Writing Dialogue: How to Develop (and Hear) your Characters’ Voices
I’ve been hard at work on my latest novel and am enjoying getting the characters developed and on the page. I always have a pretty good grasp on my characters by the time I start writing because I definitely fall into the category of “planner” when it comes to writing my novels.
Never could I just sit down and have my characters “tell” me what’s going to happen.
That would be terrifying and lead to me staring at a blank screen all day.
Even though when I start writing I’ve got my characters all mapped out and developed, when I first begin a story, it always takes a bit to really find their voice.
I know what they look like, what they’re doing, and where they’re off to, but how do they sound? How do they talk? What’s their voice? If I haven’t done a character “interview,” then I haven’t “heard” them, and I have to take a writing break and develop that aspect of their character, their voice.
In every story I write, the dialogue is one of the areas I spend the most time crafting, especially at the beginning when I’m really beginning to “hear” their voices.
Dialogue is your character’s only chance to speak for themselves. It’s the most direct experience of the character that we can give our readers. Can you think of your favorite characters from novels and actually “hear” them? If so, that author did a fabulous job with their dialogue.
Dialogue is also often a reader’s favorite part of a story. During sections of dialogue, we get to know the characters, the story moves forward, and characters find out key information which means we do to. But it’s crucial that each of the characters has their own voice to avoid them sounding the same (and probably a lot like you).
J.K. Rowling is a master at developing different voices for each of her characters in her dialogue. She establishes them from their very first lines.
In Hagrid’s second appearance in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, he smashes into the hut on the rock and says, “‘Couldn’t make us a cup o’tea, could yeh? It’s not been an easy journey…’ He strode over to the sofa, where Dudley sat frozen with fear. ‘Budge up, yeh great lump,’ said the stranger” (47).
His voice differs completely from every character Ms. Rowling has already introduced: Vernon Dursley, Petunia Dursley, Dumbledore, Prof. Mcgonnagal, and Harry. And none of these characters “sound” like the others. If you haven’t yet read any of the Harry Potter books, take a look at them and study Rowling’s dialogue. Or if you have read them, dip back into them. Her dialogue is fabulous.
Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, said, “Dialogue is the way to nail character, so you have to work on getting the voice right.”
The question then becomes…how? How do we develop and create a character’s voice?
Four Strategies to Develop a Character’s Voice
1) Interview your characters
One time while driving, I just sort of started “talking” with my character in my head. I was stuck on part of my story and trying to work it out as I drove. She ended up “telling me” all kinds of stuff about her life. I had to pull over to write it all down. It was some of the best character development information I’ve ever gotten, and I also “heard” her.
I know this might make me sound nuts, but if you’re on this site, you’re a creative person who (hopefully) understands what I’m talking about.
You can try it too. Grab a notebook, come up with some questions, and start talking either in your head or on paper. Try to imagine your character sitting there with you. See if your character comes through with their voice.
2) Pay attention to and take notes on people and character’s speech characteristics
If you pick up a book and study the dialogue, you’ll notice differences in how each character speaks. For example, Hagrid speaks with a strong accent, he always uses contractions, he cuts words off shortening either the beginning or ends of them, like ’em for them, or takin’ for taking. He always says ‘ter’ and ‘fer’ for ‘to’ and ‘for.’ He uses a simpler vocabulary, and he often says how he feels.
Other characters speak with longer or shorter sentences, varying levels of vocabulary. Some might use more phrases or figurative language. Some might speak quite a bit, rambling, while others will get straight to the point.
You can really look at any sections of dialogue in your favorite novels and break it down. It’s all about reading like a writer.
Another way to do this is to listen to people speak. How do you friends, siblings, or parents “sound” different? If your mom were going to tell you to do your chores, how would her words and style differ from your dad or your big sister?
Pay attention to how people speak and make a list of different characteristics you find in your writer’s notebook. This list will be worth gold when you’re working on developing your characters’ voices.
3) Write an Internal Monologue
First, choose the character you want to work on, probably a main character in one of your stories that you’ve already written or that you want to write. Next come up with a situation that they’re annoyed or excited. The situation doesn’t matter, but stronger emotions work better.
Then, get in your character’s head and write out their response to the situation in their own words.
For an example, check out this monologue by Dorothy Parker. In it, the main character wants to be left alone when a man she doesn’t much care for asks her to dance.
Another more contemporary example is from The Hunger Games. In my copy, it’s on pages 20-21 when Prim’s name is drawn for the reaping and Katniss decides to volunteer as a Tribute. These are both great examples of internal monologues that give us insight into the characters and their voices, even though their words aren’t spoken aloud.
4) Write a practice dialogue with NO action or description
This is a tough exercise but well worth it to help hone your dialogue skills. Choose two characters and write a conversation that relies only on the words they speak to differentiate the characters. Don’t add any action tags or descriptions. You can add speech tags, like “he said/she said,” but that’s it.
As you write, you’ll need to think about the how they’re speaking, the words they choose, their vocabulary level, sentence length, and what they’re talking about.
If you need help with how to actually write dialogue, this post has all the nuts and bolts for punctuating and formatting it correctly.
It might be tempting to dive right in and start writing the conversations in your stories without first defining your characters’ voices, but don’t do that. You’ll end up with a bunch of characters that sound exactly like you. There’s nothing wrong with sounding like you, I mean, you sound like you, but you don’t necessarily want all of your characters to sound the same.
You’ll find your characters much more distinct and your readers will be able to connect with them if you take the time to figure out how they sound.
Which of these strategies will you use to help develop your characters’ voices and strengthen your dialogue? Let’s talk about it in the comments section.
Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts and stories.
Remember, your stories matter,
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