Below is an extract from my book, How to Write Believable Characters: Character Development Tips for Novelists, Poets, and Scriptwriters. You can preorder your copy for just 99p today.
In this extract, we explore how the dialogue you use can bring your character to life, and how you can write better dialogue. If you’re writing a monologue, or considering writing one, many of the same rules apply.
How to write good dialogue
Dialogue is one of the best ways to show who your characters are. Subtle changes in word choice can reflect how a reader perceives them both now and in the future. I’m not talking about how you tag their dialogue, either. I’m talking specifically about the language each character uses.
One of the strongest examples of voice in my writing is the character of Hollie’s nan in the What Happens in… series. She’s strongly influenced by my nan, and she knew it. My nan had a strong voice that I wanted to immortalise in my writing. While she was uncomfortable initially, she learned to love it. Friends and family members who’ve read my books and met my nan also remarked on how accurate her voice was in my books.
Take this phrase: ‘Come on, gal. Perk yerself up.’
‘Gal’ shows her Midland (or in some cases Northern) roots, as does the spelling ‘yerself’, which reflects the way she would’ve pronounced it. Phonetic spelling isn’t something you should use for every character as it can be irritating to read, but it can be a good way to differentiate one character with a strong accent or interesting way of talking from the rest.
‘Perk’ instead of ‘Cheer’ is another subtle difference. ‘Perk’ doesn’t have to mean be happy, it just means pull yourself out of the doldrums. ‘Cheer’ implies that a person needs to be happier. It’s very different to someone who would say ‘stop being a baby’ or ‘get over it’.
The reason I could write Nan’s voice so accurately was because I knew her so well. I could hear her voice in my head when I wrote.
Dickens once said that he had to be able to hear a character’s voice in their head to write them. I can agree that it definitely helps.
You don’t have to base your character’s voice on a person for them to come to life, though.
In one of my old stories for university, the protagonist’s manager was passive. He was afraid of the main character and didn’t know how to exert any authority. He showed his passivity by using lots of fillers like ‘um’ and ‘er’. We use these in everyday speech, but in writing they should be used sparingly as they pull the reader out of the piece. However, if fillers are used in particular situations or for one character, they’re the perfect way to demonstrate personality traits like passiveness or a lack of confidence without spelling it out.
Pet names are another thing to consider. Some people use them, others don’t. Some people use them for one particular person or group of people. A common one where I live is ‘duck’. This confuses outsiders but it’s a term of endearment, most commonly used by older generations in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, and Staffordshire. If you travel down south, particularly towards London and Essex, you’re more likely to hear ‘love’ used in the same way.
Someone who’s less sociable or fond of other people might not use these terms of endearment and may feel uncomfortable being on the receiving end of them.
Great dialogue isn’t just about what one person says. It’s about how they react to what other people say.
Take this simple exchange:
Person 1: How are you?
Person 2: Fine. You?
Person 1: Yeah, I’m good. The missus has got me redecorating the living room at the minute, so I’m pretty busy.
Person 2: Oh.
Person 1 is clearly more talkative than Person 2. But, if you look closely, it can run much deeper than that. We can assume Person 1 is an extrovert, or at the very least an ambivert. Person 2 may not like Person 1, based on their short, clipped answers.
Alternatively, they may feel awkward in the situation and therefore not want to talk to said person. This could be because of something that’s happened previously, or just because they have issues talking to people. Maybe they’re on the autistic spectrum.
Without information on their mannerisms and the setting, it’s difficult to get the full picture. All three of these parts must work together to reflect who your character is as a person. The dialogue is the first step in forming that.
You could give your character a unique way of talking—for instance, how fast they talk in Gilmore Girls—or a memorable catchphrase. Some cosy mystery series come up with alternative ways to curse.
Improving your dialogue
There’s really only one way you can improve your dialogue, and that’s to listen to other people. Do they miss out or clip certain words? For instance, some Brits like to remove modifiers. We’d say ‘she didn’t have chance’ as opposed to ‘she didn’t have a chance. Yorkshire folk say ’t’other’ instead of ‘the other’.
