For years my grandmother worked at the edge of an orange grove in a wooden shack built on blocks and painted red. Spiders were always scuttling down the walls and grove workers milled about outside. She kept the books. Every morning she dressed for the office, sat with perfect posture all day long, and smoked.
She never complained, and the men all called her ma’am and someone made sure fresh flowers were on her desk.
At least, that’s the way it was whenever I went there with her. And she never said whether she liked this life more or less than her life as a dancing girl, walking down stairs on stage in feathers and beads.
As best I remember my grandmother complained about only three things, the waitress bringing her a full cup of coffee when she’d asked for a half, whether or not I was standing up straight, and my mother.
I couldn’t understand what the complaint actually was. She’d hear or see something my mom had done, and my grandmother would place a hand over her heart and mutter my mom’s name.
If my mom saw this, she’d start shouting, and every time I would listen. I’d take apart every sentence and try to understand. I knew they were fighting about something they weren’t saying, but try as I might, I couldn’t find the real problem.
When I was old enough to ask, their answers hide more than they revealed. People can hide so much in what they say.
Characters have to do the same. Miscommunication, hidden agendas, lies, twisted truths, hurt feelings, anger, love, secrets–all are in the dialog. But sometimes I worry my dialog is too opaque. Confusing, not intriguing. Unrealistic, not compelling.
How can you be sure you’re keeping your characters interesting–and not making them into a collection of verbal ticks and unbelievable ideas?