Realistic Dialogue – Things to Remember About Your Characters and What They Say

DialogueOne of the fastest ways to pull your reader out of your book and back into reality is to write unrealistic dialogue. When a character says or does something that is “out of character” it always makes me flinch or wince. So I thought it’d be helpful to share some of things to remember when writing or editing dialogue in your books.

One of the easiest ways to be aware of good dialogue is to think about how you talk to your family and friends. Do you go into detailed backstory when chatting to people who know you really well? Do you rehash details everyone in the room is already aware of? How often do you call people by their first name when you’re chatting to them?

When you really sit down and analyze it, you start to find places in your manuscript where you’ve gone outside the boundaries of normal conversation. Now sometimes for the sake of the story, you do need to do this, but you need to be really careful about how you approach it. You want the dialogue to be as natural as possible.

So here are a few things to consider when approaching dialogue:

Accent: Where are your characters from? Does your dialogue meet the tone, inflection and cadence of the region, county or country that your characters come from?

Intelligence: This can sometimes trip an author up. You need to really consider your character’s intelligence level and how complex their dialogue would be or how simple it might be. A kid who hates literature is not going to be pulling Shakespearean quotes out of their back pockets, much like a scientific introvert may not be speaking with too much slang.

Age: Think about the era your character was born into. This will affect their language. If they are a child of the fifties, what catch phrases or things will be part of their vernacular? The same goes for a child of the eighties. They will have different “inside jokes” from their past that could add a little color and flair to their dialogue.

Upbringing: I think this is a really important factor to consider. Did they grow up in a house where manners were paramount? Did they grow up in a house with a parent who swore a lot? Was pronunciation important to their parents? Did they grow up around mumblers?

Personality: This sort of goes without saying. Most writers have a really good sense of who their characters are, but don’t forget how much personality can play into a character’s speech. If they are bubbly, expressive person, there’s a really high chance they will say things without thinking them through, use more slang or words that are colorful and interesting. A more serious, introverted character will most likely not be so open with their speech. They may talk slowly, more thoughtfully – say less, but so much more at the same time…if that makes sense.

Who your character is speaking to: Speech changes depending on who you’re talking to. Think about your own life. I for one definitely use different types of language, depending on who I’m with. My husband and I almost have a code. Our conversations are peppered with “inside jokes”, movie dialogue, song lyrics and relaxed speech. On the other hand, if I was in a job interview or meeting with a bank manager to discuss a loan, I’d obviously talk quite differently. I speak more slowly and simply when I’m talking to people who don’t have English as their first language, I keep my language very clean and clear when I’m talking to my grandfather. Don’t forget to consider the appropriateness of how your characters are talking in each scene, depending on who they’re with and the setting for that conversation.

Most of this will come naturally as you write and if you know your character well enough then you shouldn’t even have to think about it, but that’s where the danger can lie. Even if you know the character better than anyone (which you technically should), you can still slip up and have words coming out of their mouths that just don’t seem like them. When you’re editing, you need to pay special attention to dialogue and really consider whether your character talks and thinks that way.

Have you ever been editing and realized you’ve got it wrong? Do you have any dialogue tips you can share in the comments?

Author: Melissa Pearl

Melissa Pearl is a Contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and author of multiple novels spanning a variety of genres, from YA fantasy and paranormal to romantic suspense, including award-winning novel, BETWIXT. For more on Melissa, visit her blog or her Amazon author page.

10 thoughts on “Realistic Dialogue – Things to Remember About Your Characters and What They Say”

  1. Great tips, Melissa. Listening to the way people speak is a great dialogue-improvement tool. Reading the dialogue out loud to see if it sounds natural really helps too. I try to distinguish characters’ dialogue so they sound different. Funny thing, though. Couples sometimes pick up each other’s cadence or pet phrases. Whether that’s familiarity or a subtle bonding cue, I’m not sure. But it’s interesting when applied to fiction.

  2. I love listening (eavesdropping) to people talk, noting the cadence of their speech, word choice, etc. Dialog changes with emotions. Excitement often brings on short bursts of dialog. Sadness might bring on slower and quieter speech. I enjoy writing dialog. Thanks for the refresher!

    1. I love writing dialogue too and I can’t help eavesdropping as well. People watching/listening is a total must for a writer (in my opinion ;))

  3. Some really great advice! You’ve pretty much covered all the bases.
    One suggestion I can make is to lay off dialects, if possible. The best way to handle that is to either describe the character as “speaking in a slow, southern drawl,” or with “an Irish lilt,” etc.). If you are intent upon including some dialect, choose two or three really well-known usages, such as “eh?” for a Canadian character, or a couple of words ending in vowels for an Italian, like “thinka (for think), or “breaka you necka,” (for break your neck). You can also start off with “some” dialect, and gradually decrease the amount, occasionally referring to the character’s broken English, or accented speech, instead.

    1. I agree. It’s too hard to read a book where the speech has been written all in dialect. Hinting at it and then reminding the reader is definitely the best way to go 🙂

  4. Great tips for dialogue. I think the one complaint that gets made often is that everyone sounds the same. Good dialogue will help to ensure that each character has their own distinct flavor, and you offer some great tips to help make sure characters sound like themselves, rather than being all the same.

    1. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of making everyone sound the same without meaning too. I worry about this across my books as well, not just within one book 🙂

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