Everyone recognizes his or her loved ones on the phone. What is it about them that make their voices unique? Concentrate on their tones, their inflections or consider if they have an accent. Everyone has an accent, but we may not recognize it within ourselves. Distinctive tones and emphasizes can help your character’s personality shine through.
One trick is to listen to people speak. The next time you are meeting friends for lunch, listen to the people around you. You’ll discover that some of your friends may use more slang than others or that one of your friends speaks louder and faster while others are more timid and choose their words carefully before speaking. A poor man from the Louisiana bayous is more likely to speak different than a female heir to a wealthy British fortune. If you were standing in a crowd of people at a concert, which of your friends would you most likely hear the best?
What characters say is just as important as how they say it. Bartenders is a widely used example because of their wide knowledge of cocktails and their abilities to know which of the regulars order their usual drinks. Also, bartenders may know many stories about the patrons that come in and out.
What about the old lady who, even after 10 years of being a retired nutritional expert, still reminds you to eat your vegetables. In the example of The Simpson’s character, Mr. Monty Burns, no matter how many times he’s met Homer before, he always asks Mr. Smithers, “Who?” and then Mr. Smithers nearly always responds with, “One of the drones from sector Seven G.” Even though Mr. Burns has met Homer hundreds of times, he still has to be reminded of who his employee is.
After considering the tonal value of each of your characters, the best thing you can do now, as a writer, is go back and read your dialogue out loud. It should flow according to your character, sometimes choppy or maybe poetic and smooth. Really, there are no limitations when it comes to creating a character’s personality as long as it is consistent throughout your story, novel or movie script.
If your character is a wealthy aristocratic woman with the utmost proper upbringing, it would be unlikely that she would enter a dining room using the street slang of Eliza Doolittle unless, of course, that is the goal of the scene and a crucial plot point. The point is, tough bikers in a rough bar may demand beer from the bartender rather than politely request them. A charming man will be witty when asking for his cognac Napoleon and a group of friends on Girls Night will most likely be seductive with the handsome bartender before ordering tequila slammers.
Dialogue determines the rolls your characters play. After all, a gangster, it seems, wouldn’t walk into a gay bar and order a slipper nipple with the polite grace of a British aristocrat (unless, of course, that is what your story is about).
When you read a book, consider how you mentally think about the character’s dialogue. Can you hear their voices? Can you usually guess who is speaking even before you read the ‘he said,’ ‘she said’ lines? When writing your stories, it’s important to keep your readers in mind.
Dialogue can also tell your readers about the character. They can describe a particular character, or an antagonist may gossip about all the things he or she doesn’t like about your protagonist. In murder mysteries, it’s common that one character may overhear some other character’s speaking ill about someone from around the corner. Sometimes they are speaking the truth, while other times what the character overhears is taken out of context which causes a complicated misunderstanding later in the story.
Having the characters describe themselves when they look in the mirror, as they get ready in the morning is an all-too-often occurrence. A great writer will find more inventive and creative ways to reveal the character’s persona. Internal narration, in this sense, should always be kept brief to allow more room for the plot. Readers want to love your story so don’t slow it down by adding too much internal description.
Listening to others speak is a great way to understand dialogue speed, tones and accents as for the conversations themselves, real-life dialogue tends to be repetitive and unnecessary. In a novel and especially in a movie script, dialogue should never be meaningless. It must advance the plot or reveal something interesting about the character or characters.
About Logan K. Scott
Logan K. Scott is the author of numerous successful mystery/thrillers. In addition to his publishing work, he has a BA degree from Brooks Institute and is the writer and producer for more than a dozen films.