How to Change Speech Patterns for Different Characters in Creative Writing
Try This Exercise
Take a drive down to your favorite coffee shop, buy yourself a mocha, and then sit at one of the tables and listen to the conversations around you.
If you don’t feel like going out, sit down at the dinner table with your family and put yourself in listening mode.
What you will discover by doing these exercises is that everyone has a different speech pattern. I know, it’s obvious, right? Well, if it is so obvious, then why do some writers forget this important fact when they are writing dialogue for their characters in short stories and novels?
People speak differently. That is a fact. Your characters should speak differently. That is also a fact.
Having said that, I would be remiss if I did not give you a couple examples of accomplished writers who understand this basic principle of writing. Let’s see how the pros handle different speech patterns, and then I’ll give you a few tips on how you can write like the pros.
Craig Johnson From “Death Without Company”
Some of you may be familiar with the television series “Longmire.” That series is based on the novels by Craig Johnson. Let me share a few lines of dialogue from the book “Death Without Company;” the one speaking is Henry Standing Bear, Sheriff Longmire’s best friend.
“You are lucky your coat snagged on the tree branch, or we would have never found you. We argued over who had to give you mouth-to-mouth, but since I was the one who pulled you out, Vic did it. I think she enjoyed it, or would have under different circumstances.”
As you read more of Henry you begin to notice something rather odd about him: he speaks without using contractions. It is really noticeable when there is a back and forth discussion with Sheriff Longmire, who uses contractions liberally in his speech. Standing Bear’s speech is very stilted and precise; Longmire’s is very casual and sloppy. Let’s take a look at Sheriff Longmire and his speech pattern:
“Well, then I guess there’s not a lot to do officially. But I don’t like the idea of drug-crazed individuals running around my county with unregistered weapons shooting people.”
The difference between the two characters is a subtle one but quite apparent.
From “To Kill a Mockingbird”
Let’s take a look at two memorable characters from the classic “To Kill A Mockingbird.” First we’ll read the words of Atticus Finch:
“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions….but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
And then we have Atticus’s son Jem:
“Atticus says you can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ‘em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t.”
There is nothing subtle about those two speech patterns. One is learned and wise; the other is the talk of a young person with a certain lack of education.
Tips on How to Give Characters a Unique Voice
So now you have seen it done; the next step, obviously, is to do it. But how you ask? Hearing it done and seeing it done in print is one thing; surely there are some tips that can help. Well as a matter of fact there are, and Mr. Holland, your friendly, helpful retired teacher is here for you. Try the following techniques the next time you write a short story or novel.
LIMIT OR INCREASE VOCABULARLY
In other words, dumb down a character or give another character more education. You may have a marvelous vocabulary but that doesn’t mean your character must have one. Use smaller words for one character; use larger words for another. One character may say he is scared; another would say he is fearful.
CHANGE SENTENCE STRUCTURES
Have you ever known someone who rambles on with endless sentences? Give that characteristic to one of your characters. Have another speak in short, clipped sentences. “I had a bad day. Nothing went right. Got up, screwed up, went to bed.”
GIVE A CHARACTER A RATHER ODD SPEECH PATTERN
Go for quirky with one of your characters; give them an odd speech habit.
“Like, I don’t know why he did it; he was like okay one moment and then like weird the next. Like he had some like silent voice he was like listening to.” Annoying for sure, but still very different from normal patterns of speech.
Or you can play with the grammatical arrangement of one character’s speech. Instead of subject-verb-object, have one character continually follow a subject-object-verb style.
USE FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE FOR ONE CHARACTER
Similes, metaphors….wonderful tools of our language, but not all people use them in speech. Let one of your characters speak often in similes. “She was like a ray of sunshine,” said Bob as he described his lost love. Later Bob says: “ I feel like I’ve been rode hard and put away wet.”
Obviously you don’t want one character to speak entirely in similes or metaphors, but just enough to separate him/her from the other characters and make them distinctive.
A CATCH PHRASE THAT IS OFTEN USED BY A CHARACTER
Think about your friends; how many of them use one particular phrase often? I remember the great radio announcer for the Seattle Mariners, Dave Niehaus. When he was calling a game on television or radio you could count on hearing him say “My Oh My” at least five times per game. It became his signature call and he was instantly identifiable because of it.
Have one of your characters repeat often one such phrase. It could be something as simple as “my goodness,” or “get outta here.” Just remember not to have any of the other characters use the same phrase or you have defeated the whole purpose.
TRY DIFFERENT DIALECTS OF COURSE
For those of you who do not live in the United States, we do not all speak the same. Southerners have their own dialect, as do those from Boston, Virginia, Minnesota and of course Texas. Study the dialects of those who live in different regions and use that to help you with different characters.
And of course, you can always go foreign. It might take a bit of study, but having one of your characters from Ireland, France or Germany would certainly be effective.
TAKE INTO ACCOUNT THE AGE OF YOUR CHARACTERS
If you have an octogenarian they are going to speak differently than a character who is twenty-five. Observe in real life and you will see the wisdom in that statement.
The Baby Boomers speak differently than those from the Me Generation. Keep that in mind when you are working on dialogue.
GET INTO THE MIND OF YOUR CHARACTERS AND LET THEM DETERMINE SPEECH PATTERNS
This is an important technique few people think of. A little while back I wrote an article about writing a short bio for each of your main characters. Use that bio to determine how your characters will react to certain situations.
Using Atticus Finch from “To Kill A Mockingbird” for a moment; Atticus would never scream in anger at someone; it is simply not in his personality to do so. However, if you have a character who is violent or angry by nature, you can pretty much bet that his/her dialogue is not going to sound gentle in their conversations.
That Should Be Enough to Get You Started
None of these techniques are difficult, and all of them will be helpful if you are a writer who believes in details and authenticity. Treat your readers with the respect that they deserve. Do not ask them to read a short story or novel of yours where all the characters sound like you speaking. In a word, that is boring….in another word, that is insulting. Bring your characters to life and have them speak like real people in real life speak….differently.
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”
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© 2014 Bill Holland