You can tell a lot about people by how they speak. Whether it’s an accent (a southern drawl, New England nasal, or Canadian vowels) or sentence structure, you can tell everything from education to age to gender. Some people may sound alike – using similar pet phrases or slang – but no two people speak exactly the same way.
The same is true for your characters. If you’ve created unique, complex characters, they need sound like unique, complex people. As a novelist, your goal should be to write dialogue that’s so specific to each character that the reader doesn’t need a dialogue tag; the dialogue speaks for themselves (pun intended). Here are some things you need to know about your characters in order to create realistic dialogue.
- Birthplace/home town. Regardless of where your novel takes place, you need to know where your characters grew up so you know what regional terms and expressions to use. Even if your 40-year-old protagonist has lived in Michigan for 20 years, if she grew up in Arkansas, she’ll probably have a few southern phrases that pop up here and there.
Example: Your character wants to order a sugary, carbonated beverage. Depending on where he grew up, he’ll either order a Coke (South), pop (Midwest), or soda (East).
- Education. High school dropouts, college graduates, and Ph.D. candidates will have different vocabularies, so they’ll use different words and speech patterns. The differences in dialogue don’t all need to be as dramatically different as the example below, but scattering statements like these throughout your novel will help distinguish the characters while making them sound more authentic.
Example: Suppose two characters are arguing. Depending on their education level, it might go something like this:
“You piece of garbage.”
“Yeah? Well I’d rather be stuck in the mud with Yahoos than live in a penthouse with you.”
- Age. More than just slang terms and dated expressions (have you ever been told that you’re the cat’s meow?), nothing will make you feel old quite like referencing a movie or TV show that a younger person doesn’t understand. Knowing your characters’ ages and interests will help you write age-appropriate dialogue.
Example: “OMG, she’s a hot mess,” or “Heavens to Betsy, she’s unkempt.” I don’t need to tell you the ages of these characters; the dialogue shows it. You can also use references: “It was a spiritual experience, like seeing The Godfather on opening night.” No ages needed.
- Gender. No matter how badly women want it to be true, the fact is that men don’t say as much as women. There will always be some exceptions to the rules (my husband doesn’t talk a lot, but if you ask him about his job, he’ll ramble for hours), but there are certain realities that you need to accept.
Example: Based on the answers below, you can make a pretty good guess as to whether a man or woman responds. Here’s the question – do you want to go to the store with me?
“I don’t know. I have a few more things to do today, and I was planning on going to the store tomorrow, but I suppose I could go today instead and clean the house tomorrow.”
- Occupation/interests/hobbies.* When you know what occupies your characters’ time and thoughts, you can write character-specific dialogue that refers to those interests. It’s similar to how different people notice different things about the same situation – know which parts of the situation each character would pay attention to, and use those to create realistic dialogue.
Example: Suppose your characters (a child, a mom, and a musician) were at a July 4 parade. Someone asks them what they thought about the parade. Without using dialogue tags, the characters respond:
“It was kind of disappointing. There were only two marching bands in the whole thing.”
“I got a bag full of candy!”
“It’s just so nice to be able to take the whole family to an event where I don’t have to worry about bad language.”
- *Cliches. Knowing character occupations, interests, and hobbies can also help you with the cliché conundrum. Generally speaking you want to avoid clichés. A fantastic way to do that is to reword a cliché to include your characters’ hobbies and interests. It’s the dialogue trifecta – creative, character-specific, and realistic.
Example: Have you ever seen that deer-in-a-headlight look? These characters might see it differently:
Hair stylist – “She had that I-hate-my-new-haircut look.”
Police officer – “She had that why-did-you-pull-me-over look.”
Veterinarian – “She looked like one of my patients when they see the thermometer.”
There are so many ways to use dialogue to create realistic (and noticeably different) characters – make sure you take advantage of them!
What do you look for in character dialogue? How do you make it realistic?
Would you like to get more fiction writing and editing tips sent directly to you? Sign up for my monthly newsletter now!