Distinct Dialogue: How to Make Each of Your Characters Sound Unique

Last week I wrote a post on how Benedict Cumberbatch is able to convey a lot of depth to the characters he plays just by using his voice and speech patterns. Sadly, BC doesn’t come to my house a couple times a week and read my most recently written pages aloud for me, making even the dullest scenes sound amazing. If he did, I wouldn’t be spending so much time rewriting dialogue.

Authors should be reading their manuscripts aloud, especially the dialogue. Certain mistakes and clunky sentences that slipped past me even while reading a printout give me a verbal slap when I hear them out loud. If you can get someone else to read your pages to you, that’s even better.

So you’ve realized maybe your dialogue could use a bit of help. If you’re like me, the biggest problem is that all your characters speak pretty much the same way. So how do you get their individual personalities to pop off the page? Here’s some tips for making each of your characters distinct:

High and Low Diction:  I have one character that is the definition of otherworldly. She lives in a lofty spirit realm, completely out of touch with humans.  On my first pass at her dialogue, something about it wasn’t right. The problem finally dawned on me—diction. I got rid of the contractions and substituted words like “weep” instead of “cry.”    She’s the only person in the book who’s contraction-free and using phrases like, “I cannot linger here.”

Age appropriate:  I have more than one character that is immortal, so they’ve been alive a long time, even though they look young. Certainly, they had to learn to adapt to new slang and ways of talking to blend in, but a great way to distinguish these characters from my younger ones would be letting them slip up and use an out of date phrase. Likewise, they could be unable to adopt certain new ones. If I think about talking with my Grandpa, he is never going to use the words, “yeah, like, or cool” in the same way someone my age will.

Ethnicity and country of origin: I missed an opportunity here. Several of my characters are Russian immigrants, but they never slip up and say “da” instead of yes or mess up their English words. For example, they could say “Oofos” instead of UFOs, not knowing that it’s an acronym where you say each letter instead of a word they are trying to pronounce as a whole. I did think to occasionally sprinkle in a word or phrase in Russian, but these are used almost exclusively by those characters that Russian is their second language, not their first. So I inadvertently have my American-born Russians sounding more Russian than their ESL parents.

Vocation:  You would never know what my characters did for a living by how they speak. Job metaphors are a great way to distinguish your characters. I have a medic, a CNA, and a nurse. Do you think any of them make any medical comments? Nope. Not even anything as obvious as “code blue” when they are in a really sticky situation. Likewise, I have a dancer that could be “counting the beats” in a tense scene.

Education and Social Class: Some of this might come out in diction, vocation, or origin, but depending on how complicated your character, you could have an interesting mix. For example, I have a character whose parents were immigrants. An immigrant background might make readers think she had a modest upbringing, but in fact, her parents were talented artists, and her father was a professor at a prestigious university. Then her father died, and her family slowly descended to lower middle class, and finally she was on her own supporting her sister as a teenager. When my novel opens, she could qualify for food stamps, only has a high school education, and is living in an unsafe neighborhood. Still, she had educated parents, is very smart, and reads a lot. How would this character speak? Her neighbors who have always lived a lower class life do not speak Standard English, but I have her speaking it. Her younger sister might pick up more of the slang of the neighborhood since she was much younger when the family enjoyed the privilege of academia. Remember, you want to use just enough slang and accent to suggest a different way of speaking but not enough to irritate your reader.

Phrase length:  I like to compare and contrast two of the men in my novel frequently. I have descriptions of one being very quiet and speaking in “short, terse sentences bitten off at the end,” and the other “a schmoozer who loves the sound of his own voice.” Even if I overlook the obvious problem that I told my readers their speaking patterns instead of showing them, I also didn’t follow my own generalization. My so-called quiet character is given to mini-lectures, and the loquacious one ended up being surprisingly economical with his words. Again, this might be okay because it at least means they have speech patterns that distinguish them from one another, but they don’t fit their characterization.

Misdirection and manipulation:  I had a little bit of this in my dialogue on my first draft, but not enough, and certain characters needed a lot more of it. If you have a really awful villain who lies, why would they be straightforward in their dialogue? How often do you have a conversation with a friend where you go home and try to puzzle out what was truly said? How frequently do you commit to something you had no intention of doing at the beginning of a conversation with a coworker? I have some very multi-layered complicated characters speaking only in very straightforward dialogue. Not only is it not true to their characters, but I’m missing out on a wonderful opportunity for subtext and increased conflict.

Pet phrases:  Each character in your story should have a list of phrases they repeat. If you need inspiration, just pay attention to your friends for a week and take notes. I have one friend that always says, “In a way,” before he gives an example of something. Another grad student friend who reads a lot of academic texts is always using words I’d swear he made up, like “relationality.”  Spell check doesn’t think that’s a word, either. If you need an example from TV, think how Shawn and Gus from Psych have used “Suck it!” to such great effect for eight years.

A Lesson in Dialogue from Benedict Cumberbatch


Left to right, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison, and Chris Pine as Kirk in Star Trek: Into Darkness

Benedict Cumberbatch (BC) is a magnificent actor—hardly a newsflash to anyone who has seen BBC’s series Sherlock. He’s been nominated for more than one Emmy and I’m sure an equal amount of awards in Britain. I enjoyed the first Star Trek, but I admit I was even more excited for the sequel when I heard BC was cast as the movie’s villain.

I saw Into Darkness opening night and was not disappointed by BC’s performance. He was so compelling that there were times I was secretly rooting for him, and I’m a fan of Pine’s Kirk and Quinto’s Spock.

As the weeks passed, I wondered why I found BC’s villain so gripping. Last week a friend who had been overseas when Star Trek was released returned home. She was searching for someone to go see it with her. I quickly volunteered to see it again, driven by my desire to study BC’s character.

Since I knew how the story turned out, I was more detached this time. From the first scene with BC, I scrutinized his movements, speech, and facial expressions. Was it just because I had grown fond of his Sherlock character? I didn’t think so, as his Star Trek character was markedly different.

As BC paced in his containment cell, lecturing Kirk, I realized even more than his costume, facial expressions, or movements, Cumberbatch’s character was conveyed with his speech. While I’m certain some of the credit here belongs to the screenwriter(s), BC’s delivery was critically important. Thinking back to episodes of Sherlock, which are written by a different person, I remembered that BC does the same thing with Sherlock, although in a way appropriate to that character.

I’m not talking about his British accent here. I’m talking about how he lorded over Kirk without touching him. He did this with his word choice, intelligent reasoning, short clipped commands followed by longer explanations spoken with a condescension that belittled Kirk. BC barely moved his hands or body throughout this, and his face was nearly frozen as well. His diction and cadence alone expressed that he was a dangerous man of great intelligence and brutality.

I have read a number of writing guides that state your characters should each have a distinct way of talking, so that even if you took away the speaker attributions, you should know which character is speaking. I had a hard time understanding this advice. How was that accomplished exactly? As I watched BC on the screen, I understood.

So how do you make your characters spring to life as if Benedict Cumberbatch had lent his magic to enliven their dialogue? On Monday, I’ll walk through some examples of how to make each of your characters’ dialogue distinct.