Writing stronger dialogue part 3: character voice
In this series about writing stronger dialogue, we’ve covered how to use dialogue tags and the many ways you can format speech. In the final instalment, we’re looking at giving your character’s a voice and making sure they talk like real humans.
Here are five tips to help you get there.
1. Listen to others
The first step to creating authentic speech is to listen to how other people talk. Go to a coffee shop, a restaurant or a tube station. Listen to the conversations around you and write some of them down. How many different dialects can you hear? Does anyone use clichés? Do some people use one word many times over?
Real, human conversations are vibrant and unusual and boring and slow and fast and they come in all different volumes. No two voices are ever the same. And that is what makes language so beautiful. Bringing that same rich variety of speech to your characters is a great way to make them more believable and relatable.
2. Read, read, read
It’s no secret that one of the best ways to improve your writing is to read other people’s work. Pick up your favourite author and study how they write dialogue. See if you can identify which characters are talking without looking at the names. If you can, what is it about the speech that gives them away?
But don’t just look to books. When it comes to studying dialogue, there are few better ways to learn than with plays or scripts. Take away the stage directions and they are literally stories made up almost entirely of dialogue. They’re a valuable resource not to be missed.
3. To use dialect or not?
Accents and dialects are a big topic in and of themselves so, to keep it simple for this blog, I’m going to focus on just two questions:
Is it necessary to drive the story or character development?
Is it done tactfully and without stereotype?
Is it necessary?
Before you flood your dialogue with accents, ask yourself whether we really need to know a character’s nationality. Will it impact the story or drive their development? Let’s look at an example where the answer to these questions is ‘yes’: Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.
For those unfamiliar, this book is written with a very heavy Glaswegian accent. Not just the dialogue; the narration, too. It’s tough to read and, for those who don’t know the dialect well, you might need to look up certain words and phrases. Some readers will not put in the effort. So should Welsh have changed this since it’s so difficult for the reader?
Of course not! The dialect of Welsh’s book is so instrumental to the story that it really couldn’t be written any other way and still be the same book. It is not an easy read and not everyone will like it but it’s necessary for the narrative.
Is it done tactfully?
As a Brit, whenever I hear or read foreign attempts at a British accent it often makes me cringe because they’re almost always based on stereotypes. (FYI, we don’t all talk with Received Pronunciation – we only do that on Sundays when we have tea with the Queen.)
How a character speaks can reveal a lot about their personality. But it can be dangerously easy to turn this ‘personality trait’ into a – sometimes quite offensive – stereotype. We often see this when a character speaks with a foreign accent so we spell the words out phonetically, such as using ‘v’ over ‘w’ with a German accent or ‘z’ over ‘th’ for French.
It’s fine to have German or French characters, but spelling out their speech in this way, purely to show their nationality, can come across as insulting. If it’s important to know their nationality, it’s better to show it through their actions, mannerisms or character description.
TL;DR – For accents and dialects, use them with caution to develop the story or character.
4. Grammatical imperfection
How does this sentence sound to you?
‘I was sat at the kitchen table.’
You’re probably in one of two camps. Camp One is thinking, ‘Yeah that sentence is fine.’ Camp Two, however, is mortified that I’ve used ‘was sat’ instead of ‘was sitting’ because it flouts a sacred grammatical rule.
But which camp is right? Well, both, sort of. Yes, ‘was sat’ is grammatically wrong because of the mixed tenses. However, I grew up in the West Midlands and I didn’t learn that ‘was sat’ was non-standard until I went into Higher Education. When speaking, I would use the phrase ‘was sat’ all the time. I still do, even though I know it’s *wrong*. Why? Because I’m human. I don’t edit my sentences in real time.
Some humans speak in grammatically correct sentences. Some humans don’t. Neither one is wrong. When it comes to writing your characters’ dialogue, let them speak like humans.
5. Say it loud for those at the back
I give this advice all the time because it is, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of writing advice: read your work out loud.
There really is no better way to test whether your dialogue sounds authentically human than to read it out loud and hear how it falls off your tongue. Even little things, like whether you’ve spelt out words instead of using contractions, can stand out and help you to hone your writing.