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How to Change Speech Patterns for Different Characters in Creative Writing

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Changing Speech Patterns for Different Characters in Creative Writing

Changing Speech Patterns for Different Characters in Creative Writing

Try an Exercise in Listening

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 of 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.

We all sound differently when we talk

We all sound differently when we talk

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.”

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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.

As we age our speech patterns tend to change

As we age our speech patterns tend to change

Limit or Increase Your Vocabulary

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 Structure

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

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.

Kids sound differently than adults

Kids sound differently than adults

Take Your Characters' Ages Into Account

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 Your Characters' Minds 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.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the "Me Generation"?

Answer: It is those born in the 1970s.

© 2014 Bill Holland


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 06, 2019:

Thank you Poppy! I appreciate you stopping by and commenting.

Poppy from Enoshima, Japan on February 05, 2019:

There are some excellent ideas here. I always struggle with giving characters different speech patterns.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 30, 2018:

Amelie, I wish I did but no, I don't. I'm afraid that's an inside job!

Amelie on September 28, 2018:

Thanks for all the help! And, do you have an article on staying motivated? That seems to be my problem.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 13, 2016:

I'm glad, Chris! Thanks for stopping by.

Chris Mills from Traverse City, MI on June 10, 2016:

Thanks Bill, I needed this one.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 27, 2014:

Glimmer, I really appreciate you taking the time to read something that doesn't apply to you..thank you!

Claudia Porter on February 27, 2014:

Well, I don't really need this for what I write, but I learn a lot about creative writing from your hubs. Very useful for folks Bill.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 20, 2014:

Nicely stated, Deb...thank you for the confirmation and affirmation.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on February 20, 2014:

More words of great wisdom. We must write as though we are listening in on a roomful of assorted people...

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 18, 2014:

Well said, Anna, and so true. If they do not become real people I really don't want to read about them. Thank you for your insight.

Anna Haven from Scotland on February 18, 2014:

Helpful and so true.

Those words on paper that turn miraculously into people, as you walk in their world, are as individual as we are, and thus merit their own quirky traits. :)

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 17, 2014:

mylindaelliott, I'm glad if this helps and thank you for the visit. Give them a try; make up your own...just as long as your characters don't all sound like you.

mylindaelliott from Louisiana on February 17, 2014:

Thanks for the advice. I would not have thought of the different ways to give people speech patterns.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 17, 2014:

Aww, thanks Dianna! You know how much I love it here and I'm glad to help.

Dianna Mendez on February 16, 2014:

It's a good thing we have you to keep us on our toes. This is a great piece of advice on creating interesting characters. Thank you, Bill,

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 15, 2014:

I am Rosa....thank you and by all means share on your FB page...I really appreciate it.

Rosa Marchisella from Canada on February 14, 2014:

Thanks for more great advice. Hope you don't mind me featuring this on my FB Page as "Writing Tip of the Week" on Tuesday, Marc h 18, 2014 :-D

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 12, 2014:

Well have fun exercising, Ann. You are making me feel like a slug. I'll have to try that exercise thing again soon, as soon as it warms up outside....say about June. LOL


Ann Carr from SW England on February 12, 2014:

I should be the same then, as a teacher! Maybe I concentrate on other things! Off to exercise class now - will be too shattered to do any more hubbing this evening!

Cheers! Ann

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 12, 2014:

Ann, it's the teacher in me. We teachers see things in terms of cause and effect....or maybe we just have one of those minds that sees things others don't. I don't know what it is; this stuff just stuck on me like glue when I was growing up. Thanks or blame the nuns. LOL


Ann Carr from SW England on February 12, 2014:

How come you come up with obvious stuff that I haven't thought of??! Or rather, I know all of this to be true but I don't always use it when I write. Too much to think of all at once.

Another great from the great teacher! Ann

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 11, 2014:

It is always my pleasure, vkwok....and you do a very good job at this.

Victor W. Kwok from Hawaii on February 11, 2014:

Thanks for sharing this useful hub, Bill!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 11, 2014:

You got it, Sis! LOL How much?

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 11, 2014:

chuckd, it is my pleasure. I'm so glad that you enjoyed this. Good luck with your writing.

Suzie from Carson City on February 11, 2014:

Ah'll pay you reeeeel big to jes keep yer mowth shut the hell up, Yankee!

Charles Dawson from Bartow, FL on February 11, 2014:

Awesome, awesome hub! Informative and very much needed lesson for every amateur writer. Thank you for the enlightening education. Voted up and sharing!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 11, 2014:

Paula, I have this vision of meeting you and finding out that's how you actually speak. LOL Lord save us all if it is. Thanks Sis!

