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 colourful 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 60’s, 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. 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:
- The actual way a person’s voice sounds to the ear (details such as pitch, volume, placement (is it nasal or throaty?) and tone.
- 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?
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:
- What a character’s general personality will be: Are they sanguine/happy-go-lucky, melancholic, plodding and pragmatic, irritable and aggressive?
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Paying attention to details such as these will help you write realistic dialogue and bring your characters’ voices to life.
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
- 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’
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.