There are numerous tools a writer can access to create intriguing and effective dialogue.
Often when it comes to writing dialogue, new writers tend to focus their attention on the information that needs to be discussed and not so much on the qualities and traits of the character who is speaking.
The diversity of your characters can be enhanced by dialogue that matches their vocal personality traits.
There are numerous ways to match character voices with their personality.
It can be a based on cultural aspects, such as the intellectual attitudes of Frasier and Niles Crane in Frasier versus their blue-collar, down-to-earth father, Martin.
Or it might be influenced by their regionalism, such as Police Chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo, or the Southern Belles in The Help.
If your character tends to be verbose, he or she will be much more forceful in their speech than someone who is shy.
A terse character will tend to be abrupt, speak directly, and take charge of the conversation by asking most of the questions.
A self-centered character may tend to be long winded and use “I” a lot even when conversation isn’t about them.
On the other hand, if your character doesn’t have much of a self-identity, they may likely avoid using personal words like “I” and “me.”
A character that is constantly seeking approval might trail off and not complete their sentence. They might also seek validation with question phrases such as,
“You know?” or “Isn’t that right?” or “Don’t you think?”
If a character is concerned with being understood or believed, they may tend to be more descriptive or fall into “trinity talk.” This is the tendency to say something, then repeat it by explaining it, and then repeat it again to explain why they explained it.
“I need to go to New York on Friday. My father lives in New York. He isn’t feeling well so I’m going to New York on Friday to see how he is doing.”
A character who is hesitant or reserved may use a passive voice. For example, instead of saying, “I will do that,” he/she might say, “It needs to be done.”
If a character is unwilling to take personal responsibility for their thoughts and actions, they may use ‘weasel’ words.
“Some would say” or “It is widely thought” or “Most feel” or “Reportedly.”
A reflective character tends to listen rather than speak. If they feel the need to be precise in what they say, they may “echo” what the other character has said, before answering.
“Why do you repeat everything I say?”
“Why do I repeat everything you say? Because it gives me extra time to think of a response.”
Some characters have an overwhelming need to maintain control of their environment and those around them such as Tom Cruise’s character Bill, in Eyes Wide Shut.
One of the ways they do it is to constantly reference the other characters name whenever they speak. They have the other character's name in their mouth and that gives them control.
“Listen George, I don’t have time for this.”
Using character names in dialogue is either a trait of the character speaking or due in part to the circumstances of the scene. Remember when your mother was really pissed off at something you did? Notice how she would state your whole name for emphasis.
Stating the character’s name in dialogue beyond these two situations can become off-putting and not sound organic.
A personal expression or catch phrase can add color to a character and help set them apart. It can be a phrase (“My Momma always said” or “To infinity and beyond”) or a single word or two (“Oh Behave” “Hoo ahh” “Alrighty then”) but it must not be overdone and it needs to be something that is distinct and organic to the character.
But above all else. . .
Without a doubt, the most effective way to discover the individual voices of your characters is to become emotionally involved with them. If you can immerse yourself in the lives of your characters, their voices will come to you loud and clear and, once they are real to you, they will very likely be real to the reader.
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- More Visual Mindscape articles by Bill Boyle
- On the Architecture of Dialogue
- The 7 Deadly Dialogue Sins
- How to Write Dialogue That’s Meaningful
Tools to Help: