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  • [Reality Check] - Dialogue Tips For Characters From a Similar Background by Patricia Robertson
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[Reality Check] - Dialogue Tips For Characters From a Similar Background by Patricia Robertson
Contributor
Written by
Zetta Brown
February 2020
Contributor
Written by
Zetta Brown
February 2020

* This post was originally pulished in July 2015.

 

Writing the words your characters say may be easy, but it isn't always easy conveying your character's "voice." I have edited a lot of writers whose characters all sound the same, and if you get a group of them in a single scene, it can be confusing to keep track of who says what.

What your characters say--and how they say it--is just as important as their physical attributes.

Why is this even an issue, you ask? Having developed and distinctive characters can be what makes your work stand out from others. It can be what makes readers remember your story long after they've finished reading.

If you struggle with making your characters more distinct, read on and see how Patricia Robertson addressed this issue.

 

Dialogue Tips For Characters From a Similar Background
by Patricia Robertson
©2015

“On dialogue, you seem to use the same voice for each character. They use the same phrases and speak the same way, which is not very realistic for a multi-generational story.”

Or so one of my beta readers told me. Ouch! Not what I wanted to hear, but definitely what I needed to hear. Better to hear this now than from a reviewer later. But how to fix the problem? My characters were all white, middle-class, mid-Westerners from pretty much the same extended family. Of course they sound alike. No interesting Southern twangs among the bunch or other dialect to set the characters apart. What to do?

I sought out advice from other writers, including Zetta Brown, and searched the Internet. I purchased an ebook on dialogue which was helpful to some extent but didn’t address my specific problem. Then, based on suggestions, I went back over my characters, looking for points of differentiation. While all were from the same general grouping, I had characters of different ages, educational backgrounds and professions. That was my starting point.

An Internet search for tips on common slang for teens yielded a page on Yahoo Answers on slang for fourteen year olds. The range of answers was from “whatever you do, don’t use old, non-sex related slang terms. In general, most of today’s slang terms are sex related,” to, “There’s not really any slang. I’m fourteen and I can’t think of anything that we really use that can be considered as slang.” A lot of the slang teens use today are related to texting, OMG and WTF.

For the twenty-something group, I went to my twenty-seven-year-old daughter who gave me the following tips: Younger people also tend to say “I know” a lot and use “really” or “very” more than necessary. One other thing that I don’t know you would want to put in but might be helpful is the use of the phrase “I mean.” It is not necessary to the meaning of a sentence, and it’s more of a filler, but it has become very common. So you would say something like: “I mean, I get where she is coming from, but I still don’t agree.” People also say “I can’t.” as a single sentence to refer to an annoying situation or something they just can’t deal with at that moment. So when a colleague of mine is being utterly ridiculous and irritating, one of my young colleagues might send me a single chat message that says “I can’t” or “I just can’t.” She also commented, like the fourteen year old above, that she doesn’t usually use slang.

This tells me that slang use is not universal to these age groups, so it’s best to use it sparingly unless my characters were the type to punctuate every other word with slang, which they weren’t.

I also paid attention to young adults at meetings I attended to pick up ideas. I felt comfortable with the older characters in the novel, because of my age and my experience working as a chaplain at a retirement community for twelve years, so I didn’t do further research for them.

With this in mind, I went back over the dialogue between these younger characters and made changes. I tried to use just enough slang to indicate the age of the character without overdoing it. I then sent these changes to my daughter to make sure I was using the terms correctly.

Then I looked at the education level and professions of my characters. I made sure those who had only a high school education didn’t sound like a PhD candidate. I reserved the bigger words and more complicated sentences to the doctors and Pastor Joe. The minister, Pastor Joe, talked more using longer sentences and paragraphs because that’s what ministers do!

I also looked at the male characters to make sure they didn’t sound like women. While not necessarily the “strong, silent type,” I went through my main male character’s dialogue and shortened it, and at times used silence as his response to questions and situations with which he was uncomfortable.

I went through all of the dialogue looking for words that were more “me” than my character—certain phrases or words that I tend to use that cropped up in my characters dialogue. I also looked for “signature” phrases that would help distinguish one character from another, and phrases that were used by members of a particular family. For example, the phrase, “don’t borrow trouble,” was used by the mom, and then by the son, and then by the grandfather, indicating that it was an idiom passed on through the generations of this family.

Hopefully, the end result of my efforts is dialogue that not only comes alive, but indicates who is speaking without necessarily having to say who that person is, something difficult to achieve.

So how about you? How do you handle dialogue, especially when your characters are from a homogenous group? I would appreciate hearing your tips.

P.S. Resources suggested by Zetta Brown:

  • Dialogue by Gloria Kempton in the Write Great Fiction Series published by Writer’s Digest,
  • and for slang, Urban Dictionary.com (www.urbandictionary.com)

 

Patricia Robertson is the author of fiction and non-fiction books, some self-published, some traditionally published. She recently released her novel, Still Dancing, the sequel to her novel, Dancing on a High Wire, and is looking forward to writing the next book in the series during NaNoWriMo this year. She blogs about life and writing at http://patriciamrobertson.com.

 

©2015. Zetta Brown. All Rights Reserved. Zetta is an editor and the author of several published short stories and the erotic romance novel Messalina: Devourer of Men. She provides editing services through JimandZetta.com.

Got a [REALITY CHECK] about the publishing life to share? If you would like to be a guest on my blog, please friend me on She Writes with a message! :)

If you like this post, then stop by Zetta’s Desk for editing tips and follow “Zetta’s Reference Desk” where she features a writing reference book.

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Comments
  • Patricia Robertson

    Karen, glad this was helpful. Good luck with your Work In Progress!

  • Thank you for this post.  I will save it because this is one of my main concerns about character differentiation in the novel I am working on at the moment.

  • Patricia Robertson

    Thank you Zetta and everyone else. So many more good ideas. I particularly like your suggestions, Zetta, on historical fiction. I don't currently write historical fiction, but maybe someday . . .

  • Zetta Brown

    @Christine - Don't thank me. Thank Patricia! :) Yes, please share the news far and wide. :)

    @Mardith - Glad we can help. :)

    @Pamela - That's good to know for the sake of authenticity. I got caught up saying "like" in the 80s when Valley Girls were popular, but I'll tell you what got me to stop. One day I was trying to ask my mom if I could go out with some friends and kept saying "like." She said, "If you say like to me one more time, I'll slap you."

    Judge Judy is the same way. She'll make people repeat themselves without using their "crutch word," as I call it.

    @Nancy - It's hard with historical fiction because unless you do a lot of research and can read source material, you can make mistakes. I suggest keeping language simple AND using a good dictionary that also provides the etymology of the word. That info really helps so you don't use a word that didn't come about until years later.

    If you can at least mimic the style and phrasing of the time period, you'll probably find there's no need for slang at all.

  • I think I'll have to read through my novel again with this in mind. It takes place in pre-Conquest England, so current slang won't help, but I am sure there are ways to convey age without using slang. I think I have differentiated between the gentry and the common folk and between different educational levels but maybe I can do more with family words and phrases and individual habits of speech. Thanks for the tips.

  • Pamela Fender

    All great suggestions.
    As a substitute teacher, I hear the word "like" way more often than I care to. WHen a student asks a question or makes a statement and uses "like" (not as similar to and being fond of something...you know what I mean), I generally have them make the statement without using the word "like." You won't believe how difficult it is for them. So, if you're using real life dialogue of today...use "like" if teens are speaking; it's reality. Teens use "like" far too often. Sometimes I'll even count how many times they use it in a spoken paragraph. "Wow. DO you know you used the word "like" 12 times just now?"

  • Christine Keleny

    Thanks for the suggestions, Zetta. I'll be sure to pass this on!

  • Mardith Louisell

    Great ideas, all three of you! Thanks.

  • Zetta Brown

    That's a good idea, Cate. Never thought of that before. Thanks! :)

  • Patricia Robertson

    Thank you both Cate and Zetta. Good dialogue is really tricky. I know I haven't mastered it yet. Thanks for the suggestions. I like idea of giving characters an identifying word. Also helpful to remember dialogue changes depending on  the group you are in and the situation.

  • Zetta Brown

    Hi, Cate!

    Love the eavesdropping idea. Don't know if I'm brave enough to try recording a conversation, but who knows? It's all good fodder. 

    I think characters having a word or speech pattern or something is good because it's individual to them. You made a good point about you and your friends. Usually, when we're in a group of friends or family, it's easy to fall into the same patterns, etc. But when you're on your own and in different situations, language can change.

    In real life, you don't really have to think about speech too much. It comes naturally. But when you have to write it out and weave it into a story, that's when you should look at the nuts and bolts.