When we talk about individualising speech we’re talking about what people say and how they say it. What people say is as important as how they say something but this can be overlooked in favour of the more conspicuous, how they say it. What we mean when we refer to ‘what people say’ is simply that there are things that some people are less likely to or won’t say. For instance, some people will swear freely and other people won’t swear at all. So, if we were writing a character that never swears if they did it would stand out so there would have to be a logical justification for it, like a giant boulder rolling after them like Indiana Jones.

If a character is well fleshed out then readers will get a feel for the sort of things they would say. This doesn’t mean that they would necessarily be able to predict a response, simply that they will know when the written response doesn’t fit a character. If you can swap lines around all of your characters without changing the lines this either means you gave the line to the wrong character, which happens sometimes, or that the characters might need developing a little more.

Another element of what people say is characters having conversations rather than reciting things that while plot relevant don’t need to be spelt out. We wouldn’t want to describe a setting then have a character say, ‘What an unusual tree. I shall go look at the tree, maybe that’s where the treasure is buried.’ There are a few elements of this in radio drama where a characters’ dialogue may be used to describe a scene when necessary because there is no visual element or prose. In prose fiction this element is covered by the prose, this doesn’t mean we can’t have characters discuss their surroundings because people often do. There is a difference though between characters saying things like:

‘Urgh, carpet’s a bit excessive, all that patterning.’

‘Give me a nice bit of laminate any day.’

And telling the reader where they are, what they see and what they’re going to do. If we have characters commenting on their setting we can use it to tell us a bit about the characters, for instance we know Character B prefers laminate flooring and Character A doesn’t like patterns which in a longer piece could play into their characters. Perhaps B doesn’t like carpet because they have a morbid fear of carpet burns while A finds that heavy patterns gives them a migraine.

Now we’ve established that A doesn’t like patterns it would be odd if they started talking about patterns in a positive way or if B later in the story expressed an interest in carpet. This might sound like minor things but unless we have a character who changes their mind on purpose or it’s somehow part of the character’s evolution then the sudden change in what they’re saying becomes jarring. As I say, there are reasons for doing it but it should be done for a reason rather than a mistake in the continuity or simply because it becomes convenient.


For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on dialogue see Finding The Characters.

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

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