Writing Dialogue: Defining Character Personalities


Last week, I explained dialogue punctuation as part of a series of posts I'm doing on topics I've covered in conference workshops and panels this summer. Today, we're going to look at using dialogue to reveal more about your characters' personalities.

Odds are you've been told something a person you know has said and responded with, "That sounds just like him." You might even hear it in their voice even though you're getting it second hand. 

What makes you recognize their words? The phrasing. The word choices. The tone of the message.

Phrasing

We have our catch phrases. Television shows use this to their advantage. Can you name the characters known for these catch phrases?

  • "How YOU doin'?"
  • "Aaaaay."
  • "Dyn-o-mite."
  • "Eh. What's up doc?"
  • "Hello, Newman."
  • "That's what she said."

Odds are you recognize a few if not all of these and the TV character immediately came to mind. You can do the same thing with your characters. They may or may not have a catch phrase, but they do have a certain way of speaking. What is it? What are their favorite words?

Word Choices

This is separate from catch phrases, because it boils down to what words they choose to explain, discuss, or just converse with others. For example, an educated person will probably use more complex words. A sports person might use sports terms in non-sports arenas. A cook might use cooking terms even when not talking about cooking.

The key is to know your character and determine when they might resort to a sports metaphor or use big words. You can also tell us a lot about these characters by how the people they're talking to react or respond to their dialogue.

Tone

Tone is one of those things that can be difficult to write. It is made up of 4 measurable parts:

  • Volume
  • Rate
  • Pitch
  • Emphasis

Your descriptions of the surrounding actions can help with the four points above, but tone in writing can also come from word choice. Look at the following sentences:

  • I need you to fill this out.
  • You have to fill this out.
  • You gotta fill this out first, or I can't do anything for you.
  • Fill this out.
  • Ok, first, we'll need this filled out.

Accompany the words with actions:

  • Handing them a form.
  • Pushing the form across the counter and turning away at the same time.
  • Clipped words and a frown.
  • A sigh and slapping the form and a pen on the counter.
  • Smiling while handing the form over.

You can mix and match these and create an understood tone within your writing. Some of the statements come across as demanding (you have to, I can't do anything, fill this out). Some are less demanding (I need you, we'll need). Once you add the actions, you amplify the tone.

  • "Fill this out." She spit the words at a clipped rate, a frown creasing her forehead.
  • He smiled and handed her the form. "Ok, first, we'll need this filled out."

Hopefully, you can see the difference in tone in the two examples above. Tone can be situational or it can reveal how the person always deals with others. Let's face it, you know people who always come across abrasive. You, also, know people who come across apologetic every time they speak. Make sure you reveal this kind of information in your characters' dialogues.

So, there you have it: three aspects to consider when you're writing dialogue.

What's your favorite character catch phrase?


Curious about the catch phrases above? In order, they are:

  • Joey (Friends)
  • Fonzie (Happy Days)
  • J. J. (Good Times)
  • Bugs Bunny
  • Jerry Seinfeld (Jerry Seinfeld)
  • Michael Scott (The Office)

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