Do you know this scenario?
You are reading through the first draft of your story. It feels a bit awkward to read something you wrote yourself, like usual.
But this time you think it’s actually a good story. Your characters make sense, they all follow their own agenda and every single one has their own likabilities and flaws.
Yet when your figures talk to each other, you get the feeling they all sound a bit…flat.
The problem is they all sound the same. Somehow all of your dialogue looks like one big pile of porridge; the stale type that your grandma forced down your throat when you were a toddler.
You can feel that if your characters all had distinctive voices, you could draw your reader so much more into your dialogue.
So how can you make sure every single one of your characters sounds like a unique individual and becomes super three-dimensional?
Time to inject a fat dose of personality into your characters’ words!
To show us how it’s done, step by step, let’s look at a very famous story with strong characters. I’m sure you are familiar with this one: The Lord of the Rings tales by J. J. Tolkien showcase some character building at its finest. All of the examples below are actually from the movie scripts (second movie, The Two Towers).
Be Smart, Use This Checklist
For your convenience and to quickly improve your dialogue, I also created a summary of the most important points of this post for you. Download it for free, print it, and keep it on your desk during writing. Or just keep it in your drawer and go through it real quick before you write dialogue.
The Cardinal Rule: Don’t Let Them All Sound Like Yourself
When you write dialogue, you have to navigate around one major pitfall: If you don’t take an extra-conscious effort of slipping into your characters’ skins one by one, then they will all sound alike – like you, that is. It’s just natural that everything we write sounds like the voice we hear in our own head.
Would you like to make your story a mirror cabinet of you and yourself? I hope not. Unless you are the carrier of one of those loveably narcissistic personalities that have honey pots of hair gel in their bathroom and fixed mirrors above their beds.
Instead, just like an actor, you have to take on your character’s full personality when she is speaking. That also means you should know her really well before you start your first draft.
Then, just like an actor, try to walk in her shoes. Great actors don’t act, they are. Try to be your character for a moment. What would she think now? How would she feel? Would she be surprised, disgusted, flattered, amused, disappointed, repelled? How would she express herself?
Great writers have learned to wear many different character hats in quick succession. It’s the big secret to writing killer dialogue.
Let the Characters Fully Express Themselves
Whatever your character feels – let him fully express himself!
Stay away from any mediocrity, any flatness, any holding back. That’s usually just a sign you don’t dare to let your characters speak their hearts and minds; like an actor who can’t fully let go when he should explode furiously or drown in tears.
Stay away from letting your characters waffle trivialities and be all faceless and polite. Instead, make them speak deeply from the core of who they are. Maybe your character is rude, or stupid, or soft, or overly caring; maybe she feels scared or pumped or amused. Let it all out!
In the following passage Gollum, a haunted little creature, starts an insane multiple personality disorder dialogue with himself. It’s about himself/his two personalities, and about the Hobbits who keep him captive.
GOLLUM watches them from a distance…hatred is etched across his face.
Must have the precious. They stole it from us. Sneaky little Hobbitses. Wicked. Tricksy. False.
Suddenly, his expression softens, and he shakes his head. His eyes grow wide, as if looking at his GOLLUM half.
No. Not Master.
His expression turns to hate again. His head turns as if responding to the SMÉAGOL half.
Yes, precious. False. They will cheat you, hurt you, lie!
Master’s my friend.
You don’t have any friends. Nobody likes you.
Not listening. I’m not listening.
I enjoyed that one. And me too.
These are just 44 words, but the author manages to pack so much of Gollum’s personality into them. How much dividedness, bitterness, evil, benign, hurt, fear, denial, greed, insanity and hope those few lines contain. A full outbreak of personality!
Make sure your characters show their full personalities, no matter what.
In great stories, dialogue and characterization are inseparably connected.
Here are the key tricks to let your character’s personality fully shine through your dialogue lines:
1. Pay attention to the character’s core values
Every one of us sees the world through his own lens. We all have different believe systems, different things we pay special attention to.
Just take a look at your Facebook wall and you will quickly see what I mean: Many of the users have one theme they come back to again and again, because it’s “their” topic. Maybe one of your FB friends posts a lot of pics that show her partying. Going out, enjoying life, meeting people (and getting so drunk she has difficulties lying on the floor without holding onto something) are probably a big part of her life. It’s what matters to her.
Another guy might constantly post about political issues, because it’s what concerns him a lot. He might have an inner drive to make things better, and be somebody who cares very much about the direction the world takes.
