How Articulate Are Your Characters?
Most writers are articulate. Because they work with the written word on a daily or near-daily basis, and because they have a love of language, most writers express themselves well. Just because a writer is articulate, however, doesn’t mean that a character should be articulate. Adjusting your language to suit a character, especially in dialog, is vital to creating a realistic depiction of that character and vital for differentiating that character from others in the story.
Words Reflect Background
When most people think about writing realistic dialog, they think about things such as regional accents and vocal patterns. Those things are important, but it is just as important to adjust your dialog to the specific background of the characters. For example, people know that there is a Boston accent, but most people don’t realize that the Boston accent varies greatly according to where in the city that person lives and what their economic and educational background is. Not everyone from Boston sounds the same. A well-educated Boston lawyer is not going to sound like a poorly educated bartender at a local dive.
Don’t Distract the Reader
Another mistake people make in tailoring dialog is to go too far into an accent and ignore such things as speech rhythms or word choices. J.K. Rowling, for example, uses very exaggerated accents. In the early books, before the story got particularly dark, the exaggerated accents seemed to work reasonably well considering the stories were fantasy and the intended audience was mostly children. By the final books, however, when the story was very dark and the intended audience was much wider, the exaggerated accents seemed much more unsuitable and distracting.
Unique, Not Extreme
The key with dialog, especially with accents, is to make each person’s style differentiated enough that they sound unique and identifiable, but not so extreme that people are paying more attention to the words being said than they are to the intent of the statement. Try to think of what is distinctive about the way each person speaks, and why their word choices make sense for them.
Some Things to Consider
- Is the character concise or long-winded?
- Does the character use words they don’t fully understand?
- Does the character have influence from different regions (such as a person from Texas now living in California or vice-versa)?
- Is the character used to speaking in public?
- Does the character have any particular patterns or phrases that stand out?
- Is there something about the character’s role (Boss, employee, teacher, parent) that makes a difference in the way that character speaks in different situations?