Writing Dialogue, Part Four: Creating a Unique Voice

Previous posts in this series have focused on dialogue tags, but in this final part it’s time to discuss what is being said. In real life, people vary in the words they say, whether it is speaking in a dialect, inserting incorrect grammar, using jargon or trendy words, or having an accent. Many variables affect what people say, and it’s this variety that shapes their personalities and how others interact with them.

Characters are boring if not fully developed, and one of the best ways to develop a character is by focusing on their dialogue. Even if your story is not very dialogue driven, the smallest amount of speaking is crucial for making your character seem real in the mind of the reader. Readers need to relate to the people they are reading about, and hearing their voices brings them closer together.

Ask yourself who your character is. How old is he? What region of the world does he live in? What does he do for a living? What places does he visit, or with whom does he spend his time? Answers to these questions can determine the type of speech the character uses. Let’s look at some examples of different types of characters and what they might say.

Sixteen-year-old Stacy might say to her friends, “Oh my God you guys, can you even believe what Andy posted on Facebook? I mean, that’s like the most insane thing to happen ever.”

Seventy-year-old Evelyn might say to her friends, “My goodness, have you seen the news? It’s unbelievable what this world has come to.”

These two may have seen the same news, but are showing their surprise in very different ways based on their age. It shows us that Stacy is a very energetic teenager, and that Evelyn is a very composed yet disdainful older woman. Now let’s look at two characters that live in different regions of the United States.

Brian, living in the inner city, says, “Nah. Look, dude. That’s not how I roll.”

David, residing on a southern farm, says, “I’m tellin’ ya, mister, that’s just not how them things work.”

The first man is using cool, trendy words that make him sound confident, even a bit cocky. The second man is using a dialect that, though cliché, is authentic to the smooth southern style we expect to hear from people in rural southern America.

Let’s look at one more scenario where dialogue can depict the type of person a character is. Daniel is a college student, and upon arriving on campus he meets up with a friend. “Hey, what’s up, man?” Then he goes to class and says to his teacher, “Good morning, Mr. Smith.” This shows us that Daniel is not just all-around friendly, but also knows to address his friends differently from those of authority. Therefore we see Daniel as respectful. If he instead said, “What’s up, Smith?” we either see disrespect or that Daniel is close friends with his teacher.

Next time you start a new story or edit an existing one, stop when your characters speak. Analyze who they are and determine if what they are about to say fits them. Don’t put words in their mouth; let them speak for themselves.