Character writing Dialogue Writing

Realistic dialogue: Creating characters’ speech patterns

Realistic dialogue moves stories along. When you give each character an interesting voice and persona, it’s a joy to read their conversations. Varied, entertaining speech takes readers into the heart of your characters. Here are six ways to make characters’ speech colorful and interesting

Realistic dialogue moves stories along. When you give each character an interesting voice and persona, it’s a joy to read their conversations. Varied, entertaining speech takes readers into the heart of your characters.

Remember, too, that dialogue is crafted speech, and doesn’t have to be exact ‘real speech’. Common speech patterns can be boring to read, and are usually full of phrases like ‘you know’ and umms and ahhs and so on. 

Here are six ways to make characters’ speech colorful and interesting.

1. Make characters’ voices reflect their place and time

Great dialogue illustrates its speakers. Who is this person? Why do they speak this way? What odd curse words or phrases do they use that are particular to their era or home town? Dialogue executed well develops characters, adding rich texture to the personalities filling your story. One way to make dialogue effective is to have it reflect your characters’ place and time.

In Shakespeare’s plays, we gain a strong sense of an older time through characters’ use of archaic language. For example, characters say ‘thy’ and ‘thou’ in place of ‘your’ and ‘you’.

Era-appropriate character speech helps to establish setting and context. If your character lives in the 21st Century but speaks as though they’re living in 1700, this will confuse readers. The reverse is also true. If a 19th century teenager speaks as though it is the 21st century, this can jolt your reader right out of the story.

So how do you make characters’ speech show where they are in place and time?

  • Use occasional language appropriate to the time period in dialogue. In the 60s, for example, common slang terms in parts of the US included ‘old lady’ and ‘old man’ for a person’s significant other.
  • Make sure characters don’t use language more modern than their time period – if you’re unsure when a word was coined, Google its etymology
  • Use regional accent details

The third suggestion should be used in moderation. Trying to recreate how different groups speak in dialogue using written accents can create stereotypes or be difficult to read. Perhaps you want to portray a character whose native language isn’t English? Again, be mindful when doing so. Character speech should be clear and easy to read. This is particularly the case when there are sensitive issues of culture or race involved. Read this post for tips on creating regional speech patterns without using stereotypes as a crutch.

2. Show characters’ unique personalities in their speech

What do we mean when we talk about a character’s ‘voice’? ‘Voice’ in characterization refers to two things:

  1. The actual way a person’s voice sounds to the ear (details such as pitch, volume, placement (is it nasal or throaty?) and tone of voice.
  2. The personality that comes across in how a character expresses themselves. Do they seem blunt and bolshie? Or is their voice gentle, kind and reserved? Do they use concise language? Do they use consistently negative language? 

Pause for a second and think of people you know well. Write down an adjective (describing word) that sums up their voice for you. What creates this effect? Are they loud? Soft-spoken? Confident? Self-doubting? Comical?

Include brief descriptions of voice when you are writing character sketches for your outline. You can create full, detailed character outlines using Now Novel’s dashboard process. Decide:

  1. What a character’s general personality will be: Are they sanguine/happy-go-lucky, melancholic, plodding and pragmatic, irritable and aggressive?
  2. How these personality details could show in your character’s voice – an irritable character could curse a lot, while a melancholic character may enjoy grumbling. Also think of ways characters can be against type. A deeply melancholic character could put on a bright, sunny voice to avoid dragging others down, for example.
  3. Think of other elements of speech, such as whether a character is a greater talker or listener.

Remember to use gestures or beats too to make characters’ speech have even more personality. 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? Might your character have memorable recurring gestures such as running a hand through her hair or taking off his glasses and polishing them? Believable dialogue involves the character as a fully embodied person, not just a talking head.

Find more of our articles on describing characters via our character writing hub.

Mae West quote - character and personality | Now Novel

3. 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?

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 has picked up words and phrases in the big city that people poke fun at her for using. Details such as these in characters’ speech bring them to life, and add vivid colour to character portraits. For the same example, the character could resent or feel embarrassed of where she comes from. In that case, she might deliberately speak in a mannered way that sets her apart from her family back home.

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 ‘bros’ perform their masculinity to each other. They might speak quite differently when conversing with a grandparent versus a friend. Maybe their language is more ‘proper’ and less slang-filled when speaking to an elder. Or maybe they make no effort to modulate their speech at all. Even this can suggest your character’s personality – how much their speech changes depending on who they’re with.

