Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Discussion of Dialogue and Style
August 14, 1998
I have trouble keeping the voice of my characters consistent throughout my story. Do you have any tips concerning dialogue? Specifically, keeping all my characters from sounding the same.
-- Submitted by Anonymous
The fact is, you can never keep characters from sounding somewhat the same,
because you can't escape from your own authorship. You have innate music in your writing,
your sense of how language ought to flow, and you can no more escape that than you can change
But you don't have to try. That's because if you're using dialogue properly, it will show up in
scenes that matter or that entertain. In such scenes, each character will have his or her own
agenda, attitude, and experiences to draw on. The content of the speeches will differentiate them
enough that you can often dispense with tags. For instance, the line of dialogue, "So she was
lonely! You didn't have to sleep with her, did you?" does not need to be tagged for us to know,
in a two-person scene, that it is said by the person who did not sleep with the woman in question.
Notice that that line of dialogue conveys, not just content, but agenda and attitude as well. The
person who says it is trying to make the other person feel bad (or worse) about what he did; but
the speaker also is saying it with some degree of exasperated humor. An attitude change might
result in: "Most people are lonely. Are you planning to sleep with all of them?" More sarcastic,
yes? Or another attitude: "Do you think that her loneliness excuses what you did?" No humor
Or we can change agenda. "Everybody's lonely, and you slept with her. So what?" Now the
speaker is not trying to get the other person to feel bad. "She was lonely, she needed you, you
helped her. Where's the harm?" Now the speaker's agenda is to make the other person feel
better. "She tells everybody she's lonely. She slept with you because she's too cheap to buy a
TV." Now the agenda is to ridicule the other person.
You get the idea, by now, I'm sure. It is the character's attitude, purpose, experience, and
relationship with the other character or characters in the scene that will make it impossible for his
or her dialogue to have been spoken by anyone else. That is all the differentiation that is needed,
most of the time.
The only time you run into differentiation problems in necessary scenes is when you give all
your characters the same attitude. For instance, if everybody is sarcastic, then it gets harder to
differentiate. But that's a characterization problem, not a dialogue problem.
Beware of false differentiation, though. Some writers try such clumsy techniques as trying to
write dialect or drunkenness or annoying personal habits into the dialogue. "Whatcha gonna do,
boss?" is a cheap and stupid way of representing the speech of "low class" people -- primarily
because, at least in America, even highly educated people speak with contraction and elision
without being aware of doing so. When spoken rapidly, the sentence "I don't know" becomes "I
don' know" or "I d'know" -- in other words, "I dunno." But snobbish writers only attempt to
write this way for low, uneducated characters. How bogus!
Aside from my political objections, however, the real reason writing class, dialect, or
drunkenness doesn't work is because it interferes with reading. Try picking up any piece by
Artemus Ward, for instance (a contemporary of Mark Twain). The dialect is so thick that the
dialogue is unreadable. You have to sound the words out phonetically in order to decipher what
is being said. This slows down the reading and throws the reader's concentration away from the
content of the story and onto the process.
It is better to represent dialect, drunkenness, or class through word choice and syntax. "I am
thinking you are not sure what to do next" conveys foreignness quite adequately, especially if the
narrator has already told you the speaker has an Urdu accent -- but because the words are written
normally, comprehension is immediate and the reader is not distracted. Ditto with drunkenness.
Tell us the character has had too much to drink, and then write with normal spellings. For
"You don't happen to happen a match, do you?" She giggled at her own mistake. "Happen to
happen a match." She was so amused she couldn't let go of the joke. "Do you know how to
happen a match?" Gin makes for such fascinating conversation.
Even this may be calling more attention than necessary to her drunkenness; and once the point is
made, you won't have to keep making it.
As for annoying personal habits -- people who constantly digress or interrupt or insert "you
know" or "uh-huh" or "see?" into their conversation -- just remember that if it annoys you when
a real person does it, it will annoy the reader when a character does it. So you normally don't
want to go overboard and make the reader sicken of reading your book by including "realistic"
speech that is too repulsive to endure.
In the end, all your characters will sound like you, because you're the one coming up with their
words. But they will be clearly differentiated because you have made them come to life as
individuals, and their speech will arise out of a different set of concerns and attitudes than the
speech of other characters. They will all show aspects of your style of writing -- but within that
style, they will be completely different from each other. If you find that no matter what you do,
two characters always sound alike and utter interchangeable dialogue, chances are your mistake
is that you don't need both of them in the story -- combine them into one character, or develop
them more thoroughly as unique individuals with their own desires and attitudes. A seeming
dialogue problem turns out, most often, to be a problem of invention and development of