People often adapt how they speak based on who they’re around, too. Think about how you speak at work, compared to how you speak to your parents, to how you speak to your friends or partner. You’ll change the language you use based on the audience. You might be more sweary around your friends and most formal at work, for example. You might avoid or feel uncomfortable broaching certain topics with certain audiences, like talking about relationships with your grandparents.
Consider things like: does your character have an accent? Do they use local dialect? Do they use sexist, racist, or homophobic words or phrases? Is the language they use old-fashioned, or is it modern? Do they use lots of acronyms or jargon that wouldn’t make sense to anyone outside of their industry or culture?
When your dialogue doesn’t match how people speak, it pulls the reader out of your book. Your character also stops feeling so real to them. For example:
Person 1: Could you let me know what the time is, please?
Person 2: I do not have the time. I am sorry.
No one talks like that. It’s stilted and formal and sounds like you’re receiving an essay about time. Yawn. Try this:
Person 1: Do you know what the time is, please?
Person 2: I don’t know, sorry.
There. That’s much more likely how it goes down when a stranger asks you the time. Assuming you’re not wearing a watch or are in a hurry, anyway.
When trying to write dialogue that sounds natural, there are a few key rules. The first is to use contractions. People are lazy and we want to get our words out as fast as possible. That’s why contractions are a thing and new ones appear all the time. Saying ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ takes less energy then ‘I do not know what you are talking about’. The use of contractions—in any writing, I should add, even nonfiction—feels more natural to the reader, and like they’re talking to—listening to—a friend. If you’re going to use formal language, save it for academic essays or ONE CHARACTER. Yep, it should be a character trait that you’re consistent with throughout. Someone who learned English later in life as a second language may be less comfortable using contractions, for example, as they’re taught to write formally. People who are taught it as a second language at school are also taught it this way most of the time.
The next thing you need to consider is speech patterns. Sometimes the way we talk is different to the way we write. It’s not a bad thing. See? I did it then. ‘It’s not’ as opposed to ‘it isn’t’ or ‘it is not’, which most of us would default to when writing, but we may not say that aloud.
If you’re curious to see how your writing and speech differ, try dictating a few lines to yourself. You’ll be surprised at what you discover
Using humour in writing
Let’s take a moment to talk about humour. I love humour. I also love studying it. There are often undertones to jokes that people don’t even consciously realise.
What a person jokes about—and finds funny—says a whole lot more about them than they’d like to admit. People who deal with difficult situations, such as healthcare professionals, police officers, or firefighters, often have a dark sense of humour. It’s a coping mechanism to help them through challenging situations. But if you take that sense of humour out of that context, it doesn’t always read well.
Quite often, humour is used as a mask. A way for someone to protect themselves. For instance, if they have a strong belief that all men are arseholes, rather than say it aloud, as they know it’s taboo, they’ll make jokes about it. Then, when someone calls them up on it, they’ll dismiss it and say ‘it’s just a joke’ when really, it wasn’t. They were testing the waters for their more toxic tendencies.
People so often make jokes about things that they’re serious about and not enough people notice because it’s used under the guise of humour. It’s how the ‘banter’ nonsense started a few years ago. If you’re making digs at someone and they’re not comfortable with it, it’s not banter. It’s bullying and you’re an insensitive arse.
Humour is a way of testing the water in a safe environment. Then, if that information is accepted, the person can segue into talking about the negative topic—whatever it may be—more seriously.
Comedians use humour to discuss serious subjects all the time because it’s a safer space than talking about something directly. That’s why they call up people in power so often. It’s more acceptable. And if they get called up on it, they can say that it was ‘just a joke’.
But let’s be clear: a joke is never just a joke. Even if the person saying it doesn’t realise it, there’s always a subtext to it.
Want more awesome character writing tips? Check out my new book, How to Write Believable Characters: Character Development Tips for Novelists, Poets, and Scriptwriters. You can preorder your copy today for just 99p.