Talking about your character: Speech

Character speech - how to write characters

Character speech is what takes the reader into the heart of your characters. Develop a strong ear for inner monologue and dialogue to make your novel come alive. You can tell a great deal about a character from what that character says and how it is said. Character speech is a powerful tool in character development. Here are 7 tips for making your characters’ enrich your story:

1. Make your character’s speech reflect their place and time

Dialogue is important not just for character development but for making novels and stories believable. If your character lives in the 21st Century but speaks as though they’re living in 1700, this will confuse readers (unless its an intentional element of a time travel plot).  an anachronism like having a 19th century teenager speak as though it is the 21st century or inaccuracies connected to regions or even social classes can jolt a reader right out of the story.

The way your characters speak should reflect the place and time they live in. This doesn’t mean your character has to be a stereoptype, however. There’s interest and dramatic tension, for example, in a character who has a strong lisp but attends a school where the learners’ accents are typically posh. Your character’s voice can also reflect their surrounds by being different or unusual for the time and/or place. Yet this difference should be explicable (as a lisp is).

2. Make your character’s voice reflect their personality

It’s important to clarify first what we mean by ‘voice’. Voice refers to both the actual way a person’s voice sounds to the ear (details such as pitch, volume, placement (is it nasal or throaty) and overall tone). Voice also means the personality that comes across in how a character expresses him- or herself.

To make your character’s audible voice reflect their personality, think of people you know who embody similar personalities to your characters. What is distinctive about the way they speak? Confident people are often louder and more direct. Shy people, on the other hand, are usually soft-spoken. Think about some of the connotations (subtle associations) of voice types. A woman with a deep, husky voice might come across as sexier than one with a high, nasal one. Likewise, a man with a high voice might come across as more boyish or feminine than a man with a deeper voice.

Include brief descriptions of voice when you are writing character sketches for your outline. Decide:

  • What a character’s combination of the four basic personality types will be – melancholic (sad), choleric (reactive/volatile), sanguine (upbeat) or phlegmatic (easygoing)
  • How these aspects will affect your character’s voice (a phlegmatic person might sound a little plodding in how they deliver stories, wheras a sanguine person would typically exclaim things and express enthusiasm more exuberantly)
  • Think of other elements of speech, such as whether the character is a greater talker or listener. Combining characters whose speech differs markedly will bring the voices of your novel to life

3. Combine characters’ verbal expression with gestures

Remember to use gestures too to complement characters’ speech. These can reinforce or contradict what a character says. They also help you to be more nuanced about what a character feels while they are talking. Does the character speak with dramatic, outsized gestures? What does it say about a character who constantly looks down and fumbles with the hem of her blouse while speaking? Might your character have memorable recurring gestures such as running a hand through her hair or taking off his glasses and polishing them?

4. Show background in how characters talk

Think about each character’s background and how that may affect the character’s speech. How educated is the character, and does that show in the character’s speech? Where is the character from? What is the character’s social class?speech2

Once you have answered these questions, you must again consider both the character’s nature and circumstances. Perhaps your character grew up poor in an uneducated family and has returned home. How does the character feel about coming home and her family and old neighbours? Maybe she is concerned that her family and friends will think that she is putting on airs, so she may make an effort to speak more like them. On the other hand, perhaps she resents where she came from. In that case, she might deliberately speak in a way that sets her apart from her former peers.

How we speak isn’t entirely arbitrary. We might talk a certain way because we’ve embraced a subculture and particular identity, for example. Think about how the way people talk is both physiologically and socially constructed.

5. Use the ‘shibboleth’ to show exclusion or difference

Sometimes how a person speaks can be particularly revealing if they are trying to assimilate into an unfamiliar group. The ‘shibboleth‘ is a word that distinguishes one in-group from another. That group might be as small as a clique or as large as an entire nationality.

In the past, shibboleths have been used to identify spies or enemy combatants. But a Shibboleth can also trip your character up in a social sense. The wrong pronunciation or choice of vocabulary might reveal that person as someone who is different from appearances.

6. Show how speech changes situationally

A character’s speech should change according to the situation they’re in. If we spoke on one level, with one range of vocabulary and intonation all the time we’d be boring speakers. Consider what speech might reveal about your character under duress. Perhaps a character who seems mild-mannered might suddenly burst into a flurry of obscenities. A different character might speak quietly but with a terrifying fury. These subtle differences can make your characters come across as completely independent of each other in temperament and type.

7. Keep in mind the difference between ordinary speech and character speech in dialogue

Chart of character speech qualities by character type

Click character speech chart to view full size

Once you have thought about who your character is and how that character will speak, you can begin to consider the nuts and bolts of dialogue. Here are a few important points to keep in mind when writing dialogue.

  • Good dialogue rarely represents ordinary speech accurately. It leaves out the pauses, the “uhs” and other space-filling but meaningless words
  • Good dialogue should still create the illusion of sounding like the way people talk. Just as a story does not tell every single detail about what a character does but still gives an impression of reality, dialogue should still sound like real people talking, not like the author putting on a puppet show in which speech is secondary to plot
  • Good dialogue comes from listening to others. Eavesdropping in public is a useful way to train your ear to the different ways that people talk. Scribbling down overheard conversations can help develop your sense of dialogue as well as providing great story fodder
  • A few writers can get away with writing in dialect, but again, here is where it is better to create the impression of the way a character speaks. A little goes a long way. Don’t make every single phrase a culturally-specific idiom or exclamation. Spread your verbal colour evenly
  • Similarly, avoid overuse of punctuation marks like exclamation marks and ellipses.

Here is another key point to consider when you think about speech, dialogue and character development: What your character does not say may be as significant as what your character says. Your character may have a number of motivations in choosing not to speak at any particular moment ranging from cowardice to courage or from the desire to protect another to self-preservation.

Speech and dialogue can also be used in a straightforward way to give information about characters. Sometimes, the best information about a character comes straight from that character. There are many cases in which it is appropriate to simply have characters tell about themselves, and it can be a way of conveying vital information that is both efficient and interesting.

Sometimes, particularly in the early days of working on a story, characters may seem flat and lifeless. The moment we begin to think of them walking around and talking and force ourselves to picture how they do those things may be the moment that the character comes to life.

Try the ‘character’ section of the Now Novel story builder and flesh out your novel’s cast of characters. It will help you create rounded, believable characters that have distinctive traits and features.

Have you read our other articles about developing your character? We recommend our other articles on developing your character by focussing on their  posture face eyes and  hands.

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