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We surely all have little quirks to our speech. Like my daughter once criticized my writing for using the word "surely" too much. (See, I used it on this post.)

So how do you keep all your characters from sounding the same in dialog? That is, how do you keep them all from sounding just like the writer? It's easy to say, "Pay attention and be careful", but ... pay attention to what? Okay, in my case I've got my eye out for the word "surely". But what else?

There are some obvious extremes. You can make the scientist use a lot of technical language. A 5-year-old should normally talk like a 5-year-old and not like a college professor. In the story I'm working on right now I have a character who lives in another country and who would likely not use English much, so I put some grammar errors into his speech. Etc. Maybe you could give a character some stock phrases that he always uses: "Elementary, my dear Watson", "To the Bat Cave, Robin", etc. But I'd think there are limits to how far you can go with such things without it sounding too gimicky.

Any tips?

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4 Answers 4

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On top of what others gave as excellent advices on getting "in the mind of a character" let me add a few crutchy "dialects" you can give your characters.

  • The speaker is using Learner's English. The language is correct, but simple. The sentences are short. Correct sentence structure is used, where native speakers use clauses. The speaker avoids complex constructs. Their list of words is limited. Sometimes the speaker uses words that marginally apply and look awkward.
  • Archaic. The person has learnt English from KJV Bible foremost, and is currently striving with proper, modern English.
  • Rapid fire speaker speaks in rapid sentences, and abuses conjunctions, like when the message is completed, the person must digress and keep talking about something barely related but this is how one builds the character, isn't it? And the digressions contain random weirdness, and hidden plot clues, or non-sequiturs, which may be funny, or just weird and the style is annoying at times but memorable and energetic, and some love it...
  • Laid back. Speaking is a tiring activity. So... Sparsely. Only essentials. Frequent pauses... no? Well... Pauses are good. Sit back and enjoy. It will be fine.
  • Concrete. Military style, sir. No redundancies, no ambiguities and only regular amount of courtesy, sir. Reporting facts, staying on topic and hiding emotions. Respectful, but firm.
  • Uh... a recluse? Forgetful? Not used to all that... communication. All harder words are there... but building sentences takes... um, effort? Time? These... whatdyacallem... interjections happen often.
  • Slangs. I'll skip examples.
  • A classy language. You should not use crude contractions. Choosing fabulous flourishes of the language will give aura of elegance, but it is a clear sign of an uncouth upstart to abuse some verbiage where cultured but common words suffice.

You should develop more original and closer to "generic" styles for the main cast, but these are very nice to give some secondary characters some depth and character at low cost.

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I just registered to upvote this post, because I enjoyed it. –  Theodoros Chatzigiannakis Feb 1 '13 at 0:47
    
Oh, how I love your explanations! –  Souta Feb 28 '13 at 1:46
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Spend more time with your character outside the book.

  • Have you ever seen those email questionnaires which go around occasionally? What's your favorite toothpaste, Coke or Pepsi, Beatles or Stones, ever been to Africa, what's under your bed, etc.? Get one of those, blank it out, and answer it from the perspective of your character.
  • Cast your character. That is, in the movie, is your college professor played by Morgan Freeman, Nathan Lane, Queen Latifah, Benedict Cumberbatch, or Judi Dench? Imagine the person talking. Really hear the voice.
  • Write a letter to the editor from your character about something which the character is passionate about: global warming, gun control, abortion, dangling participles.
  • Write an email/letter from your character to his or her best friend. Mother. Spouse. Send the character on vacation and write a whole email exchange.
  • Nice bit of advice I saw somewhere: what does the character do in a quarrel?

Once you've spent some time establishing the person beyond his or her place in the plot, it will be easier to write in that voice. You may well have to go back multiple times for multiple people, and you may have to tell your beta readers and editors "Make sure my characters don't all sound the same."

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In addition to Lauren's list, here are a few things I do:

  • Give each character a distinct background. Some possible elements to vary are geography, culture, ethnicity, education, age, friends, family. Each of these can affect a character's vocabulary, grammar, and general attitude toward the people and world around them. Even in the same family, age and birth order vary.
  • Give each character a definite personal history, with several significant events in their recent past. Their history will affect their general attitude. The recent past will put potentially useful joys, problems, and conflicts into their minds.
  • If the characters already know each other before the story begins, know the significant events of their relationship, especially their recent interactions. Write a conversation between them from a week, a month, or a year before the story starts. Have one character describe an interaction between two other characters (perhaps witnessed from far enough away that the interaction can't be heard).
  • Interview your characters. Here's how I do it, with links to some example interviews. These interviews really helped me to understand each character's psychology and attitudes.

You don't need to include any of this in the story, but the better you know your characters as individuals, with individual histories and individual relationships, the better you will be able to give them individual voices.

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+1 This was a fantastic addition to Lauren's answer. Thanks for the input! –  Souta Feb 28 '13 at 1:49
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I think speech idiosyncrasies are a part of distinguishing characters from each other, but they are, more than anything, stylistic, writerly flourishes. Conan Doyle didn't define Sherlock Holmes's voice by excessive use of stock phrases. Sure, Holmes utters some choice expressions like, "You know my methods", but those are few and ornamental. What defines Holmes is the hyper-rational nature of his speech patter, which is a direct representation of his intellect: of his character. He speaks the way he does because he needs to speak that way because he needs to think that way to solve crimes with efficiency. It's a matter of necessity owing to Conan Doyle's understanding of his character's wants and needs.

I think it boils down to that awareness of necessity. That is what creates unique characters and distinguishable dialogue.

To understand those root desires and motivations, ask yourself these questions:

  • What does my character want/need?
  • What is my character willing to do to get it?

Variations on those questions, such as can be fleshed out using the very useful exercises suggested in other answers, will help you develop the answers to those two primary questions.

Once you know what your character truly wants, you will know how to phrase dialogue to communicate that want, effectively creating a new manner of speech distinct from your own. As an example: how does a 5-year-old respond to the question "Where are the cookies?" Well, that depends. Does the kid want to avoid punishment? Does she want to put the blame on her big brother who is mean to her? Does she, for some asinine reason, feel compelled to tell the truth about eating the cookies? You are less likely to sound like yourself in answering the cookie question if you understand what specifically your character wants to accomplish with her speech. This may sound simplistic, but the ardor comes in letting the question of necessity guide every dialogue passage.

Characters, unlike real people, speak for a reason. As readers we expect this. We expect to glean personality traits through dialogue. As a writer, understanding that readers are searching for this makes our job easier. We don't have to convince our reader to analyze our character in the same way that we might have to convince a love interest to take a fancy for us. We have only to understand a character and to express their desires in speech and the reader will do the rest.

NB: Sherlock Holmes never once utters the phrase "Elementary, my dear Watson". The closest he comes is in The Crooked Man where he responds to one of Watson's congratulations with, simply, "Elementary". FWIW.

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Side note: Sure, "Elementary my dear Watson" was from the movies, not the original books. Likewise the inverness cape. –  Jay Jan 3 '13 at 15:01
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