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.
Generously transcribed by Abby. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Chris: This episode is brought to you by our patrons: Ari Ashkenazi; and, professor of political theory in Star Trek, Kathy Ferguson.
Wes: Hello, and welcome to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host, Wes, and with me today is:
Wes: And today we’re talking about how to make your characters sound different in dialogue, something that is pretty challenging for most writers. Wouldn’t you guys agree?
Oren: [sarcastic] Obviously the solution is to just have each of your characters voiced by a different person, right? That’s what we’re doing right now! You can tell us apart. If my brother was here, you wouldn’t be able to tell me and him apart because we sound very similar, but, you know, you’re not going to get me or Wes or Chris mixed up, right?
Chris: [sarcastic] Right, and then in the book, and in the format, you can just like, get the sound wave and put it in there from dialogue, even when it’s in the actual printed format, people can… Yeah. That’s how that works. Definitely.
Oren: [sarcastic] Or make all of your characters use a different font when they’re talking.
Chris: [laughing] No!
Wes: Have you seen that? I remember that came up, like, a year ago. Ariel, the other copy editor in IOE, encountered that in an editing class together. Somebody was working on a manuscript where they were doing that.
Oren: I know why. It’s because Sandman does it. In Sandman, I don’t know if every character has their own font, but some of the more prominent characters use different fonts.
Wes: Oh, that’s right!
Oren: I’m not prepared to say that it doesn’t work in Sandman. I really liked Sandman. Maybe I would have liked it better if the characters all used the same font, but if it does work in Sandman, it’s because Sandman is a comic book, right? It’s a very visual medium where there’s an artist drawing everything. So, that’s different than a printed text, right?
Chris: I’m not going to say it’s impossible for it to work in comics, which are a much more visual format. One of the much older comics we have on the site, Magic Beans, has it where most of the font is the same, but then, when these robots come on, they have a monospace font, which just looks more mechanical.
And I feel like it was okay because it was subtle, but most people who try to do that, even if it’s in a comic, they’re going to go way too far with it. Because, if it’s not really subtle, then it’s distracting. And I think, when you’re reading a book, for instance, you expect all the font to be pretty much the same, except for some italics, maybe, to offset something. If you have a quote before a chapter, maybe that would be a different font.
Oren: [sarcastic] Look, what readers really love is huge blocks of texts in italics. Just, a whole page in italics, it’s great.
Wes: [sarcastic] That’s so easy to read!
Chris: Oh god, yeah, but the thing is that, usually, when a storyteller does that, it’s because they want the novelty of different fonts, and if you’re going for the novelty of the font, then it’s going to definitely lead you in the wrong direction, because then you’ll overdo it almost for sure. So, I feel like it’s possible, but, in the majority of cases, it’s a really bad idea.
Wes: So, typeface aside, wow, how can we get at this… Any other ways that you guys have seen people try to make their characters sound different in dialogue?
Oren: I would recommend the post, “Distinguishing Characters in Dialogue,” that one Chris Winkle wrote for this here website. [sarcastic] So yeah, we can just read that, I guess? I’m just going to read that for the rest of the podcast.
Wes: [sarcastic] That sounds good!
Chris: [laughter] Yeah, I mean, if we’re talking about things that are perhaps bad ideas, I think the other obvious thing that we haven’t talked about yet is accents, which is kind of the elephant in the room here.
Oren: Oh. Yeah.
Wes: Oh, yeah, I was just thinking about that. In one of my show notes, I made a point that this seemed to be something that people did a lot more a few centuries ago. I mean, pick up, I dunno, anything–Wuthering Heights, or even like H.P. Lovecraft. They try to render these obscure, super Northeastern United States rural accents typographically, and it’s just like, who can read that? I find myself unable to really understand them, because they’re trying to write an accent by missing letters, and throwing in apostrophes and stuff like that. And like, you would have to really be familiar with that, to have any idea what’s being said, so I definitely think that’s not the way to go with trying to include accents.
Oren: There’s also been a distinct drop in accents as we started caring more about not being jerks, just because it’s so easy to make your accent into a caricature, and if you’re portraying the accent of, like, a new Englander, that’s maybe not that big a deal if you get it wrong. But, if you’re portraying the accent of, say, a Chinese person, or someone from any number of communities that have been mocked for their accents, or characterized in that way, it’s like, okay, now you suddenly have to be really careful.
