Writing Dialogue True to Each Character’s Voice

Capturing a character’s unique voice is an ongoing challenge but I feel like I’m making real progress with my latest work-in-progress.

My main character is a 17-year-old girl and I was once that age so I figure I have a bit of a headstart. To get even further into my character’s head I dusted off diaries I had written as a teenager.

Reading your teenage words by the way is not for the faint-hearted. It took me weeks to get over the experience.

I apologised to my Mum for being a self-involved cow back then and reassured myself that I’ve (mostly) left those angsty teenage behaviours behind.  

Then after a recovery period I started writing in my character’s voice.

Overall I’d say the exercise was worthwhile as the voice is feeling true and real to my character but I’ve hit another snag.

I have at least four secondary or minor characters who are all men of a similar age.

Some only appear in one or two scenes so there isn’t much opportunity to introduce the characters in great detail, or otherwise distinguish them from each other. As a result, the characters are blending into each other a little.

With little space to work with, I’ve decided to try and work some dialogue magic so they don’t all sound the same.

Here is what I’ve learned about writing dialogue that is unique and true to each character.

Have a real person in mind

If you don’t have first-hand insight or experience as the character you are writing dialogue for, then try to picture someone in your broader network who does represent the same kind of character.

Is there someone from your school days, work, your wider family or circle of friends who reminds you of your character?

Maybe there’s a customer you’ve encountered through work or someone you’ve overheard on public transport, at the checkout or next to you at the hairdressers.

They may not be the exact same type of person but they may share some of your character’s key characteristics.

What struck you about how they spoke and expressed themselves? What kind of language did they use? Were there any words in particular they favoured?

Look for things such as:

  • Word choice
  • Formality
  • Length of their sentences
  • Rhythm
  • Feeling – the emotive effect of their words and the level of feeling in them.
  • Who are they talking to? Consider how they would speak differently depending on their audience.

Use all of this for inspiration for your character.

Have a favourite character in mind

Maybe you don’t know someone in your network but you have a favourite character from a book, film or TV who you can use for inspiration.

If you don’t already have a favourite character in mind, then read/watch/listen to something in the same genre you are writing in, or featuring characters of similar ages and backgrounds and identify common themes or language they use.

Write Through It

Sometimes the only way to truly get to know a character is to write your way through it.

Write dialogue for your character that you don’t even need for your book. Invent a scene in your head, something that’s completely out of context of what you’re writing and just start putting words on the page in their voice.

It may be them speaking about what they did on the weekend, or what their biggest fear is. Choose any topic that will get you starting to piece together how they would speak.

For my main character I conducted an ‘interview’ where I asked her twenty or so ‘getting to know you’ questions and then answered them in her voice. I haven’t used any of the content directly in my book but it heavily informed not only the character’s dialogue but also how she may act in particular situations.

Check Your Dialogue

There are a few ways to check whether your dialogue sounds natural and unique to each character.

First up, read your dialogue out loud.

The quickest way to find out if dialogue sounds like something a person would say is to actually say it out loud. DO NOT skip this step.

To check whether dialogue is unique to a character, take a section or sections of dialogue featuring different characters. Remove all dialogue tags and names, as well as anything else that would identify the characters, then try and identify the characters from the dialogue alone.

This may be seem easy for you since you wrote the dialogue. The ultimate test is giving it to someone familiar with your work and see if they can identify who said what, or even if they can identify if there are different speakers and accurately distinguish between each of the examples.

So what are you waiting for? Start a conversation with your characters today and you’ll be on your way to writing unique dialogue that is true to each of them.

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Kylie Fennell
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