Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 5, Character Voice
August 12, 2014 | Written by Erin Buterbaugh
I did a lot of theater in high school and college, and still act in local productions from time to time– I know some people would rather lick a battery than perform onstage, but I think it’s some of the most fun there is to put on a costume and pretend to be someone and somewhere else for a couple hours, and theater is one of the few socially acceptable ways to do this as an adult. Having spent so much time performing and teaching theater, I’ve played (or been forced to play) some pretty dumb games in the name of “character development,” many of which, I’m convinced, existed for no other purpose than to entertain the teacher who, bitter that his own acting career didn’t pan out, derived all his joy in life from watching teenagers pretend to be earthworms and vending machines. A couple of those theater exercises, however, bore a remarkable similarity to the kind of brainstorming that authors can do to fully flesh out their characters, and a fully fleshed-out character is going to have a more distinct voice on the page, and, by extension, will “speak” more compelling dialogue.
One of the theater exercises we’d do during high school was to interview each other in character using a list of biographical questions designed to make the interviewee put some thought into her character’s history and life. Answering these questions for your characters forces you to think about your character as a 3-dimensional person with a past instead of just a puppet in the scene you’re currently writing, and a 3-dimensional character is always going to have something more interesting to say than a puppet.
Consider answering the following questions for each of your main characters. You might be surprised how giving some thought to seemingly trivial information about a character’s past, even information that may never come to light in the novel, informs the way their dialogue develops.
Character Interview Reference Sheet
Age? This will inform the kind of slang the character uses, the references he makes, how he interacts with other characters of various ages, etc.
Where was he born? Where did he grow up? This information can help determine if a character speaks with any kind of an accent, what regional vocabulary he uses, what weather/landscape he grew up with and how he reacts to his current location, etc.
Where is he living now? Does he fit in with his current location, or is he a fish out of water? How does the way he speaks differ from the people around him? Does his vocabulary differ? (e.g., he says “soda,” everyone else says “pop.”)
Family? Did he grow up with educated parents? Brothers who taught him to cuss? Grandparents who spoke with an accent? Who taught him to talk and what kinds of habits might he have picked up from them?
Education? High school? College? Law school? A character’s education influences his vocabulary, his syntax, the references he makes, the references which go over his head, etc.
Religion? Might affect how a character speaks when he’s angry, how much he curses, how he responds to certain situations or topics of conversation.
What’s he passionate about/bored by? What topics will he turn to when making dinner conversation on a first date? Which subject will make him roll his eyes when his father-in-law broaches it? What is he excited to talk about? What conversation topics bore him to tears?
There is no minimum and no limit to the questions you can ask yourself about your characters. The point of this exercise isn’t to give you busywork or yet another way to procrastinate, and SHOULDN’T be used as a quick-reference sheet for creating cliche dialogue (e.g., “Let’s see, this character is from Georgia? I’ll make him talk like Foghorn Leghorn!”), but the better you know your characters, the more convincingly you can put their voices on the page (or stage).