By Melissa Donovan/ If you’ve ever gotten confused about which character is speaking dialogue in a scene, then you know how important it is for dialogue to be clear and easy to follow.
Dialogue is notoriously difficult to write. It has to mimic real conversation without replicating it. For example, you can’t record real people talking and then transcribe the conversation. Real human beings speak in fragments, but written dialogue confuses readers unless it uses complete sentences.
At the same time, characters should sound like people talking, not writers writing.
The author must then create an illusion. The dialogue looks, sounds, and feels like something people would actually say even though it’s not.
There are many ways to craft authentic dialogue. The techniques below focus on giving each character a voice that is distinct from every other character and from the narrator.
Ten Dialogue-Writing Techniques for Giving Characters Unique Voices
1. Catch Phrases
In Gone with the Wind Scarlett O’Hara kept saying things like “fiddle-dee-dee” and “I’ll think about it tomorrow.” These catch phrases made her identifiable. Real people do this too. Think about your friends and family. Lots of them frequently use their own special words and expressions.
2. Group Speak
Have you ever noticed that your circle of friends all use the same slang words and expressions? If you spend a day hanging out with another group of people, you’ll find that they have their own set of expressions. But in fiction, this is best avoided so you don’t risk confusing readers. Scarlett, and only Scarlett, says “fiddle-dee-dee.”
3. Other Worlds
Group speak is best avoided in fiction, but there are exceptions. For example, all your characters will use the same expressions if you are writing speculative fiction and have created an other-world. In Star Wars, the Jedi way of saying “Have a nice day” is “May the force be with you.” In science fiction and fantasy, one or two phrases like this can make the world you’ve created more realistic.
4. Gender Specific
Equality does not mean everyone is the same. Men and women speak differently. If you listen in on a group of women talking, then a group of men, then a mixed group, this becomes blatantly obvious. It should be obvious in fiction, too.
If the characters spend eight hours a day, five days a week, at work, they’re going to pick up industry jargon and use it in their everyday speech. Do you have a character who is a scientist? A businesswoman? A teacher? Think about how the characters’ careers will influence the way they speak.
6. Body Talk
They say Italians speak with their hands, and it’s beautiful and expressive. What do your characters do with their bodies while they’re talking? Observe people in your real life to see the gestures and mannerisms that people use while they’re engaging in conversation. Body talk can be anything from a facial expression (eye rolling, for example), to nonverbal communication (body language).
7. The Tell
You can take body language a step further. Have you ever heard of “a tell?” This is when someone’s behavior or mannerism changes while they’re telling a lie. Maybe your protagonist’s eye twitches or she bites her lip when she’s not being completely honest. Characters can also exhibit tells when they are ill, nervous, or scared.
Do you have one character from the south and another from California? Are your characters from different countries around the world? True dialect should be reserved for experienced writers as it’s incredibly difficult to execute effectively, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use regional language in your characters’ dialogue. For example, southerners say “y’all” and Californians say “dude” a lot.
Like dialect, slang is often regional. But slang is also age-related. Kids and teenagers will use a lot more slang than adults, so pepper your younger characters’ dialogue with carefully chosen slang words and make sure your older characters use age-specific slang (Baby Boomers will say “groovy” whereas Generation Xers will say “rad”).
Certain people just don’t say certain words. A religiously devout character isn’t going to curse a lot. A pirate, however, will. Little kids aren’t prone to using big words and elderly folks don’t use an abundance of slang. A Harvard professor of linguistics hailing from Britain might not speak in contractions whereas everyone else will. Think about which words are and aren’t in your characters’ respective vocabularies.
Let Your Characters Speak Their Own Languages
Readers should be able to easily follow your characters’ conversations. They shouldn’t have to backtrack or reread a scene to figure out who’s saying what. One way to ensure that the dialogue is clear is to give each character a unique voice.
Try this test: remove your dialogue tags from a scene and have a friend try to identify which character is speaking (try it in a scene with more than two characters).
Giving each character his or her own unique voice requires critical thinking and creative writing. These techniques can help you transform bland, unremarkable dialogue and make it vivid and realistic.
Melissa Donovan is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a website packed with creative writing tips and ideas.