Most people have an instinctive knowledge of how dialogue works. After all, most of us speak to other people on a regular basis. Because of that, it doesn't seem too hard to write plausible dialogue and have it turn out well. And honestly, it isn't that difficult. The part that is very hard for me is tweaking each character's speech so that it is unique. It is said that readers should be able to tell which character is speaking without any dialogue tags because each character has a very distinctive speech pattern. I don't know if I quite agree with that, and I know I certainly haven't been able to pull it off, but the point stands that each character should talk differently. It makes sense - no two people sound the same when they speak, whether it is because of their accents, word choices, subject choices, opinions, sense of humor, or any other verbal tics that fit them.
TV shows and movies are great places to study dialogue, since they do not usually have the benefit of constant narration or internal observation. They have to rely on dialogue alone to convey who their characters are. However, they have several tools that writers don't. Tone of voice, speed of speech, and delivery from actors can completely change the meaning behind the words actually being spoken. Accents and odd speech patterns can be conveyed more clearly and less obtrusively. Slang and "lazy speech" (words like "gonna") are much easier to use without drawing too much attention. Still, tv and movies can be good tools for in-house people watching. In other words, they are perfect for allowing yourself to be exposed to many different mannerisms and speech patterns, to absorb dialogue different from what is familiar and expand your tool set.
When I think about my favorite tv characters, I can usually hear their voices and speech patterns. I know how they talk. What I want is to know my own characters well enough that I can instinctively feel what they will say and how they will say it, and they don't talk exactly like I do all the time. I've had friends tell me that what I've written seems far too "modern" sounding for my setting. I've had to rewrite entire passages because I realized later that a character would not actually talk like I had originally written. In fact, early on in drafting the course of my story was changed because I thought I would steer my characters in one direction, but over the course of the conversation they came to a conclusion other than the one I had intended. It turned out to be a great blessing for my story, thankfully, but it illustrates how difficult it can be to keep character speech consistent and distinctive.
Ultimately, I've found the best way to keep voices straight is to teach myself to hear them. Last year, I took a class on Shakespeare and his writings. I read many of his plays, watched movies of the plays, and even memorized large portions of them to perform for my class. I was saturated with Shakespeare. So, surprise, I started to pick up some of the speech and mannerisms I was immersed in. I thought in Shakespearean English, read it just as easily as I do modern English, and even wrote a poem that sounded very much like Shakespeare. (I worked very hard not to actually speak like Shakespeare, but I could have if I wanted to.) In a similar manner, I have found that reading or listening to someone whose speech is similar to what I want for my character is a great way to teach myself to hear the dialogue the way it should be.
I am hardly a master at this technique, which is why I am writing about it now. It's a learning process for me, and one that has actually been really fun as well as a bit frustrating and very difficult. Have you ever made a conscious effort to keep your characters from sounding the same? What ways have you found to keep character voices distinct? I am very curious to hear what others have done with their characters' voices!
For those of you who aren't writers: Have you ever paid attention to how characters in fiction speak? Did you ever feel like certain characters had distinctive speech patterns that you could recognize anywhere? Do you have any favorites?
Thanks for reading!