Wes: You know, actually what I think is better in those cases is–don’t write in an accent, but, if you just establish who they are, write them on equal ground–there’s no reason for that. And, honestly, what I’ve preferred when I’ve read texts where there are characters that are not speaking like native speakers of the dominant language is, like, throw in some French, throw in some German, throw in some natural language cues that somebody might use.
If you learn a second language, you’re probably not going to do some verbal responses in that language as quickly, like profanity, or exclamations, and things like that are really easy to understand by context clues. So, readers don’t have to understand those, but they add a little bit of flavor that can separate a character out without being so horribly stereotypical with an accent.
Chris: I mean, I would be fine with that. Writing other languages and dialogue is a very complicated issue, because you have to make sure that it actually makes sense to write a word that the audience might not understand right in the dialogue, as opposed to just narrating them speaking in French, and certainly when we get into things like fantasy languages, you know, conlangs, you don’t really want–usually–to have characters saying lots of words in other languages, but I would agree that one word in a native language that’s here and there, that’s sprinkled lightly? That’s not a bad way to go.
I would say that the biggest no-no is–when it comes to a word that is written in the same way, that is pronounced differently by different people–altering that word depending on how somebody says it, pronounces it. Because that is very much normalizing your way of speaking and pronouncing it, and othering somebody else’s way of speaking it. And that’s not something that you should be doing, especially with real-world dialects of any kind.
Whereas I think, if you want somebody’s dialogue to sound regional, word choice is a much better way to go. And there’s probably some places there that you have to be careful as well, but, if people naturally have different idioms, for instance, that they use, I feel like that’s a good way to regionalize dialogue.
Wes: Perhaps a good question you could ask yourself, writers out there, is: How familiar are you with this manner of speaking that you’d like to use? Like, if you’re not familiar at all with it, I would not recommend doing it. Why try to force it? If you’re not familiar, leave it alone.
Oren: Yeah, and I would not have thought of what Chris just talked about, of taking a word that you and someone else spell the same way, but that you pronounce differently, and changing the spelling when they say it. That’s not something that would have occurred to me, which is why my general outlook on accents is that you shouldn’t do them unless you are either an expert in them, or have the resources to hire someone who is. I think there are other ways to get your character across, like what Chris was just talking about with idioms and figures of speech.
Chris: Yeah, and it’s a lot easier if you’re dealing with fantasy. Groups that have–and again, if you have fantasy groups or other world groups, you still have to make sure they don’t have an obvious real world parallel, or else you’re not getting anything.
But, even then, writing in pronunciation marks is generally a bad idea. You can do a lot more with flexible word choice. Like, they just use words in different ways, so build that in. And I think that can work really well. You do have to make sure that you’re consistent, right? That you’ve thoroughly established how these different groups talk, and make sure that stays that way. And when that’s not your natural way of speaking, that can be hard. Do some documentation.
But, there are some things that you can do, when you have a fantasy race where you’re establishing their speaking patterns yourself, that would just be hard to do if you were trying to get across a real-world dialect through word choice.
Oren: [sarcastic] Alternatively, you could have them all speak completely differently, and then, when someone criticizes you for it, you can say, “Excuse me, everyone’s an individual, nobody is a block.”
If you have two characters and they’re both angry, for example, and you’re not great at making them sound different, then they might sound exactly the same, but if you make one of them angry and one of them amused, now they’re going to sound different. As long as it’s a short story and you can keep them from having to cycle through the same mood in the story, then your audience will never catch on that they actually sound the same. They will sound like different people and you see, you’re very tricky, you’re very sneaky.
Chris: Even when it’s not a short story–like, when I create a character, I think one of the most important things is a sort of temperament profile for that character. Not to say that the character doesn’t have a range of emotions, but there are some emotions and attitudes that are more common in the character than others. Like, this character tends to be joking and irreverent and sarcastic a lot where those other characters might be a lot more enthusiastic and upbeat.
Having that sort of emotional temperament profile for a character, even in a novel, can really help with figuring out what word choice they would use in their dialogue and also how they respond to things that happen. I just think it’s a very good idea for character development for me. When I’m doing character development, that’s one of the first things I would start with.
Wes: Yeah, and that seems like something that just has to be there from the beginning. Like, with the stronger instances of dialogue that I’ve edited, it’s clear that the characters were thought out ahead of time, down to what you’re talking about. Chris. There’s just like, their mannerisms. Is this character somebody who’s most likely to interrupt, or wait? Is this character most likely to repeat what they’ve heard to make sure they understand it, or stay silent? Are they questioners?
