Welcome back to Part 2 of “3 Simple Ways to Improve Dialogue.” In my last post, I talked about the use of dialect to help differentiate characters and make them realistic. Today I’m going to look at how the specific words you choose for your characters can help them come to life.
Think for a minute about books you’ve read whose characters stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. What is it about them that stays in your memory? And, conversely, why do some characters make no impact on you whatsoever? There are possibly many answers for this, but I would argue that one of the biggest reasons is simply how they speak—the words they use that showcase their personalities.
Consider the people you know well—members of your family, co-workers, close friends—and how they speak, to help illustrate my point. More than likely, if you asked each member of your family or several close friends to describe the exact same incident, you would get extremely different descriptions. This is because their unique personalities show through their words.
When developing characters, be sure to use words that precisely fit the personalities you want to present to your reader. This is one of many reasons why developing character sketches of each character before you start writing is so important. You need to know before writing a scene if your character would say “ridonculous” or “utterly absurd.”
Along with specific word choices, also consider the characters’ verbosity in conservations. As a great example of this, I will use my two sons. One, a 16-year-old, acts like he is being charged a fee for every word he uses, and his favorite response to most any question is simply “Good.”
Me: How was school?
Me: How did you math test go?
Me: Are you hungry?
Conner: I’m good.
You get the idea. Perhaps you have one of those at home yourself! My 8-year-old however, will, as the saying goes, tell you how to build a clock if you ask him the time. If I were to ask him about his math test, he would give me a precise recount of each problem and whether or not he was able to solve it.
If I were to write a scene using my sons as the characters, you could immediately tell one from the other based on the amount of words I had each use and the complexity of their sentences—never mind that the 8-year-old talks circles around his older brother!
If you had two characters with completely different personalities (one an extreme introvert and the other a boisterous extrovert) burst into a scene, how could your reader immediately tell them apart, simply based on their dialogue? What if both characters were in positions of authority and they had to reprimand an employee for lackluster performance? How would their dialogue be different?
Imagine, for example, an insecure person who must confront a store clerk about overcharging her on her purchase. She would probably use “soft” qualifying phrases, like maybe, I think, or a little bit (in describing the overcharge). Now picture a bold, no-nonsense person in the same situation. Her word choice may include direct phrases, such as you did, refund, and overcharge. Both people may be quite polite, but just by the words they use, the reader can learn something about their personalities.
In order to best write dialogue to match your characters’ personalities, keep these steps in mind:
1) develop thorough character sketches before writing so you can write as if you know your characters intimately;
2) determine the type of words and wordiness your character will use based on personality, and keep it consistent from scene to scene. If you are to deviate from their normal dialogue, make it purposeful, as in demonstrating a change in that character’s behavior; and
3) read your scenes aloud to ensure the characters sound natural. If you need to, think of people you know who have similar personalities as your characters. Then ask yourself what words they would use to respond to the situations or conversations your characters are in.
In my next post, I’ll discuss how you can use dialogue to help control the pacing of your story.