Distinction in Dialogue

Why have I called this article Distinction in Dialogue? Partly because that’s what it’s about, but mostly because I love a bit of alliteration when I can get it in. There’s something very satisfying about alliteration, like an unintentional rhyme or pun. It might seem like I’ve already gone off track here, which would be a record for my digressions, but I do have a point. Everybody speaks differently, even common phrases can be said differently by different people for a variety of reasons.

One of the great things about being a writer is that you get to play around with language and call it a profession and a great place to do this is in speech. Before your character can converse they need a voice and it needs to be their voice and that means you can do anything because people do anything. The worst advice I ever had was when I was writing a character who, where other characters would say ‘fuck’, said ‘bally’ a nice sounding word I came across in Wodehouse. The person in question said I couldn’t use it, certainly not frequently, because it was ‘too distinctive’. By frequency I mean I’d used it once or twice in the space of half-a-dozen short stories featuring this particular character. I’m not sure that counts as frequent.

Anyway, back on point, the idea of someone saying something that is ‘too distinctive’ is, I think, ridiculous. Think of the sheer variety of words people use to replace swear words, some of those are fairly distinctive, my favourite is ‘flibbertigibbet’ which is an old word for demon though it went on to become a word for gossipy woman. At no point when someone uses a substitution do they think ‘I’d better not say that it’s too distinctive’ they simply say it because it’s what they say, even if it makes them look a bit strange. I’m pretty sure I look a bit strange when I say ‘flibbertigibbet’.

I think at the point where you start saying that characters can’t say things because they are ‘too distinctive’ it takes away their individuality, and being fictitious doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be individual. It tends to be the distinctive characters and distinctive phrases that are remembered. Once again I’ll have to mention Dickens and Shakespeare because whenever people talk about them there’s always a favourite quotation mentioned. Having written that I’ve just drawn a blank on a suitable quotation and I’m having a flashback to one of my degree exams. Oh well.

Where would dialogue become too distinctive anyway? In the case I referenced ‘bally’ was actually a colloquialism suitable to the character in relation to their age and various other factors, in which case is any colloquial language too distinct? Which is a ridiculous notion otherwise we’ll be going back to the eradication of regional accents and a homogenisation of language.

All that said, I don’t mean that you have to give all of your characters strange verbal flares. As you build up your characters and find their voices you’ll know what they’ll say, distinctive or not, and you shouldn’t need to worry: ‘is this too distinctive?’ All you need worry about is: ‘Is this how the character would say it?’

For more writing advice try my Advice  page. For more on character and dialogue try Finding The Characters.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.

Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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