Delineate Characters through Dialogue

Excerpt from "The Editor Devil's Guide to Dialogue"...

How a character speaks tells us who they are. Hence, no two characters should sound alike in your story.

Dialogue is the writer’s chance to give the character a unique voice, so it’s imperative that the characters speak uniquely. This means the tone of the words (think the temperament of the character—angry people would sound crisp while gentle people would use kind words), and the style (such as gang slang versus Wall Street uptight) and the pacing (fast or slow, choppy or elaborate) should feel one-of-a-kind.

Maybe the hero has a drawl so he cuts ‘ings’ off verbs and speaks in short sentences, often using idioms (such as “Clothes don’t make the man” or “Waste not want not”). While the antagonist speaks using British English phrases and long, proper sentences that sound stiff.

Even when there is no dialogue tag or narrative introduction of the characters, we should be able to distinguish the characters by their dialogue alone. That’s good characterization through dialogue.

Consider Context to Build Characterization

Consider these examples of how the context of a character’s life (authors should list these for each character) also affects a character’s dialogue, both in style and tone, and thus build characterization:

Career: A detective character will not choose the same words as a farmer.

Relationship: A mother doesn’t speak the same as a daughter when they are together.

Situational: A perp doesn’t speak the same as a victim, together or not.

Gender: Men do not speak the same as women, especially when together. Overall, women use more pronouns (I) and articles (it, them), while men use yes/no more often and name people, places and things directly.

Religion: Buddhists monks don’t speak the same as Christian priests. Unless it’s a bad limerick.

Race, creed, nationality, or color: An African American does not speak the same as a black African. Please avoid misspelling or abbreviating words to show ethnicity, as it often backfires or is inappropriate.

Historical: A medieval knight will not speak the same as a modern English Baron, despite being raised in the same country or even county of origin.

Medical: Grandparents with cancer do not speak the same about their disease as children with cancer.

Perspective: A depressed character will not see the same tree like a jovial character. This aspect is key to revealing the heart and mental state of a character.

Mix & Match Context According to Genre

There are so many more potential contexts, too many to be listed here. The point is to consider what makes each character unique, and apply these differences to their speech via word choice, phrasing, tempo, structure, tone and style.

For example: Especially in YA or where young characters are represented, consider hopes and dreams and expectations. Basically, think of who the character “expects” to be when they grow up as equally important to their current background. Adults look at where they’ve been to self-define. Young people self-define themselves based on how they WILL surpass their parents (or at least not repeat their parents’ mistakes). It’s this hopefulness, and often haughtiness, that elevates their sense of promise and self. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if that’s a good or bad characteristic.

The same could be used for any character experiencing dramatic shifts in personality or situation. With the shift to another creature, such as a shape-shifter, typically comes emotional resistance. The vampire hero who refuses to feed off humans. The werewolf heroine who won’t hunt. Why not mix it up? A vampire or werewolf who loves to be a predator might be a refreshing change."

So go forth and forge individuals in your story, my little author angels, not carbon copies of each other. Otherwise, you might as well say "ditto" in dialogue instead of anything interesting.

Yours truly,
The Editor Devil


  1. Interesting insights and food for thought. This is especially relevant to the scene I'm writing right now, where my hero is a gruff, jaded type fighting a young religious zealot. Their speech patterns definitely differ!

  2. Interesting post, thank you and now following!!

  3. Thanks for the comments, Andi, and I hope your scene comes out great. Their personalities sound interesting. Don't forget to give them something in common--maybe perspective? Heroes and villains are a lot more believable when they share qualities, interestingly enough. That can make the dialogue even more interesting too!

  4. This post is so true. *bookmarked*

    I'm told dialogue is one of my strong points, so I usually don't have too much trouble with this; but I have one character that's a pain, because her cadence and word choices depend on her mental state and how much she likes who she's talking to. Readers have told me the result comes across oddly, but it fits since the character herself is weird.


  5. Thanks, Carradee, for sharing your character dilemna. Sometimes how we speak and how we read is not the same, so you write down how you "hear" your characters speak, but the reader doesn't "hear" it that way on the page. This is why much of our colloquial speech doesn't work on the page or is empty filler. You have to drop the um, uh, sure, maybe, etc., words because they are too empty.

    Good luck!