Clarity is an essential component of any good story. In dialogue, clarity means making sure audiences know who is speaking. The most common method is to identify the speaker by name, typically by using a tag such as “(name) said”. But it’s also important to make sure a character’s voice is consistent.
When writing dialogue for a specific character, consider their geographic, cultural, and economic origins. People who grew up on a rural farm will use different references than someone who spent most of their life in a city. Some learn to speak by listening to others talk, picking up more slang and colloquialisms, while others learn by reading books and tend to be more formal, using obscure words (depending on what they read).
A character who is speaking a second language may imitate their native tongue. For example, one person might say “For the sake of the others, you should leave,” while another would say “You should leave, for the sake of the others”. It’s the same general meaning, but changing the word order emphasizes different words, and implies a different way of thinking. Word order can be a great way to establish distance, to emphasize a character’s “otherness”, particularly when a character is struggling to express a foreign concept. For example, in the series Codex Alera, by Jim Butcher, one character says, “You say what is not.” It takes a few moments for the protagonist to realize this person is describing the concept of “lying”, a foreign concept. And because they have no concept of lying, they have no need for the word “truth”.
Interest & Confidence
Everyone has different sides to them, times where they feel strong or weak, belonging vs out of place. Most become quiet when they feel intimidated or disinterested, but people also become quiet when they are more interested in listening and learning from others.
Similarly, most become more animated if they have strong feelings about the current topic, and speak more often if they have a different opinion, or wish to take the conversation in a new direction. How often a character speaks, and how they express themselves, are good ways of revealing a character’s level of confidence. Some people are naturally quiet, but typically someone who talks at length also has a great deal of confidence in themselves and their ideas.
Knowledge & Implications
“Revealing Information Through Dialogue” outlined how dialogue can provide audiences with facts and details about the story, but what a character knows, or doesn’t know, can also carry secondary implications. For example, a character who looks at a car engine and casually references the different parts by name and function has also implied that they spent a fair amount of time around cars, either studying or working on them. Nothing’s been formally said about this character’s past, but a past has been implied, at least in part.
Another great example comes from an older movie called “So I Married an Axe Murderer” (minor spoilers ahead). The story establishes that there is a mysterious woman who marries and then kills her husbands, and it establishes that past husbands included men with specific skills, including linguistics. Partway through the story, the protagonist’s love interest also demonstrates those same skills, speaking to some foreigners in their native tongue, among other things. Without directly saying it, the story has posed the question in the audience’s mind, “Is this her?”
Here’s another example. If James is a thief and a liar, and someone else calls them “a thief and a liar,” but does so affectionately, consider all the implications. This character knows some of James’s secrets, and doesn’t hold it against him. That suggests this person might also be a thief and a liar, but the audience doesn’t know, at least not yet.
Profiling a character can be a great way to understand how that character will speak. For example, consider the Myers-Briggs personality test. Is the character logical or intuitive? A logical character is likely to look for evidence and premise-conclusion based arguments, while an intuitive might emphasize what “feels right.” A character who tends to judge is more likely to reference a plan or order, while a perceiver is more likely to accept and adapt to whatever happens.
Modalities-How People Speak
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