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Different characters speak differently. If someone reads me a letter written by an immediate relative, I can tell right away who wrote it. I believe --and correct me if I'm wrong-- that giving each major character a subtly unique way of speaking can help make the character seem more real.

What practices are used to make different characters speak differently?

I can't bear the thought of reverting to crutches such as speech impediments, favored swear-words, or noticeable accents.

And yet, I've read far too many books where I felt that the characters all spoke alike.

How can I make the differences be subtle, so that:

  1. Characters don't sound the same; and yet-
  2. The difference sounds natural, and not as if I'm forcing the characters to talk in a way they shouldn't?

Note: My question is referring to speech patterns only, not to character behavior.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Consider the different characters':

  • Level of intelligence
    • stupid characters contribute stupid thoughts to conversation
    • smart characters might only contribute when they know they have something important to say
  • Interest in the conversation
  • Social personality: whether introverted or extraverted
  • Subject matter of interest (since they would continually bring it up):
    • A priest constantly going back to the bible
    • A war veteran who relates everything to "the war"
    • A player constantly talking about women
  • Level of engagement with the conversation's subject matter
  • Use of gestures with speaking
  • Relationship to the other characters speaking:
    • Their reactions, both physical and in dialogue to the other speakers
    • Any subtext brought about by the relationship(s)

Give each character about 4-5 "characteristic" phrases they use often. Eg:

  • "Seems like"
  • "Bloody"
  • "Just so"
  • "Theoretically"

Vary the sentence length between characters

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Giving a character their own voice is difficult for me, but I've found that looking at the traits of the character is the first thing you want to do.

Ask yourself 3 questions:

1 how smart is your character?--basically, the smarter the character is, the more words they'll know. Such as using the word flamboyant to the word showy. Short, simple words to long, complex (sometimes even snotty) words.

2 How much does your character talk?--the quiet guy vs. the guy who can't keep his mouth shut for more than a minute. Also the length of the dialogue, quiet or shy guy will talk less, ect.

3 How does your character's personality effects their use of words?--think sarcastic, optimistic, ect. The optimist will always try to end on a happy note or use words that suggest things in a bright manner. Likewise, the sarcastic one will use words that are said in the opposite manner that they should mean.

I hope that helps. These are just the three steps that have helped me in developing my character's dialogue patterns, and since working with these steps my dialogue have improved greatly (though it still needs work). Good luck!

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You can work to 'hear' the dialogue in your head as the characters are speaking. It'll slow you down a little, until you get used to it, but then it becomes routine. But I think it's best if you think of them as movie or TV characters (good ones) rather than real people, because real conversations are totally brutal (transcribe a few and see).

You can refine your technique by reading your dialogue aloud after you've written it. You might actually want to set up a reading with some friends, like it was a play, to see if everything stays consistent.

But I think you're right to be cautious with it all. A little dialect goes a LONG way.

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