those characteristics into dialogue in such a way as to give the impression that a character is a genuine, bona fide scientist.

Early on, I learned that in writing dialogue, it’s sometimes little things that make all the difference. One of the first novels I ever wrote was set in the very early nineteenth century, and though I naturally wanted the dialogue to sound convincingly early-nineteenth-century-ish (or at least not jarringly modern), I also didn’t want to try to reproduce actual speech from the era. I guess some writers can pull that off, but when I do it, it always sounds fake. So I immersed myself in period literature for a few months, trying hard as I did so to pick out some stylistic detail that I thought nicely defined the difference between early nineteenth-century and modern style.

I found it in the old rule that I was taught in high school English class: “Don’t split infinitives.”

This is a stupid rule, and no one has obeyed it for the last two hundred years. But briefly—very briefly—it was an absolute; and that brief period happened to be the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

So the characters in my novel never ever, in speaking, split their infinitives; and friends who read it said, “Oh, your dialogue is so good! It really evokes the era!” They were friends, so mostly they refrained from pointing out the hundred other things that I’d done wrong.

Scientists, of course, split their infinitives.

They also sprinkle a fair number of scientific words into their conversation, and you would probably think that mimicking this (annoying) tendency would work well to make a character sound like a scientist. Somehow—I don’t know why—it doesn’t. It is, however, unbeatable as a device for making a character sound pretentious; so keep it in mind.

Scientists also talk about their research a lot; and if, in a novel, every conversation involving a particular character somehow wound up back on the topic of, say, neutrophils, that character would sound convincingly like a scientist who studied neutrophils. However, this is tricky to write for the author who is not also an authority on neutrophils. You may believe me when I say that if you get one picky little word wrong, you will hear from every neutrophil-loving scientist in the world about it. There are a lot of them. Not all of them will be tactful.

Looking back over the texts of some March for Science-day speeches, what jumps out at me most is the fact—it is a fact—that scientists are never certain. Somehow they never forget, even for a moment, that nothing can ever be definitively proven. They know that even something as well-established as gravity may actually be wrong. One day we may penetrate to the earth’s core and find that dropped things fall because there’s a giant Stuff-magnet in there, pulling everything toward the center of the earth with its powerful Stuff-attractant Rays. You don’t believe me? A scientist at our local March was asked by a heckler if she believed in the theory of evolution (the questioner emphasized the word “theory”). After gently correcting her interrogator’s terminology (he meant “natural selection”), the scientist replied—not “yes”, although natural selection is a cornerstone of biological science—but “So far, that is the theory that best explains the evidence.”

Since I know that the shortest and best way to define a character is with one or two lines of really trenchant dialogue, I’ll write a book with a scientist in it when I’ve come up with something as brilliant to write as “the theory that best explains the evidence.” Or better still, I’ll aspire to something even more brilliant; something on a level with the exchange between Ray Stanz (Dan Ackroyd) and Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson) in the original Ghostbusters movie.

Winston asks Dr. Stanz if he believes in God.

Says Dr. Stanz, “I never met Him.”

That is the perfect scientist answer.


[Image of the March for Science at Portland, Oregon from Another Believer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

What Sculpture Taught Me about Writing Dialogue

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(Photo via Good Free Photos)

The town I live in goes in for public art in a big way, which is very nice except that the piece of public art nearest my home is a statue I don’t like.  Actually, it’s a statue I hate.  This statue is—unusually, these days—representational, and I like representational art.  I should like this statue.  Instead, it evokes an active loathing in my soul.

My daughter—who’s an artist—would probably tell me that this very loathing is the proof that, as a work of art, the statue is a success.  The principal function of art, she tells me, is to make people uncomfortable.  (I think that’s what she said.)  Whether that’s true or not, this statue that I hate has been useful to me.  It’s helped me to write better dialogue.

The statue is of a young woman who looks like she might be waiting for something.  I’ve always assumed she was waiting for a bus because a) the statue is positioned at a bus-stop; and b) she looks a little bored.  Not a lot bored; just a little.  It’s life-sized, which means the young woman is taller than I am because almost everybody is, and she’s dressed very casually in jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie with the hood down and resting on her shoulders.  A light breeze stirs her hair.  Her head is turned slightly to the side, and she stares down the road, watching passively for the bus, which on this particular route runs every hour, seven days a week, except on Christmas and New Year’s when the buses in this town don’t run at all.  Every detail of her face and clothing (her hands are concealed in her pockets) is absolutely correct and in perfect proportion.  Even the aglets on the ends of her shoelaces are visible.  She looks, in short, exactly like a slightly bored young woman of between 18 and, say, 25; casually dressed; who is waiting for a bus—and who has been dipped in bronze.

I’ve lived here for sixteen years, which means (if I’ve done the math right, and allowing for days off) that I’ve driven by the Statue I Don’t Like at least 4000 times on my way to work.  I’ve loathed it every time.  But sometime about viewing #2847, I realized why I didn’t like it; and that the statue had a lesson to teach.

I used to spend a lot of time trying to make characters in my books converse with each other in a way that I considered to be absolutely true-to-life.  Grammar, vocabulary, idiom—I wanted them all exactly those of real people.  Nobody popping off an “oh, very well” in my books, when nobody in real life has said “oh, very well” for a hundred years.  No siree.  And the dialogue I produced that way was the literary equivalent of Bronze Bus-Watcher.  Go to any bus-station and see her equivalent in the flesh; listen to the conversations going on around you and hear my characters’ dialogue.

So when it comes to statuary and dialogue, I conclude, true-to-life is overrated.  True-to-life is an undistinguished young woman rendered faithfully but soullessly in bronze.  Good dialogue—not the stuff I write; but I’m working on it—is Michelangelo’s David.  One hand is bigger than the other, and his eyes don’t track; but you certainly can’t go down to any old bus-stop and see him.

I’m working now on making dialogue that is untrue to life; but, I hope, more revelatory of my characters’ souls.  I’m big into baring souls.  Souls are more interesting to me than even plots—which is saying quite a lot.  This new way is hard for me; but I like it.  I can make my characters say anything I want them too now, even if it’s something nobody in “real life” ever has said, or would.

So far, they have never wanted to say, “Oh, very well.”