Continuing my series on creating memorable characters.
And now, Part Five: Dialogue
The way we talk says a lot about us. The same is true for our characters. How your character talks will determine to a great extent your character’s voice.
One very difficult but thing to accomplish as an author is to differentiate your voice from your character’s. In writing, we hear a lot about our author voice, and whether we have a strong voice for this piece, and so on. Author voice is important. But characters also need their own voices.
If you’re writing in first-person, then your author voice will be almost synonymous with your character’s voice. You’ll hear the character’s words and thoughts as your own, because you’re writing as if you’re the character.
In third-person, and especially if you have multiple POV characters, it’s extremely difficult to get them all to sound unique while still preserving your author voice.
Dialogue is one way to do this.
There are several different aspects to writing dialogue. What your character says, as well as how he says it, are two sides of the same coin of using dialogue to convey character. From the words a character uses, to his accent, to the length of his sentences, to his crutch words and so on, how you frame his speech will reveal a lot about him.
If your character says, “Now then, darlin’, you just set there a spell and I’ll fetch you a Coke,” your reader will be left with the impression of a genteel Southerner. If, on the other hand, your character lets loose a swear word or two in every sentence, your reader is going to see someone harder, less refined, and more jaded.
If your character is articulate and uses good grammar, people will see her differently than they see a character who uses incomplete sentences and poor grammar. An accent can reveal a nationality and whether English is a character’s native language.
Long, drawling sentences give the impression of someone who is laid back, easy-going, and mellow. Short, clipped sentences give the impression of someone who is impatient and stern. Sturdy, straightforward words and simple diction give the feeling of trustworthiness, while flattery and smooth talking give the sense of being underhanded and sneaky. Lengthy rants and stories that seek one-upmanship portray someone who is constantly seeking attention, while simple, direct, quiet answers portray someone who is more introverted. Sarcasm and dry wit can reflect both intelligence and arrogance, use of clichés can reflect someone who isn’t very original, and slow speech can reflect either someone who isn’t very intelligent or someone who is very thoughtful and likes to process things before they respond.
How you incorporate your character’s speech, from diction to word choice to sentence length to speed will reveal a lot about your character. Of course, many of these styles of speaking can apply to a diverse range of personalities, so dialogue is not the only thing that will reveal character, but dialogue in fiction, as in real life, is a key part of creating a first impression. That first impression, when combined with other elements of character development, will create a round, full character that is really visible to your reader.