A Phrasing All Their Own

People have different ways of phrasing things whether it’s colloquial, individual, or passed down a family. It could be a verbal tic, an unusual saying or unusual grammar, literally anything. Simply because these things aren’t conventional doesn’t mean we can’t give them to our characters, giving them these quirks makes them more real to readers. This doesn’t mean they all have to have glaringly obvious verbal nuances, they could be little things, even things so small the reader might not consciously notice them. Nor does it mean we have to plan them out before we begin, we can if we want but as we progress through the first draft and write more of a character’s dialogue their voice will naturally develop as we find out more about them.

When we begin a first draft it’s alright if their language is standardised, we’re only beginning and nobody expects us to know our characters inside and out quite yet. As we progress we can try things out and play around with different word choices: is our character a ‘fellas’, ‘guys’ or ‘dudes’ kind of person? Do they regularly use slang or do they try to keep their language standardised? Do they drop fs, religious curses or never swear at all? All of this builds up to create their individual voice, even if it only seems like a minor thing.

An example of something that might seem like a minor thing is a character who makes a point of saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ every time they should. I say this may seem like a minor thing because we expect people to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ but not everyone does. Then there are people who routinely do but they may forget on occasion because they’re distracted, perhaps something serious is troubling, and by missing a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ you’ve just told us something about the mental state of your character.

This only works though if we build it up. We can have a character forget to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ and then admonish themselves when they realise, but if a person is really distracted they might not notice that they have. If we build this habit up throughout the story we won’t have to draw attention to the absence because the reader will notice. If it has been established and the reader notices then the reader will also draw conclusions about the absence. As I’ve said before the reader’s interpretation might not be the one you intended but whether they turn out to be right or wrong there will be enjoyment in the participation. Implication can be like trying to find the puzzle pieces in a crime story and assemble them before the detective. Even if the reader figures out what we’re implying before we reveal it there can be a satisfaction in figuring it out first, if we haven’t made it so obvious that it becomes frustrating that we didn’t get to the point faster. It can also create a sense of dramatic irony, which we discussed earlier.

So while individualising phrasing can make it sound like we have to have big conspicuous differences in our characters dialogue sometimes small ones can be just as effective in making our characters individual. It really depends on whether your character is the type to use lots of unusual phrases or the sort to try and mind their speech carefully.

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.

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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