Those kinds of things feel like, you can tell when there’s been some thought put into a manuscript, and you’re reading that kind of dialogue because there are little things like that that seemed to make them stand out a little bit more. Even if the word choice is mostly the same, how their dialogue appears is definitely a good way to distinguish them from other characters.
Chris: Yeah. I would say that, for me, distinguishing characters and dialogue is about knowing your characters first, which does make it different for short stories and novels, because I do a lot more character development for novels. The short stories I’m writing right now are under 3000 words, which is very short, and so there’s really not that much care and investment that goes ahead of time into character development. I just have a basic character, like, “Hey, this is a business person,” for instance.
Whereas, in a novel, there’s a lot more character development that goes in, so I think there’s a lot more time to think through what their personal mannerisms are. You have a greater depth and, sometimes through just writing the draft, you can come upon phrases that they tend to use more than other people use.
Then, when two characters spend time together, letting them pick up on each other’s way of speaking is a really fun thing. It depends on the situation, but if they just meet in the beginning and they speak very differently, and then they spend a lot of time with each other, they should actually rub off on each other with the way they speak.
And that’s really great at novel length, because you have that time and that depth, whereas, in short stories, it’s just quick and dirty.
Oren: So, Chris, it sounds like you favor making your characters sound distinct from the initial conception. I’ve seen other writers suggest that making the dialogue distinct is something you do on the first revision or something like that?
Chris: Well, whatever works. Dialogue comes naturally to me, like dialogue comes really naturally to some people, and not at all to other writers. It really varies by the person. Because it comes very naturally to me, I tend to feel it out a lot, and then, definitely in something at the length of the novel, it will evolve over time, and I will have to go back and make sure that the beginning has the same sort of tone as what I ended up developing over the course of the novel, because it’s almost like a discovery process. I’m feeling it out.
And, for dialogue in particular, because so much of our way of speaking is not consciously known by us. There are so many rules we follow, and it comes to dialogue without talking about it. I think that sort of feeling-out process is almost more prevalent and works for a lot of people. But, for other people, if–with the first draft, I was just like, get it done. Get it done, get it complete, and then revise.
If you would never get that draft done if you were picking over making all the dialogue sound different, then yeah, it’s probably better just to get it written, know approximately what they’re communicating in the scene, and then go back and polish it up so that you actually get your draft finished.
Wes: [joking] You know what it would be really good to do, is to get that first draft done, and then see if you can find any developmental editors out there to go back and forth with you on how you think that dialogue should sound.
Oren: I think that might be more of a line editing thing.
Wes: [joking] Hmm, interesting.
Oren: [joking] I mean, I can certainly work on that, [serious] but usually the stuff I’m dealing with as a developmental editor is a little bit above the dialogue stuff. I think that that’s more Chris’ business’ alignment.
Chris: Yeah, so with line-editing… I do think that this is kind of line-editing level, and line-editing is interesting because you have developmental editors–we call ourselves “consultants” at Mythcreants–who look at the plot and the character development, and some of them also do line editing. Like, I do line editing. And then we have people at the smaller, copy-edit level, like our editing services. Ariel is our onboard editor, and she also does line editing, but I think that my line-editing is different from Ariel’s line-editing, because I’m coming from the top down, and she’s coming from the bottom up.
It’s quite possible that either one of us would look at things like that. Although I gotta say, usually when a devotee looks at a manuscript, there are usually much, much bigger problems than that kind of dialogue polishing.
Oren: This is true. I have yet to get a manuscript where the characters sounding distinct in dialogue was even a problem I was considering at that point.
Chris: Yeah, usually when a dev editor looks at a piece, there are just much, much larger problems, and so, for a dev editor, you would definitely be getting into the very fine polishing to get to that point.
Oren: I do have another basic piece of advice for people like me who struggle with dialogue: an easy way to make two characters sound distinct is to use different levels of formality. If one character is very formal, and the other character is not, the more formal character is likely to use longer words and fewer contractions and less slang. That’s generally something that I think most writers can figure out.
Making characters sound distinct in other ways can be very difficult, but having a character who sounds formal, like they have a higher education or whatever, is not as hard. Like, you reach for your thesaurus more often. Whereas, a character who speaks much more informally and uses a lot of slang, they’re going to sound very different. In my experience, that’s one of the easier things you can do.
