124 – Distinct Sounding Dialogue

The Mythcreant Podcast

A common fear among writers is that our characters will all sound the same. Unlike film, we can’t count on an actor to give them personality; it all needs to come from the written page. That’s why we sat down this week to talk about how authors can distinguish their characters in dialogue. We consider the sensitive topic of accents, how to make historical characters sound historic without making them incomprehensible, and how characters’ emotions affect their dialogue. Or you could just make a character sound distinct by putting all their dialogue in italics. That works too.

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Distinguishing Characters in Dialogue

Have Your Cake and Eat it Too

The Martian


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  1. Fay Onyx

    The comments about it being important to stick to “said” with dialogue (with the occasional “asked” thrown in) seemes a bit too simplistic to me. Given some of the other discussions about language, I’m surprised there isn’t more nuance to this (I know it has been discussed a bit other times too, but it didn’t seem more nuanced then either).

    I think that it is good to use those more colorful words like “shouted,” “snarled,” and “proclaimed” and adverbs sparingly like you would any kind of emphasis. If overused then it becomes a problem because in trying to emphasize everything you are just overwhelming your reader. But they do add something important when used the right amount (sparingly overall, but in a heated conversation you might find several at the end).

    In addition, I think it is important to recognize that repetitively using “said” can become a problem too. I know that some people drop the “said” part in dialogue between two people, but if you have three or more people that isn’t a good idea. One thing that helps with this is switching up sentence structure so that “Jade said” sometimes comes at the beginning of the sentence, sometimes is in the middle, and sometimes is in the end. Also, you can switch up “Jade said” with “said Jade.”

    Even with varied sentence structure, I do think that “said” can get repetitive. Perhaps this monotonousness is part of the reason people reach for the emphasis words to readily. I do think that there are some more neutral words to mix up with “said” to help with this. My favorite word for this is “replied” because it has almost as much neutrality as “said,” and in conversations people are often replying to each other. Then you can add in an “asked” or an “answered” here and there and it becomes much less monotonous and you only really need a very light sprinkling of emphasis words to complete things.

    • Chris Winkle

      If you’re interested in a little more nuance and the reasoning behind that, I have an article on dialogue tags here: https://mythcreants.com/blog/labeling-your-dialogue/ – we may still not agree, but no, I wouldn’t say it’s quite that simple.

      • Fay Onyx

        I will say that I like the idea that adverbs and more flavorful dialogue tags are more permissible when they describe the physical act of speaking like “whispering.” This makes a lot of sense to me. I will say that I do think that this does go with a kind of discrete emphasis because people only use extreme forms of speaking like whispering or shouting in special circumstances. The idea that they are overall not meant to call attention to themselves does make sense (I’d say this is true even when they are being used for emphasis).

        I do think that the idea of removing dialogue tags whenever possible is a problem I’ve run into in more than one book. I definitely have run into scenes where they have have removed one too many dialogue tags and I couldn’t figure out who said what. (Using actions as tags does work well).

        There are also some stylistic elements here. One of the great things I’ve learned as a fairy tale writer who borrows a lot from more traditional fairy tale word structure, is that I have learned to mostly stick to simple tags as that is an important part of the style (frequently combining an action with “and said” to communicate emotion such as “She frowned and said”). At the same time dropping tags and replacing tags with actions is much more limited in that style. This is especially true for something that I will be reading aloud (on the page there is a new line for each person speaking so you can drop tags with less confusion and the action is the same paragraph as the dialogue so the connection is clear, but both of these are less apparent once read). These limitations do put more pressure on the tags to be present and not repetitive (I do have more lengthy dialogue than a classic fairy tale), which means that an occasional adverb and “declaration” (royalty in fairy tales are very likely to go around declaring things) is more stylistically appropriate.

        • Chris Winkle

          Certainly the writer can go too far and leave too many tags out. I just think it’s best to stick to the principle of including them only where they are needed for clarity. Inevitably it will be judged wrong from time to time, but the alternative is putting a tag on every line regardless of how obvious the speaker is, and I think that’s worse.

          The distinction between written and spoken stories is an interesting one, and something I’m only starting to learn about. The narration style really makes a difference, and I imagine that would change how many tags were needed. For instance, if you actually had different voice actors you shouldn’t need tags at all. But for most voice narration I can imagine that more tags are necessary.

  2. river

    As far as I understand it, the accents in the Redwall books represent various dialects from around Britain. I’m not British so I only have the haziest idea of what those are, but I think I read that the moles represent the speech of people from Devonshire. The other accents are along the same lines, inspired by various counties, and I think the hares were inspired by the fighter pilots from one of the world wars. Considering that the dialects of Britain are being slowly erased by the influence of mainstream media, in a way it could be seen as celebrating the diversity of the author’s country. I don’t know how the people from those areas feel about it.
    Incidentally, I heard that the reason the author waxes lyrical about food in those books is because he experianced rationing after World War II, when he was a child.

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