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The following unedited dialogue is from a novel I'm writing (which is based on a short story I wrote a while ago):

"I hope it's not an inappropriate question," Icaro said, after hesitating for a moment. "But is it true that you don't have a soul?"

Ling stared down at her shoes, and then gave a slight nod.

Icaro's eyes widened, as if he had just seen a ghost. "How did that happen? Did you lose it somewhere?"

Ling shook her head. "I was born without one."

"But then how can you, like, be alive without a soul?"

"Mmm, to be honest, I'm not quiet sure myself." Ling said, "I just know that my body managed to keep itself functioning without one."

"But there're still some sort of physical problems, right? Is that the reason you came to the hospital?"

Ling shook her head once again. "I'm perfectly healthy. The reason I'm here is that, well, I kind of work here."

"You work in the hospital?"

Ling nodded. "Well, I guess I can't really call it a job, since I don't do much. I just sit in a room while doctors run tests on me. Nothing crazy, of course. Just simple things like blood, motor, and psychological tests. In return, they give me a monthly salary, and provide me with accommodation inside the hospital. A little room that was meant to be used by emergency doctors."

Even thought it was a bit hard to believe, it somehow made sense to Icaro. Many doctors would be very interested in a case like hers.

"The pay isn't much," Ling continued. "But since I have a place to sleep, and since I can eat at the cafeteria for free, I don't really spend that much. And the tests are mostly done in the morning. So, I have the whole afternoon, evening, and night for myself."

"Sounds like a good deal," Icaro said after giving it a thought. "But I don't know, aren't you tired of spending so much time at the hospital? You know, watching sick people all the time. The smell of hospital."

"Mmm, I think I'm used to it," Ling said. "I guess everything is tolerable once you get used to it."

Each characters has his/her own story and motivations, and I tried to keep them present while writing the dialogue.

I wonder if both characters sound the same. If so, how can I do to make them sound more "different"?

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I don't think they sound any more alike than two real people in a similar environment may. They both sound like teenagers to me. –  sh1ftst0rm Jan 21 '13 at 20:40
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BTW, "quite sure" –  ggambett Jan 22 '13 at 14:10
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It's not what you asked, but Icaro's first line seems significantly more formal to me than the rest of the passage. At first I expected this to be one rather formal character and one rather informal, so it surprised me when Icaro said "like" mid-sentence. –  Yamikuronue Jan 23 '13 at 16:44

2 Answers 2

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I'd say they don't seem to sound different - but then there's the rift: questioner-answerer. It very much sets the tone of this conversation, so spotting more subtle differences is difficult. It's the same informal, loose speech language. Give us these two giving answers to the same questions coming from a third questioner and they may be more distinguishable.

You definitely need to add some physical emote to the 'mmm'. There are too many uses to that: when eating something tasty, when withholding pain, when expressing opposition/disapproval, when trying to scream with mouth taped shut (not the case here obviously), when expressing annoyed protest at disturbance...

...didn't you mean here 'Umm...' - hesitation, an inarticulate pause when thinking what to sat next?

Things you can do without making them sound utterly cliche:

  • Shift all of hesitation to one character. There are five points of hesitation in this dialogue: "after hesitating for a moment."; "how can you, like,"; "Mmm, to be honest,"; "well, I kind of work here."; "Mmm, I think I'm used to it,". They are evenly distributed between the two. Make one hesitate much more while stripping all hesitation from speech of the other.
  • Alternatively make hesitation of one strictly non-verbal (interjections like "he fell silent for a second," "he took a deep breath"), and the other's always verbal ("well," "like," "so...")
  • Give them a different temperament. Here both feel awkward and reluctant, the dialogue feels very reserved. Make one an inquisitive, invasive extrovert, while the other is a reluctant, shy introvert. Express it by sprinkling more emotes.
  • Give them a different educational, cultural background. One to use very simple, crude vocabulary, the other using some word the first will entirely misunderstand. You may make one of them use cuss words a lot too.

Still, what you're doing here is not wrong. If the characters are relatively similar, so will be their speech. If they are the protagonists, it is advised that unless you have strong story-related reasons not to, you should give your protagonists and central characters quite generic language and only shift spectra to increasingly obscure dialects for background cast. Giving the protagonists a subtle personal touch is nice, but don't be surprised if the readers simply overlook it.

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I agree with the comments that the people sound similar insofar as they sound like two teenagers talking to each other.

Given the content of the dialogue, there isn't much to distinguish their characters because it comes through as primarily plot exposition. That's because Icaro asks a series of (presumably) plot-oriented detail questions and Ling answers them clearly and specifically.

I think you would be able to elicit the differences between the characters more and blur the expository nature of the passage if you added some more detail about what the characters were doing while they talked to each other. How did they react to each other's statements? How did Ling feel about Icaro's questioning? Her first reaction is to look away from him, so she is ashamed or embarrassed, but does she stay that way? Or does she lift her chin defiantly? Set her jaw in irritation? Even by the end of the paragraph, I don't know how she feels about being at the hospital all her life and being tested, etc.

And I don't know how Icaro feels about it either. Does he pity her? Does he think she's hot, so he's not really listening anyway? Does he think she ought to be fed up with the hospital, or does he think she ought to feel safe there? You don't have to state any of these things explicitly. He could cringe at the thought, or pat her arm, or study his fingernails, for instance. All of those things would tell us something about him.

In short, I understand some of the story from what the characters say, but I don't really understand the characters because I don't know how they feel about what they are saying.

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