Do all your characters sound like you? Or an idealized version of you?
Do they all sound like each other?
Would you recognize if they did?
Try this – Could you delete a character and give their lines to someone else without a problem? Could you swap the dialogue of two characters in a scene without it changing anything significant about the characters?
If you’ve been told your characters seem flat, sometimes the problem isn’t that you haven’t fully developed your characters. Sometimes it’s the way you’re writing their dialogue.
Whether you’re a planner, a pantser, or something in between, you can benefit from figuring out three things about how your character would speak before you start to write or re-write.
Know the Regionalisms from Where Your Character Grew Up or Now Lives
Small touches in word choice make a big difference. Take my husband and I as examples. I’m a Canadian from Southwestern Ontario. My husband is an American from Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C.
I say pop – He says soda.
I say supper – He says dinner.
I say chocolate bar – He says candy bar.
Along with small differences in word choice, characters from different regions will have different catch words. Stephen King’s characters from Maine say “Ayuh” as an affirmative. Canadians will use “eh” as both an affirmative and a question, depending on the situation.
If you’re going to use a regionalism, make sure you understand it properly or you’re going to disgust a large portion of your readers. Thanks to the internet, there’s no excuse for not contacting someone who lives in that region and asking them for some tips.
If you’re a science fiction or fantasy author, regionalism can be a goldmine for adding depth to your world. For example, does a regionalism give away a character’s real nationality?
In the novel Lisa Hall-Wilson and I are currently working on together, our Amazon protagonist has no word for “brother.” In her society, all male babies are killed so brothers don’t exist. The closet she can come is saying “son of your father.”
Know Your Character’s Education Level, IQ, and Station in Life
While even the most highly educated among us rarely uses perfect grammar when we speak, grammatical errors, strategically used, say much about a character.
The character who says “I didn’t see nobody” isn’t the same as the character who says “I didn’t see anyone.”
A character who’s highly educated or well-read will also naturally drop ten-dollar words into their speech at times. (Don’t overuse this and send your readers running for a dictionary…or away from your book. As with grammatical errors, choose your spots for maximum impact.)
I’m a writer, married to an editor, and we’re both avid readers. Words we’ve recently used in casual conversation between us include egregious, deleterious, incongruous, tout, and insipid. (Yes, I know we’re weird.)
What if your character’s first language isn’t English?
My grandparents were born in Slovakia (the poor, rural side of what used to be Czechoslovakia). My grandpa spoke no English when he first came to Canada, and he struggled because Slovakian is different from English in a very fundamental way. It depends on changing the ending of a word to indicate the word’s function in a sentence rather than on word order. According to my grandma, he would make mistakes like saying, “Throw the cow over the fence to some hay.”
Non-Native English speakers also struggle with definite and indefinite article usage (“the” “a”) and subject-verb agreement.
If you have a character who wasn’t born in an English-speaking country, you can play with these issues (again, use a light hand) to set their dialogue apart. If you’re a science fiction or fantasy author, do your races speak different languages? If you don’t have a Star Trek-esque universal translator, how will you handle this?
Know Your Character’s Personality
Is your character the kind who always sticks their foot in their mouth? Are they well-meaning or just so self-absorbed that they don’t realize they’ve said something stupid? What do they do after they stick their foot in their mouth? Do they apologize and try to explain or laugh it off?
Is your character confident or does she second guess herself? A confident character makes definitive statements. A character who second guesses herself will add qualifiers—I think, maybe, most. They’ll end their statements with a subtle request for reassurance—Right? Eh? Don’t you think? She’ll also ask questions rather than giving her opinion directly—Do you think that couch might look better over there? rather than The couch would look better over there.
Does your character have a problem with authority? Are they a control freak? Or are they naturally curious about the way things work? These types of characters will want to know the why and the reasons behind something rather than accepting what’s said at face value.
Is your character a gossip?
Does he jump to conclusions?
Is your character a concrete thinker or an abstract thinker? (I’m not talking about psychological development here, but rather how we naturally think about and make sense of the world.) A concrete thinker prefers to talk about what is rather than what might be. They don’t enjoy plays on words. They take things literally. An abstract thinker takes what is and projects into the future what might be. They enjoy puns and word plays, and if you listen to them explain a concept, they’ll often use metaphors. Many writers are abstract thinkers and don’t realize that there even is another way of thinking.
What other tricks do you have for making your character’s dialogue unique?
If you’ve missed the earlier installments in this series, you can find them here: 5 Basics About Dialogue You Need to Know, 7 Tricks to Add Variety to Your Dialogue, and Does Your Dialogue Deserve to Exist?
If you’ve enjoyed this post, please enter your email address below. I’d also love to hear from you. Send me a message to tell me what you’d like to see more of on this blog, if there’s something you want me to keep doing, or if there’s anything you wish I’d change.