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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Dialogue ~ The Voices in Your Head

Dialogue is so important, because readers like to get to know characters the same way we like to get to know people in real life. They like to hear people talk and see people act.

So if you want your readers to like your hero, you don’t need to tell the readers how wonderful he is. You don’t have to bog the novel’s opening down with backstory telling how hard life has been for the hero and how he’s done great things despite all that.

What you need to do is give him a voice. Throw him into a situation where his good qualities will show, allow him to speak, and let the readers fall in love.

How do you give your characters strong voices? 

You do it by knowing your characters. Have a picture in mind when you write. Hear the voice. Think of real people or movie characters. I’m not saying to go for a cliché. I’m saying that if you listen to a lot of dialogue in books or movies or in real life, it will be easier for you to write it, and if you have a specific accent in mind when your character speaks, she will feel more real to your readers.

The accent of a character has to be consistent, but you need not be afraid to write a strong accent for fear of forgetting to put it in. The stronger the accent the easier it is to hear and write.

“Oh, Mr. Bennett, you do delight in vexing me!” Can you hear Mrs. Bennett saying that? Every time she speaks you know what her accent is going to be and you know that she will be talking about her lack of money or her poor nerves. That's Mrs. Bennett.

Your characters need to have very strong voices, too. They need to be unique and fun, but also predictable. Meaning they need to be so well done that the reader knows who is speaking just by the line of dialogue, without any tags. 

Maybe I’m odd, but I take on the accents of other people really easily. One of my friends told me years ago that when I spoke to my kids I sounded just like an Alaskan Native. Well, my sisters-in-law were all natives and they spoke to their children a certain way, so I adopted that way of speaking without even knowing I was doing it.

I do the same thing with writing--only I do it on purpose. If I want to write for a certain magazine, I sit down with ten issues and I absorb the voice of the magazine. The next piece I write, then, has that voice.

I think we have to do the same thing with dialogue. If we want our characters to sound real, we have to have real voices playing in our heads as we write. I had a crit partner who pasted pictures of her hero and heroine up on her cork board as she wrote. So one time it was Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious. She heard his voice every time time she wrote one of his lines of dialogue  And her dialogue was some of the best I've read. 

What about you? Are your characters based on people or characters you've seen before? If so, how do you keep them from being clichéd? 

photo credit: ohhector via photopin cc

Sally Apokedak
Sally Apokedak is an associate agent with the Leslie H. Stobbe Literary Agency. She's in the process of of building a dynamite list of authors. She is also active in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.


  1. I was blessed to be a Navy brat and then spent four years in the service myself, so before I was a teenager I'd heard just about every accent available in the U.S. I can usually dig up a memory of a person and how they spoke. The southern accents always seem to find their way into my books. Becuase it is my favorite, I have to be careful my Michigan characters don't pick it up!

  2. Haha, I thought my husband was the only one who did that "picking up the accent" thing. Some years ago, our church partnered with a Spanish mission. Every time he talked to the Hispanic pastor, he inevitably began to speak broken English with a Spanish accent.

    Then again, I do the same thing with my work. I SO agree that different publications have their own voice. I hope this will be a strength to add to fiction writing whenever I do more than put my toe in the water!.

  3. Dialogue makes the character. If it doesn't ring true and establish what's either come before him/her or will come after his/her speaking appearance, the character will seem off. Dialogue is intrinsic to good storytelling. We've got to be able to see and hear that person to form an opinion of their value in the story.

    Some authors fail to use contractions which is fine if your character is designed to speak formal old English, but in this time and place, contractions provide natural forms of conversation. Without them the dialogue is stilted and sounds unreal.

    Good post, Sally.

  4. I have to agree with Nicole.but My character's accent on couple of my manscripts are base off what I heard or what I think it should be.I read one book where the dialogue was really good in a book, author Mary Monroe's book called the upper Room.To be quite honest I had to reread the a sentence or two, not for the understanding of it.But,for the accent.

  5. Thanks for your comments.

    I love doing Southern accents, too, Ron.

    Marti, I'm glad I'm not the only one who picks up accents. It's a bit odd.


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