Have you ever answered a phone call and instantly recognized the voice on the other line without glancing at the number or caller ID? For most hearing people, a person’s timbre works as an identifying marker. Voices can be mellow, nasal, raspy, squeaky, and everything in between. Also, tone can reveal information about a person’s health, gender, age, and even their emotional state. But what happens when the sound is stripped away?
This is one of many challenges writers face when crafting dialogue. Every character (with the possible exception of zombies and members of a hive mind) should have their own voice. Yet the readers do not have the benefit of “hearing” the characters speak. How can writers mimic the information listeners might instinctively glean from conversations with the characters?
The order in which a character arranges their words can be telling. It can convey non-native speech or even quirkiness. Yoda is a prime example.
In addition to flexible syntax, multi-lingual and non-human characters have a wide vocabulary. And as any multi-language speaker knows, there are some words that simply do not cross languages without losing some of their native connotation. Inserting words or phrases from other languages (existent, dead, or imaginary) is an easy way to set these characters apart.
Meter and sentence length can be used to express a character’s individuality or to inform the reader of their mood. Below we have two characters engaging in playful banter. The sentences are short and punchy like two friends well-used to trading casual barbs.
Contrasting this, below there is a bit of dialogue delivered during a moment of crisis. The sentences use a repeating parallel structure which acts as a drumbeat to heighten tension, exploding into the final (and longest) sentence.
Catch phrases are probably the easiest way to set characters apart using dialogue alone. The main problems with catch phrases is that they can become stereotypes (like the Canadian “eh” or the Valley Girl “like”) or they can become annoying to readers. Terry Prachett was a master at crafting distinct voices and made excellent use of catch phrases in a few of his Discworld characters. Perhaps the most memorable one is Foul Ole Ron who’s best known for his nonsense talk peppered with the phrase “millenium hand and shrimp” as well as variations of the phrase “bugger it.”
Slang words and idioms can inform a reader on a character’s background. The following examples feature characters from different fantasy worlds, but the dialogue demonstrates Ormly and the opening speaker in the Bishop novel come from similarly rough-hewn backgrounds.
Meanwhile, the following non-human characters use a dialect that is in keeping with their rat-like point of view.
Regardless of dialect, the words a character chooses at a particular moment can reveal a bit about them. In the example below, the second speaker’s use of the word “minions” shows they have a sense of humor and they don’t put much faith in their employees’ competence.
And in this example, Thomas uses the five-syllable word “incendiary” followed by a word any toddler can pronounce. This tells us a bit about his emotional state (frazzled) and his relationship to vulgar language (which is deliciously ironic because he is a sex vampire).
So what are your favorite pieces of dialogue? What do you like about them? Feel free to sound off in the comments below.
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