Using suitable dialogue to create characters

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 February, 2004, 12:00am

A popular technique that is used to create a certain impression about a character is through the way they speak.

This is particularly hard for someone who is not a native speaker, as they have to develop an ear for the way in which different people speak.

Subtleties of speech - the vocabulary, the tone of voice, the phrases, the accent - can all do a lot to create the emotions and attitudes of a character.

Listen carefully to the way that people speak when you meet them, and also in the films and dramas that you watch.

Make sure that the words spoken by your character are convincing and in tune with their personality.

What kind of personality is suggested by these two examples?

1. 'I'd really rather that you did not speak to me like that; I find it very upsetting.'

2. 'Say that again and I'll knock your block off.'

The first example is a long sentence which suggests a thoughtful, well-educated sort of person. He speaks in a gentle way, and the character takes the trouble to explain why he does not like being spoken to in a particular kind of way.

In the second example, the character is aggressive and directly threatening; he will hit the other person if he persists in talking that way. He also uses colloquialism, using 'block' as a slang expression for 'head'. This is a much more rough kind of character.

The point here is that you need to be consistent. Once a character starts to speak in a certain way, you need to maintain that style throughout your piece. This is also helpful during a comprehension exercise. The way in which a character speaks can give you useful clues regarding the intentions of the writer.

You also have to make sure that the tone of voice and choice of vocabulary is appropriate to the situation. A character faced with a major road accident would not say: 'Oh dear, there seems to be a spot of bother here.'

That would seem far too light-hearted and casual. He would need to show emotion and depth in his reaction, 'There's been a terrible accident. Get an ambulance here. Fast.'

Sometimes the absence of speech can show depth of emotion more effectively than anything else: 'Peter surveyed the terrible scene in front of him. He turned to the policeman next to him and opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. He just stared.'

You can mix dialogue and action together effectively to show both setting and emotion.

Here is a scene in a restaurant: 'There's something I've been meaning to tell you,' said Roger, laying his chopsticks carefully on the cloth and reaching for the cup. Emma noticed the chip in its rim as he lifted it to his lips. His eyes met hers as he drank. 'I'm leaving for Bangkok tomorrow. I shall be gone for some time.'

The details about the chopsticks and the cup do several jobs for the writer. It helps to locate the conversation in a familiar setting. It shows the intensity of the relationship because she is watching him so closely. It also helps to create tension as we wait to find out what he has been meaning to tell her. Dialogue is dramatic and it brings the characters alive for us as if they are on a stage. This can also be achieved by having characters interrupt one another, just as they do in real life: 'I'm leaving for Bangkok tomorrow, I'll be back on ...'

'I don't care when you'll be back. You can stay there for good for all I care.'

The interruption by the second character shows the strength of her feeling. She is not prepared to listen to his reasons. She just says what she feels.

It is worth collecting your own list of words that you can use instead of 'said'. These help to create a sense of tone and character.

Here are some examples to get you going: If a daughter is trying to persuade her father to allow her to go out with her friends: coaxed, pleaded, wheedled, simpered, begged, whispered.

If the father is surprised when he learns that the friend is actually a boyfriend: gasped, blurted, exclaimed.

And if he becomes angry as the scene develops: shouted, bawled, ranted, screamed, retorted.

Let's hope you never find yourself on the receiving end of that kind of speech!