Differentiating Speakers: Writing Character Dialogue (With 4 Useful Exercises)

Once you’ve created complex, layered characters (read my post about that here) and made relationships between them (read my post about that here) you’ll need to tackle dialogue.


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Dialogue is difficult – you’re creating spoken words in a written format. Any intonation, expression, pauses and voice breaks have to be described rather than heard, often making written speech feel emotionless. There are lots of ways to liven up your dialogue, including the description in between speech, but the words and structure of the speech is also important. You can convey a lot about your characters through the things they choose to say (or choose not to say).

The most common stumbling block to a new writer attempting to write dialogue is character distinction. Your characters’ speech can quite easily become flat, with each character sounding the same.

If you’re not sure what I mean, try this first exercise.

Exercise 1 – Who is speaking?

Take a substantial piece of dialogue between two or more characters and remove the characters markers (they said, they replied etc.). Be honest with yourself – looking at each line of dialogue (without the context of the story) can you actually see any speech patterns that indicate which character is saying what?

Do they use distinct words from one another? Do they pause in different ways?

More often than not, even with the most developed characters, you will find that the style of speech (minus the context) could be spoken by anyone in your story. This isn’t a flaw in your character creation, it’s something you will naturally do – write in your own voice.

You may say “but these characters are completely different to me, how is that my voice?” Well, because when sculpting your thoughts into writing, you as the writer have certain word choices, sentence patterns and style preferences that will bleed into your dialogue.

That leads me to exercise two.

Exercise 2 – Capturing voices

One way to practise capturing other voices is to transcribe dialogue between real people. Take a notebook or your laptop and write down the speaker and what they say, just like a play script. Think about all of the things you hear that you could convey in description, and the things that can’t be conveyed quite as well in description (like slight pauses, hedging, intonation, emotion).

A good medium to transcribe is podcasts. There aren’t any distractions from the dialogue and the audio quality is usually of a high standard. Choose a podcast with two or more speakers who go back and forth (rather than ones with long stretches of speech from one party) and transcribe a small section.

Look at the language, speech patterns and sentence structure. You should see a difference between each speaker – some may use a more formal tone, some may hesitate and hedge (um, er etc.) some may have very deliberate patterns to their speech such as listing items, leaving dramatic pauses etc.

The more you practise transcribing real speech, the more you will see the stark differences between speakers, even just in their linguistic choices.

Exercise 3 – Imitation

If you’re still struggling to draw attention to exactly what it is about each of your characters’ speech that makes them unique, try this quick and fun writing exercise.

Take two of your characters and have them do an impression of the other. This can be humourous/in a mocking tone, or more serious. The impression can focus on what they say, but also how they say it. Does one character change pitch or intonation to imitate the other? Do they draw attention to certain quirks or portray a particular emotion?

The act of putting one character into the mindset of the other, even if exaggerated and mocking, will help you to draw attention to what it is about each speaker that makes them unique.

Exercise 4 – Word choices

If you have trouble making distinct speakers whilst actually writing the dialogue, start with the planning process. When you’re planning a new character, try to think about which words choices they might make. You may think that all characters in your story have a similar vocabulary or formality level, but that’s very unlikely.

Even if this is the case, depending on where the characters are from, their upbringing and their experiences, they’re likely to choose certain words more often and avoid certain other words. Think about words and phrases you use on a daily basis – do you have a phrase you use often? For example, “no worries”, “that’s fine”, “it’s okay” are all synonymous but some people are more like to favour one than the others. Small details like this may seem inconsequential, but they can be key in making characters feel different from one another.

Make a list of your characters and answer some basic questions about the way they speak. Are they formal? Do they swear? Are they religious? (some religious people may use certain phrases like “god bless” and avoid others like “oh my god” or “hell”). Do their emotions affect their word choices – anger, fear, frustration, love? Are they softer when they speak to some characters more than others? Are they less vocal in tense situations? Do they ramble when they’re nervous?

Conclusion

Dialogue is so vital to character development because it offers the author the perfect way to “show and not tell” (more about that here). Rather than describing a character as bold, shy, snobby etc. their speech can show these characteristics to the reader.

What did you learn about your characters using these exercises?


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