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Differentiated Dialogue

When writing dialogue, every character should speak differently from every other character.  No two characters should have the same speech patterns or word choices.

This creates extra work for the author, but it's well worth it.  The characters come to life more, and it's easier for the reader to keep straight who is who.  It's also realistic.  No two people have quite the same speech patterns.  Everyone has their tics and flicks when it comes to talking.  This person peppers her speech with "like."  That one has an accent.  Another speaks with grammitcal precision, while his best friend is careless with his grammar.

And personality pulls on words, too.  A character with a cynical bent will speak differently than a cheerful one.  A blue-collar criminal will speak differently than a white collar one.

There's an easy litmus test to see if you characters are sufficiently differentiated.  Swap them around.  Lift one character out of a scene and replace it with another.  If the scene works without you having to change any of the dialogue, you haven't differentiated the characters very well.

For example, you might have this scene:

Gretchen looked at Ben.  "So?  How did the date last night go?"

"I don't know," Ben admitted.  "I thought things went pretty good, but when I tried to call him back, all I got was voice mail.  I'll never meet anyone."


Now if we switch Ben to someone else.  Say, Kendi.  (These characters are both from my Silent Empire series, on sale now at Book View Cafe and Amazon.)

Gretchen looked at Kendi.  "So?  How did the date last night go?"

"I don't know," Kendi admitted.  "I thought things went pretty good, but when I tried to call him back, all I got was voice mail.  I'll never meet anyone."


There's no way Kendi would talk like this.  He might have had the same experience Ben did, but . . . no.  So let's try:

Gretchen looked at Kendi.  "So?  How did the date last night go?"

"Dunno," Kendi admitted.  "I thought it all went awesome, but when I tried a ring back, all I got was his bloody voice mail.  This dating gig is rough going."


That's better.  Ben is quieter and more careful.  His speech is more careful and less colorful.  Kendi, on the other hand, is outgoing and brash.  He also spent considerable time in Australia.  His speech needs to reflect that.

Now that we've made the characters sufficiently different, we can even dispense with speech tags.  Who's speaking below?

"You finish up that computer program yet?"

"Sorry.  I've been busy."

"Busy?  You call chasing after your own tail on the nets busy?  We're in boxes of bollocks without that code!"

"Hey, I'll get on it, okay?  I just . . . need some time."


Who spoke first, Ben or Kendi?  Obviously, it's Kendi.

Every character should have his or her own speech patterns.  It makes the character much more interesting and the writing more clear.

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