Chris: Yeah. I would say that something that’s very related to that is the knowledge that the characters have as it applies to the situation that they’re in, because technical terms are something that, if a character knows a lot about whatever it is they’re talking about, technical terms are going to get in there, even if they’re a very casual speaker, which can definitely distinguish them, if they are just educated or knowledgeable on a subject.
I would also say, how chatty and personal are they? Do they always want to talk about their kids? I don’t know if you guys know anybody who basically wants to talk about their kids in every conversation, but those people exist. It’s like, some people, even if they’re talking to a stranger, they’ll talk about themselves and they’ll talk about personal things just because it’ll come up for them, and, in their mind, they don’t have any reason not to. Why not? Whereas other people are going to be much more distant.
Oren: Yeah, that’s true. Question for both of you: when you’re writing in a time period other than the present day, how important is it, do you think, to try to make your characters sound either accurate or, if not accurate to the time period, at least old-timey.
Wes: From my own attempts, anytime I try to make it sound like an older time, the language is stilted and horrible. I don’t think I honestly have a good enough grasp of–I haven’t read enough Jane Austin to really know the ins and outs of that kind of social and cultural intrigue.
So maybe it’s better to just, I don’t know, maybe what you said, Oren, is, if you’re looking at a time period and you’re writing about people from a certain, let’s say, upper echelon, then maybe they would have higher education and be more prone to more polite language. But, I would still probably suggest couching it in more modern structural choices with the dialogue.
I don’t know, I just think it’d be hard to try to write. Like, making your dialogue some kind of authentic archeology of texts. That would be hard.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, I haven’t attempted this before. I generally avoid writing any historical fiction, just so that I don’t have to research history. Uh, yeah, not my forte. But, I would say, with something like this, probably what people would actually say in historical times would be too off-putting and confusing to readers, I would guess. And so, what you’re looking for is to give it the flavor without making it unpleasant for the reader.
That means that you definitely want it to be more subtle. The most important thing would be to remove anachronisms from what people say, things that just sound too modern. I personally would probably pick out some historical fiction works, read what kind of dialogue was in them, then look for what I liked and what I felt was fairly standard that my audience, who probably reads other historical pieces, would be looking for, and then use that as a guide.
Oren: Right. You can get into some weird situations where sometimes a figure of speech is actually quite old, but it sounds modern, and you can sometimes get into a situation where it is accurate for you to use that figure of speech in this time period, but it doesn’t sound right, so that’s something to look out for.
I had an editing teacher once who insisted that it was wrong if you were writing a character before the seventies to have any character say, “dove.” [sarcastic] They were supposed to say, “dived,” because “dove” is apparently a fairly recent word, and it would be very wrong and you shouldn’t do it.
Chris: Apparently, “Have your cake and eat it, too,” is, like, 400 years old. It probably would sound weird if you were writing a story that took place 400 years ago, and people were using that idiom.
Oren: [sarcastic] I’m just going to be the one to write a story about the person who coined that idiom, it’ll be great. They’ll just go around saying it and everyone will be like, what are you, what does that mean? Just listen for a minute. Have your cake, and eat it, too. It’s going to be basic. You want to get in on the ground floor of this.
Wes: Something else that I think we could recommend people do, although maybe it requires a little bit more effort is, if you can, pay attention to verbal tics that you use yourself in normal speech and those of your friends, I know I’m guilty of kind of ending statements by saying, “Right?” I know that I do this with my friends, and I get teased about it, but those small verbal cues… I have another friend who likes to finish her statements with, “Do you know what I mean?” And, I remember one time–well, I was rude–I said, “Yes, I do know what you mean,” but it was clear that was building some frustration, but it was just her natural way of talking. It was her verbal tic, like, and everybody has them.
Everybody has those little off choices that you add to the end of your lines, or maybe you like to start your monologues with, “Well, actually.” You know, all of those little things. It pays to pay attention to your friends and see what you like that they say a lot, or what you don’t like, and try to pirate those into your own writing.
Chris: Yeah, that’s a good idea. I wouldn’t do it as often as people do it in real life.
Wes: That would be frustrating.
Chris: I mean, that’s the goal of dialogue, right? You want it to sound natural. You don’t actually want it to be exactly what people would say.
Oren: Just too many ums, constant ums, nothing but ums. [sarcastic] That’s like, your new modern art piece is dialogue that sounds like a person actually said it. It’d be awful, but I’m sure you could get some group of people who would think it was great. Probably not enough to, like, support yourself, but you know, who knows? You could get famous.
