People have different ways of speaking. Yes, I know this is the most shocking revelation of 2015, but bear with me a moment. This may be an obvious statement, but it doesn’t always get translated properly to the written page. It’s often impressed on starting writers to maintain proper grammar throughout their work. Now, this advice is meant specifically for the non-dialogue segments but it’s very easy to take that too far and apply it to the dialogue as well. Complicate that with the fact that sometimes we writers fall into a rut, allowing our own speech patterns to color every character in the book until, subconsciously, we’ve made them all speak with the same voice.
The problems with this should be as obvious as my opening statement. Speech patterns and vocabulary can provide as many points of characterization as any other facet of a character, maybe more than some. Remember, speech is our primary form of communication and it’s one of our most valuable tools for learning about our fellow man. It’s not just the actual words we say, but how we say them, our mannerisms, and our priorities of communication.
Now, obviously, minor characters might be a bit generic in terms of dialogue and that’s acceptable (though if they speak in a dialect that is real or established in the story, they had better use it). However, if you have, say, the protagonist and antagonist in a conversation, you had better be able to tell them apart without dialogue tags!
In fact, thinking about it, you could use that as a bit of soft test to see if you have established a proper voice for major characters. Write a scene of them in a long conversation, then drop the dialogue tags or any clear identifiers after the first exchange. If you or your beta readers or whoever can tell the speakers apart, then you’re fine. If not, well, you might need to work to establish more of a voice for them.
However you decide to go about it, never stray from the importance of character voice. It is one of the key ways you can bring your characters to life and one of the best ways to deepen the characterization of them. If you ignore it, don’t be surprised when you loose readers as they complain about cardboard characters and hard-to-follow dialogue scenes.
What do you think? Do you have any other tips or tests to help sort character voices? Leave them in the comments below! Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!