In my previous article Inspiration: Mining the World for Ideas, I mentioned carrying a notebook at all times and recording interesting tidbits of dialogue for stories. In that article I also suggested developing a habit of people watching, a habit that will not only help add depth and humanity to your characters, but realism to their words. This is the article where those two suggestions come together.
Some writers struggle with dialogue, with creating natural, believable speech for their characters. Most people don’t notice the speech habits unless they’re glaringly obvious or obscenely annoying, but each person has a way of speaking shaped by their parents, their friends, the area they live in, and the things they like. I have always been more of a listener than a talker (something that is probably hard to believe given the length of these articles), which is probably how I learned how people talk. I picked up on the kinds of phrasing they use and where they pause, what words they choose and what people never say aloud. This helped immensely in deciphering what the voices in my head were saying, who was saying what, and when something sounded plain wrong coming from a certain character.
Each person and each character has a distinct voice, the trick is learning what exactly makes one voice different from another. For example, imagine someone whose voice sounded exactly like a loved one called and pretended to be them. Assuming they had a strong working knowledge of both you and your loved one’s background (an FBI file, maybe?) and you could only judge their identity from the way they spoke, how long do you think it would take you to figure out it wasn’t them? What would clue you in? is your significant other the only person who calls you Sunshine? Is your best friend the one person you know who says “splendiferous” on a regular basis? Does your mom have a habit of starting every other sentence with “So”? Does your sister pause between every third or fourth word? These little speech habits can be telling character traits.
Next time you’re in a large group of people, listen to them talk. Not necessarily what they say, but how they say it. Take out that notebook and start a dialogue diary. Copy down conversations and study the changes in how people talk. What is different when the conversation is between two people who know each other well? Two strangers? Lovers fighting? Lovers making up? Write down things you notice about how people talk and what that makes you think about them (this works better with strangers). Write down things people do while they’re talking that gives you clues to the things they’re not saying aloud. Are they touchy feely with a particular person even though they insist that person is just a friend? Do they grind their teeth whenever someone mentions politics? Do they suddenly develop a stutter when a teacher asks them a question? Remembering that how someone says something isn’t restricted to the sounds they produce is a key point—some people give a lot away with what they do while they talk—but possibly the most important thing to remember is to read out loud and trust your gut. If something sounds off to your ears don’t second guess yourself, change it. You probably know more than you give yourself credit for.