Suzie from Carson City on February 11, 2014:

Tilley calls you,"sensei!!!" I love it! LOL. Perfect tag for you bro! As for yer fabuluss hub, ah kaynt figger out wut yer a-tawkin 'bout.....but that ain't nuthin noo!...UP+++

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 11, 2014:

sujaya, very true my friend. Thank you!

sujaya venkatesh on February 11, 2014:

as you've said observation is the key aspect of a writer bil

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 11, 2014:

Mary, I'm laughing...there was a woman at AA who said "you know" at least twenty times when she shared to the group....just wanted to slap her for sure. LOL Thank you my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 11, 2014:

Thank you Lesley! Hopefully we will all live long enough to learn it all, eh? This is not easy so give yourself some credit for whatever progress you have already made. The rest will come in time. Thank you my friend and I hope your week is productive.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 11, 2014:

DDE, there is so much to learn if we are to become the writers we were meant to be. :) Thank you!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 11, 2014:, most definitely, mate! :) Thanks buddy!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 11, 2014:

It is indeed, Alicia! Thank you as always.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 11, 2014:

tipoague, great point! Read the comments and you can definitely see it. Thank you!

Mary Craig from New York on February 11, 2014:

Right on sensei! I have yet to see two people who talk alike, well maybe Larry and me cause we've been married so long ;)

Seriously, noticing other people's speech patterns can help. I have a brother who constantly says, "you know", until I want to strangle him!

Good tips as always.

Voted up, useful, awesome, interesting, shared and pinned (my buttons are back on this one).

Jane Arden on February 11, 2014:

This is a very helpful hub and something we writers need to be aware of - otherwise our characters always sound like it us personally speaking. I can only seem to write the English cockney accent, which is so annoying. I haven't a clue when it comes to the different American dialects or even African or European accents etc and I know there's loads. I can do the - I went to the park like and there was a girl like and we had a kiss, like, know wot I mean, like. Ha ha. - Sorry.. I probably haven't punctuated correctly (like) hee hee. Oh, there is so much to learn..... Thank you Bill for all your help and I hope you have an awesome writing week! (the rest of it).

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on February 11, 2014:

Hi Bill you always find the most helpful ways to get to the minds of all writers.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on February 11, 2014:

Great tips and advice Bill, even poets like know..need to use dialogues, you know, at times.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on February 10, 2014:

Thank you for the very useful advice, Bill. I've never thought much about this topic before, but it's an important strategy for creating realism and interest in a story.

Tammy on February 10, 2014:

Great tips! I was surprised to have an English teacher one time tell our class that she didn't like us using uneducated dialogue in our stories because it was too hard for her to read. I never did follow her advice. I have to agree it makes the stories more interesting and real.

(You can even see the difference in the way people comment too! Thanks again for your tips!)

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2014:

Thank you Abby; I appreciate it.

Dr Abby Campbell from Charlotte, North Carolina on February 10, 2014:

Great advice, Bill! :-)

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2014:

Ruby, a great example. Thanks for sharing that and of course, thank you for being here my friend.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on February 10, 2014:

You always have the best ideas and i understand the concept. Gone with the wind would've never made it without the southern accent. Thank's again my friend..

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2014:

DrBill, thank you very much. It does become harder after two characters. Thanks for sharing your experience and strategy with us.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2014:

Thank you Sheila! It happens to be one of my pet peeves as well. It takes a little extra effort to get dialogue right but it is oh so worth it.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2014:

oclan, thanks for the tip. I will check him out.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2014:

You are very welcome, DreamerMeg...thank you as well.

William Leverne Smith from Hollister, MO on February 10, 2014:

Excellent suggestions, and reminders. Thanks. I try to put one of these techniques into my background information for the character. If I try to use more than one or two, it is too hard for me to remember, even in editing. Younger writers should find this very useful. Thanks, again! ;-)

sheilamyers on February 10, 2014:

BRAVO!!!! This hub covers one of my pet peeves as a reader. I absolutely hate when the author has everyone in the novel speaking with perfect English. One novel I read even had the toddlers speaking complete sentences and using big words. What I love is when I read the dialogue and, if the person is from the south, the words reflect that accent. The same goes for "baby talk".

I was thinking about writing a similar hub, but if and when I get around to it, I'll take it in a different direction.

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on February 10, 2014:

Very helpful, thanks.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2014:

Brian, I suspect quite a few judging from the stories and novels I have read. Just a little extra to make the writing come alive and seem real. Thanks my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2014:

Marlene, listening to music. That was perfectly stated my friend. Thank you!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2014:

Wow, Flourish, I had no idea those programs existed. How cool is that? Thank you!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2014:

Well, Faith, happy lunch break my friend. I hope the rest of your day goes well. Thank you and blessings always.


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2014:

You are very welcome, Dora, and that's a great example about the old radio programs...that's exactly what this is about.