Ruminations on character: Dialogue

Writing good dialogue can be a hard-earned skill under the best of circumstances. Writing your characters so that their speech patterns are unique and divers can be especially difficult for some of us. While I’ve been praised for my dialogue in the past, I’m not so sure I know how to diversify my characters’ speech patterns. But since it’s something at which I’m trying to improve, it’s been on my mind. I can’t say I’ve got The Answer, but here are a few things to consider.

Digital representation of speech
Digital representation of speech

Expressions – I recently finished reading one of Bernard Cornwell’s historical fiction novels, in which there was quite a difference in the speech of different characters. This was partly because Britain two centuries ago had a great deal of diversity just between various classes. But there were also expressions unique to each of the characters.

For example, Sgt. Hakeswill was always claiming his various assertions were supported by the bible: “A soldier should always be obedient to his superior office; says that in the holy scriptures, it does.” Of course Hakeswill is not a nice person, and hearing him claim his numerous absurdities had scriptural support got really annoying. It only added to the various reasons why we hated him. But he was unique in his speech, certainly. You could always tell his lines.

Vocabulary – It’s not as simple as “the smarter the character, the larger their vocabulary,” but it can still be another means of distinguishing speech patterns. You could have a rocket scientist who speaks in very simple vocabulary–and it could lend to his character to determine he does this because he is accustomed to simplifying his speech so that people will understand what he’s talking about. Or you could have a fairly simple person with a large vocabulary for reasons from putting on airs to a strong determination to make something more of themselves. It doesn’t have to be–nor necessarily should it be–a matter of class.

Changing to the audience – Your character’s speech patterns could change depending on who they are talking to. Most people will speak differently to children than they will to adults, or to pets as compared to people. If you have a person who speaks the same to everyone it likely says something about their character.

Formality – This could be easily overdone, but one common trick, especially in fantasy, is to give higher-classed characters the pattern of not using contractions, or lower classes an over-abundance of contractions. It’s common and overdone, but not necessarily inappropriate, depending on circumstances. It may make perfect sense in a book about upper-crust, high class people. It might not make as much sense in a modern New York setting, and would be completely out of place in a YA romance.

Dialect – This one is dangerous and an easy temptation. “Aye, lass! Thot’d be me da’ y’ hear a-callin’! I think ye’ll be wantin’ ta meet ‘im, I s’pects.” The danger here is two-fold. You could go too far and make the dialogue incomprehensible, and you can slow down the reader. Be careful and use it sparingly.

Slang/jargon – If your work is set in a particular time and/or place, there will be specific slang that people might use in specific circumstances. A professional athlete would likely use jargon specific to their sport. Someone from a slum might now some street slang. A teen might be up on the latest (or latest recycled) words.

Length – Some people are long-winded; some are quite terse. Some will say something, and then say the same thing again a different way. While overdoing it may result in editorial reduction later on, it another option for making people speak differently.

Humor – Some people, instinctively or purposely, inject humor into conversations, even at (or perhaps especially at) inappropriate times. This is almost essential in mid-grade fiction, but those types of characters can exist in all types of fiction. They don’t necessarily even have to be funny, so much as try.

These are a few methods I’ve encountered for differentiating the voices of different characters. What are some that you’ve seen/tried/found success with? Drop a note in the comments!

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom is a Utah transplant, works for a regional bank, and spends his lunch hours working on his latest novel. His wife, three kids, and four pets find him amusing and somewhat useful, so they keep him around.