Another person might constantly post photos showing him travelling, or his meals, photos of her family or of her successes in the corporate world with colleagues. Can you tell what each of these messages tells about their personalities?
The point is, each of us focuses on a different part of our reality. What we pay most attention to depends on what we believe and what we value most.
So make sure your dialogue fully expresses what’s important to your character and how he sees the world.
The following snippet is from the beginning of The Two Towers. It establishes one of the things that make a Hobbit tick: Great food. For their long and arduous journey, Hobbit Sam has even taken the extra effort of packing some seasonings.
FRODO studies the SMALL BOX.
What’s in this?
Nothing. Just a bit of seasoning. I thought maybe if we was having a roast chicken one night or something.
CLOSE ON: SAM looks at FRODO with the greatest of honesty… FRODO looks at SAM incredulously.
You never know.
FRODO laughs and shakes his head.
Sam. My dear Sam.
It is a lot clearer to us now what makes a Hobbit, and how Hobbits behave. Plus, most of it has been told not directly, but elegantly suggested through subtext and assumptions.
2. Use distinctive vocabulary for each character
Part of what makes a person’s speech distinctive is the words they use.
Think about your character’s background! All of the following things will have an effect on how he is talking: Personality type, upbringing, social class, age, profession…
Let’s take a more detailed look at some of these parameters one by one:
1. What’s his personality?
For example, one character has his feet firmly planted on the ground and might talk in more logical terms, like: “We have an above 40% chance of this chemical compound leading to a dangerous reaction.”
Another character is more of an emotional soul talking in image-rich language, and might be saying: “I’m really worried this thing goes up in flames and we all disappear in a big fireball!”
In Lord of the Rings, in a dialogue between Gimli and Legolas, you can clearly see the different personalities of an elf and a dwarf:
They have feelings, my friend. The Elves began it. Waking up the trees, teaching them to speak.
Talking trees. What do trees have to talk about? Except the consistency of squirrel droppings.
Not only can you see that these two are very different in attitude (one sees the trees as “friends,” while for the other one that kind of attitude is just nonsense). You can also see them use very different vocabulary, and different tones. The elf speaks in a soft and empathic way, while the dwarf employs a harsher, more mocking voice. They are just very different personalities.
2. What’s her age?
A young person expresses herself differently than an old one. For example, if somebody is not yet burdened by life’s duties, chances are she will express herself in a more carefree way.
A younger person could also use more modern words. In turn, an older person will talk in a more “mature” way. Draw from your life experience of dealing with younger or older people.
3. What’s his job?
When someone spends 40 hours per week working in a certain environment, you can bet it has an effect on how he expresses himself. Also, a job is often an extension of a person’s personality (I hope yours is).
- How would somebody who is working with their bare hands express themselves?
Often in a more simple way.
- How would an attorney express herself?
Probably in a very articulate way.
- How would a university professor express himself?
He might never stop talking (ask my uncle…).
Here is a clear example of how both, age and profession, shape dialogue. Compare the lines of Gandalf the magician to the lines Pippin the Hobbit speaks.
Gandalf is old and wise. As a wizard, he is very educated and well-spoken. The words he uses are distinguished, his language is powerful and precise:
The veiling shadow that glowers in the east takes shape. Sauron will suffer no rival. From the summit of Barad-dûr, his Eye watches ceaselessly. But he is not so mighty yet that he is above fear. Doubt ever gnaws at him. The rumor has reached him. The heir of Númenor still lives.
Pippin, on the other hand, is only 28 years old, which for a Hobbit is almost child-like. He is too young to have a job. Observe the simpler and more innocent/naive way he speaks:
I had the loveliest dream last night. There was this large barrel, full of pipe-weed. And we smoked all of it. And then…you were sick.
Who you are and where you come from makes your language. Use this fact to lend your characters clearly distinctive voices!
4. What’s his social background?
People will mainly use the language their environment uses. Social background, who your parents were and who your friends are, certainly play a major role in how you talk.
Somebody who comes from a lower social class will use simpler words, while somebody very educated will use a wide array of vocabulary. Lower class might use more swearing or violent language. Higher class might be skilled at directing people with few words while still sounding polite.
Of course it depends on the character, and these are just some ideas how origin/background could affect somebody.
