Here's some dialogue from four characters, each describing—and reacting to—a sunset.
"Observe the sunset's chromatic spectacle, a result of Rayleigh scattering. As the sun descends, its light must traverse more of the atmosphere, scattering short-wavelength light and leaving hues of red and orange to dominate the sky."
"Oh, my God, check out that sunset! It's like the sky's on fire or something. Who up for a selfie?"
"The sunset whispers a sonnet of farewell, draping the world in a palette of passion. Its dying embers cast a ballet of shadows, each hue a tender stroke on the canvas of the evening."
"Looks like the sun's calling it a day. Deep red means clear skies tomorrow. Better get an early start, lots to do."
Just as these snippets of dialogue reveal volumes about the characters, the art of character-specific language is a powerful tool in a writer's arsenal.
Let's dive into this technique, which involves tailoring the vocabulary, syntax, and even the rhythm of speech to match the unique background, education, and personality of each character.
Why Character-Specific Language Matters
Imagine a scene from "The Great Gatsby" where Nick Carraway himself narrates in modern language. It would feel off, wouldn't it?
Here's some original text:
"He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor."
And here's a rewrite using modern language:
"He totally got it, you know? Like, really got it. It was that kind of rare, legit smile that just makes you feel like everything's gonna be alright. Like, the kind you might see only a few times ever. It's like he was smiling at the whole world for a sec, but then, bam, it's all about you, like he's totally in your corner."
Authentic dialogue helps your characters stand out as believable individuals from a believable place in time.
From the energetic slang of a gay Essex teenager to the clipped precision of a British lawyer, character-specific language is a celebration of the rich tapestry of human expression. The differences in their speech patterns reflect their backgrounds and personalities.
Gay Essex Teenager (and I'm justified in using this because I used to be one (but now I'm old and live in Hertfordshire)):
"Oh my days, you won't believe what happened! I was like, vibing at this unreal party, yeah? And then, out of nowhere, this absolute sort rocks up and starts chattin' me up. Proper fit, he was! It was just so extra, I can't even!"
"In yesterday's proceedings, we observed an unforeseen development. The opposing counsel introduced new evidence, somewhat unconventional yet potentially significant. It requires thorough examination. Precision in our next steps is paramount."
The Essex teenager uses vibrant language, full of local slang and expressive phrases, conveying their personality. On the other hand, the lawyer's dialogue is formal, succinct, and carefully structured, reflecting a professional and analytical mindset.
Engaging Examples: Show, Don’t Just Tell
You don't necessarily need to tell us a character's background from the off, and it's okay to make the reader work a little.
Here are some examples from the first characters we met:
Educated and Formal - Dr. Helena Markham, Astrophysicist:
"Indeed, the ramifications of this discovery are profound. It challenges the very foundation of our understanding in astrophysics."
Dr. Markham's language, with a word like "ramifications", highlights her high education level.
Young and Casual - Bianca, British Schoolgirl (the mean sort, from North London):
"That backpack's rank! Wait 'til I put it on TikTok. You is well gonna regret it."
Bianca's tone captures the essence of a judgemental—and vindictive—teenager.
Artistic and Creative - Isabella, Aspiring Poet:
"The dusk whispered secrets to the wind, its voice painting shadows that danced upon my heart."
Isabella's metaphorical and emotive language mirrors her artistic soul, painting her inner world through her words.
Straightforward and Practical: Betty, Landlady:
"We need those pumps working by Monday, and no messing about. Time's money."
Betty's no-nonsense talk, with its directness and urgency, reflects a woman accustomed to the straightforward, fast-paced world of pulling pints at a busy pub.
Here are some examples from my novel, Behind the Seams:
Fay (Essex Girl—and proud of it—left school at 16):
“We don’t buy free range. I ain’t paying over the odds just so some chicken gets extra legroom.”
“There’s this guy at our local Italian. Proper creepy, yeah? Reckon he wants to put his penne in my cunnelloni.”
Kit (Geordie, soft when he needs to be, but firm, too):
“Don’t. Any fella would want to be with a canny lass like you. You’re a hundred times better than Naomi Campbell.”
“Fay! Get your arse out that netty. Don’t make us tell you again, pet.”
Nancy (well-educated, acidic fashion editor):
“What utter nonsense. If you’re going to be so easily offended, Bruno, I suggest you distance yourself from the fashion world. You’ve already made an excellent start with that dress.”
“Congratulations, Mister Harrington. You’re the first man to crossbreed a Hobbit and a venetian blind.”
Bringing It All Together
By now, I'm hoping you've seen how choosing the right words can create a range of unique voices in your story, and diversity not only distinguishes your characters from one another but also breathes life and realism into your story.
Try it yourself! Take a simple line of dialogue or narration from your writing, then rewrite it from the perspective of your different characters. How might one phrase it compared to another?
Remember, every character's dialogue is a window into their world. As you write, think about how their unique life experiences would shape their way of speaking.
Your readers will thank you for it!