Wes: You said that, and Chris and I both went, “uh huh.” That’s a very subtle way to differentiate, right? Because, like, with quick, one-word utterances for agreement or disagreement, those can be different too, right? “Yes,” “yup,” “uh huh,” “no,” “uh uh.” It’s very subtle. It could be a little bit too far here, I just felt like it was worth noting.
Chris: I personally love using, “huh?” You know, for surprise or something. That’s one of my favorites of the short little sounds. I guess they’re more sounds than they are words.
Wes: I think my favorite sound is just, “meh.” You know, that noise for, “I don’t care.”
Oren: [sarcastic] I don’t know, I feel kind of “meh” about it, myself. Alright, well, since we only have about four minutes left, I wanted to mention a couple of stories that have very good distinctive voices. The one that I had off the top of my head is The Martian. In particular, the voice of Mark Watney is very distinct and very strong. The voices of his other characters, not so much. Except for Annie, because she swears a lot, but the other characters are fairly interchangeable. But Mark has a really strong voice.
Chris: Right, I would like to add that, I think what we were talking about with temperament is one of the key things in Mark’s voice. He’s very irreverent, and kind of joking, and he’s also not afraid to swear. But, I think the mood that Mark Watney has is one of the essential components of making his dialogue and voice very distinct.
Oren: Yeah, and I also think that Discworld is another example of a story that has very strong voice with most of its characters. They sound distinct, which actually brings another question that I’ve been meaning to ask: Do you think that it makes a difference, for making your character sound distinct, which point of view you’re writing in? Or is it basically the same lessons?
Chris: If we’re actually talking about in-quotes dialogue, then I don’t think it should matter. If you have a viewpoint character and somebody’s saying something to them, you want them to not have trouble understanding the other person to put the audience on board with the experience that they are having. Most of the time, you want your dialogue to be 100% understandable. In very niche scenarios that you should not overdo, you might break that rule a little bit. That would be the one exception, where the character is saying something that you don’t quite want the viewpoint character to understand easily. Other than that, I would think that it really should be exactly the same. Cause it’s more like a record of the sound that somebody is hearing more than it is a record of their internalized processing of that sound, if that makes sense.
Oren: Right, right.
Wes: Yeah. I would also caution that if you do go with, like, omniscient points of view, then avoid the temptation to say things like, “he said condescendingly,” or, “she said haughtily,” and, you know, all these extra little tags that you could add to the end of those things. I don’t know, they really annoy me, and I think they’re just the bane of copy editors.
Wes: They don’t add anything. Like, the words themselves should convey those emotions.
Chris: Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s limited to omniscient. A lot of new writers, by default, when they haven’t really looked into viewpoints and perspective yet, they start writing in a really distant third-person limited viewpoint that is kind of close to omniscient, but isn’t really taking advantage of omniscient.
Oren: Yeah, but I mean, in general, any kind of dialogue tag other than, “said,” or occasionally, “asked,” are pretty much frowned on. It’s not that you never use them, it’s just that there’s very rarely a reason to.
Chris: Basically, the more boring the dialogue tag is, the more it is approved.
Wes: One example that I was thinking of, real quick here, when we were planning for this, what was the first book I read that had really strong, distinctive voices for me, and I remember the Redwall books. Like, the moles had their mole speech, right? And I remember the hare was always going like, “What? What? What?” All the animal groups had fun little ticks and different ways of expressing their stuff, beyond completely different words for things, or different ways of expressing it. I don’t know, I remember that from elementary school, that that stood out to me. I haven’t re-read them in forever. I don’t know if they hold up, but that did stand out to me.
Chris: That sounds like it’s an example of what I was talking about earlier about fantasy groups. You know, where your characters are divided into different groups, but they’re not based on real-world, they’re based on some sort of fantasy or other-world distinctions, and then you can make up what you want them to speak like.
Oren: Yeah, like the closest of any of the Redwall animals to a real-life group is the hares sound kind of like a really exaggerated British accent. And it’s like, okay, if that’s the worst you’re going to get, that’s fine. Not a lot of social justice problems around making fun of a British accent. Like, maybe your British readers won’t like that, but it’s not too bad. So yeah, I think the Redwall books do a pretty decent job.
But, speaking of that, we are at the end of our run-time. We must be gone for today. So, if anything, we said at home piqued your interest, you can email us at [email protected] Otherwise, we will talk to you next week.
This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme: “The Princess who Saved Herself” by Jonathan Colton.
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