Monday, May 30, 2011

Writing Craft: Rounding Out Characters, Part The Second

The title of this post is a hint at what I'm going to talk about today: speech patterns and dialogue.

I was on the phone to different plant nurseries yesterday, looking for a specific plant in a specific size, and everyone I talked to gave me the usual, "Just one second and I'll go check." Polite, professional, blah.

Then when I called the third place and I told the guy who answered what I was asking for, he did something different. He repeated it back to me and followed it up with, "Stand by."

I immediately decided that I liked this guy. He was funny, friendly, a little quirky, and original. And I wondered what it is about him that made him use that term: did he come from a military family? Is he a math and sci-fi geek? Is he a college student on track for NASA working part-time for some spare cash? With those two words, he went from being "the guy who works at the plant store" to being an interesting person whom I wanted to know more about.

In books, as in life, people who use interesting words and turns of phrase do more than just stand out. They become memorable, and more importantly, they become interesting and endearing. So bear this in mind when you're writing dialogue. Give one of your characters a catchphrase that tells the reader a little more about who he is. Let the history teacher invent cuss words. Got a makeup freak in your book? Maybe whenever someone compliments her looks, she tells them the shade of her eyeshadow. Pick out those little details that distinguish each character from the others and let them show.

Who are some of the most memorable people in your life, and what did they always say that made them memorable?


  1. Yes, having characters speak and sound different is important. And a catchphrase can be a way to accomplish this.

  2. That's great advice, Ishta. I had a phone call on my machine this morning from an artist friend who always make my husband and me laugh, because she talks fast, loud, professional but determined and lets no space for any doubt. Would love to meet your plant guy, though.

  3. Thanks, Antje! Isn't life more interesting with people like that around?

  4. Now that stand by illustration is a great example - and one that is sure to stick in my mind!