3. Give each character their own rhythm of speech
It’s not completely obvious, but when you think about it, people often speak in different patterns. Compare these two bits of dialogue:
- “Gas station? Turn left. Then right. Left again. Will come up in 600 feet.”
- “If you want to find the gas station, just turn left at the next corner, then right and immediately left again. It’s easy to find; you will see it come up after about 600 feet.”
The two examples have pretty much the same content, but they feel differently. You can tell they come from two very different personalities.
The first line could come from somebody who doesn’t like to talk that much; maybe he doesn’t have to talk much in his professional life (a farmer? a blacksmith?). It’s probably a hands-on person who is working the nitty-gritty of life.
The second example could come from somebody who is more of a thinker and a people’s person. He likes communicating and talking more, and he is more interested in his opposite’s well-being.
These characteristics are just one way to explain why the speakers talk how they talk. The first speaker might be a much bigger friend of mankind. But if he is, you have to find a believable way of linking the way he talks to his personality, because he certainly doesn’t sound that way. And chances are it’s the other way around.
Here is how you can create distinctive rhythm for your characters:
- Use different lengths of phrases
- Use different sentence structures, like only main clauses or a lot of subordinate or embedded clauses
- Use conjunctions, noun markers, filler words, etc… more with some speakers and less with others
- Use different some punctuation marks (question marks, exclamation marks, hyphens, colons, semi-colons, etc…) more with some speakers and less with others
In following, compare the Hobbit Sam’s dialogue with Saruman’s lines.
Sam speaks in shorter, to the point principal clauses. He bursts out thoughts. His phrases can be cut short and don’t have to be 100% grammatically correct. You can see this when one noun makes his complete sentence (“Mordor”), or when he uses “And” at the beginning of the phrase.
Again, Hobbits speak in more simple ways:
Mordor. The one place in Middle-earth we don’t want to see any closer. And the one place we’re trying to get to. It’s just where we can’t get.
Saruman, on the other hand, embodies pure evil. His long, meandering sentence here evokes an epic feeling. It feels like the evil is about to come down on us.
SARUMAN (V.O.) (CONT’D)
A new order will rise. We will drive the machine of war with the sword and the spear and the iron fists of the Orc.
It also has to be said that many people do speak in very similar patterns. Rhythm is just one tool in your box to make your characters stand out, so don’t go crazy with it.
And every now and then, you might invent a character with a really distinctive pattern of speech… (Thought of Master Yoda from Star Wars you have?)
Just fill in the blanks!
Bonus Tip: An excellent trick to know your characters like your best friend
As we said above: To write excellent dialogue for your characters, you have to know them very well.
How can you do this?
I found the most effective way is to write a file about each one of your characters before you start your story. If he is one of your major characters, it could be a couple of pages: What’s his personality? What’s his background? What are his values? His history? His likes and dislikes?
After that, you can even put him into some exercise scenes that are not related to your story. Develop a feeling for him. Test out how he acts and reacts. Maybe he finds $1000 dollars on the street – what does he do? Maybe she gets into a fight with her boyfriend – how does she handle it, what does she say?
Write two or three of these unrelated scenes, and you will know your characters very well and will be able to give them excellent dialogue to deliver.
Once you are prepared, you will automatically know where your characters are coming from, and which words and speech patterns they use.
Handy Cheat Sheet
If you want a handy free tool for your dialogue writing, download this ‘Unique Voice’ cheat sheet. You can find all of the important points in this post combined on two pages. Just download and enjoy.
And now it’s time for the…
Exhilarating Writing Prompt
Choose one of the following characters, and let them speak about their favorite pastime. Just write a couple of sentences, but make them as distinctive as you can in how they express themselves. You can use tone, vocabulary, rhythm, or anything else you would like. Think about their backgrounds and who they are, and take a decision what they should sound like for you!
- A young computer hacker; very smart and savvy, and a bit socially awkward
- The CEO of a large soft drink company; dominant; time is money
- The court jester on a medieval king’s court; cheeky and playful
- A little kid
- The janitor of a school
Give us your best shot in the comments – I would love to see you guys breath some life into these characters!
Final Words… The End
It pays off to pay attention to your dialogue, and lend every character their unique voice. With a bit of practice, “acting” as your characters will become second nature to you. Your figures will be as real to your reader as his brother or sister. And he will just have to turn the pages to know what your character is up to next.
Fascinating dialogue leads to fascinating characters… Have fun and experiment with this – after all, it’s your chance to experience life as somebody else for a brief moment in time!