A last word about punctuating dialogue in fiction. The US convention is to use double speech marks, while the UK convention is to use single speech marks. Some writers dispense with that entirely, and have speech rendered as part of the narrative flow.

Paying attention to details such as these will help you write realistic dialogue and bring your characters’ voices to life.

Character speech infographic | Now Novel

4. Use the ‘shibboleth’ to create realistic dialogue between outsiders and others

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’. A foreign exchange student for example may stumble over strange idioms the locals use that don’t make immediate sense. For example, an English character studying in Germany might be confused why everyone’s talking about sausages and pony farms.

5. Show how characters’ speech changes according to their situation

A character’s speech should change according to the situation they’re in.

If we spoke with one limited 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?

Subtle differences in speech depending on what’s happening can show details such as how your characters handle stress and tension.

6. Remember differences between everyday speech and written dialogue

Although we talk of ‘realistic dialogue’, much fictional dialogue is far from how people actually speak. Yet it creates the effect of realistic speech. Here are important differences to remember when creating characters’ voices and the unique things they say:

  • Good dialogue rarely represents ordinary speech accurately. It generally leaves out the ‘Hi, who’s speaking?’ as well as other commonplace stock phrases and words. Read our tips for creating natural-sounding dialogue.
  • In day to day speech, we obviously don’t have ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ punctuating our conversations. Try to keep dialogue tags to a minimum. Remove them where it’s clear from context who has just spoken. And use actions and gestures leading into or following from dialogue to show who the speaker is
  • 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
  • Similarly, avoid overuse of punctuation marks like exclamation marks and ellipses. These are dramatic effects and the words characters use and their ideas should do most of the expressive ‘heavy lifting’

Read our detailed dialogue writing guide for more on creating conversation that advances your story.

Need to develop further aspects of your characters? Get How to Write Real Characters – our eBook guide to developing believable characters, including practical exercises and prompts.


By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

9 replies on “Realistic dialogue: Creating characters’ speech patterns”

Love the website! Great information! Lots of detail and unique areas of focus.

One correction: “Introverts, on the other hand, are usually soft-spoken.”

This would be truer of “shy” people, not introverts. Please redefine your understanding of the difference between “introvert” and “shy” so as not to perpetuate this misconception.

“Introverted people are commonly thought to be shy, but introverts’ low motivation to socialize is not the same as the inhibited behavior, tension, and awkwardness that characterize shyness. Introverts who are not shy can behave extrovertively when they choose; whereas shy people, both introverts and extroverts, can’t turn their tension and awkwardness off and on.” —Sophia Dembling (The Introvert’s Corner)

Thank you!

Hi KT – thanks, glad you like the site. Good point about the distinction between introversion and extroversion.

I try to throw in key slang words if a character is from a certain country or region. I also attempt to keep them to a minimum in order to not overdo it. I do struggle with minimizing dialogue tags some of the time though. I understand it helps to read it out loud.

Thank you for sharing that, Jeremiah. It really does help to read dialogue aloud. It sounds as though you have a good process.

I was wondering if you happened to know how to write the speech of young children, a friend and I are trying to write a book but are worried that they may sound too advanced for their age. This article was really helpful, so thank you for writing it.

It’s a pleasure, Cristian, thank you for your question.

For writing the speech of young children, I have some suggestions:
– Simplify vocabulary and abstraction. A 5-year-old will typically have a much smaller vocabulary than, for example, an 18-year-old. So avoid overly formal and/or complex phrasing and sentence structure unless the child character is meant to sound precocious/advanced for their age.
– Think of the ways children are playing with and ‘trying out’ language. For example, when my nephew learned the word ‘marvelous’, everything was suddenly marvelous, including things that definitely are not marvelous. Children mix up words, too (as a kid, I am told I loved a book on optical illusions and would talk about ‘trickmatography’ meaning ‘trick photography’). Kids might invent words based on misreadings/mishearings.
– Watch clips of kids’ shows such as Sesame Street on YouTube and listen for the complexity of language/phrase. Where is it pitched? There are online editing tools such as the Hemingway editor that can estimate the reading age/age norms of a piece of writing approximately, too.

I hope this helps!

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