by Christine Haggerty
There are some great ways to individualize your characters, including physical descriptions, behavioral tics, and neurotic tendencies. Individualization can also be done very effectively through character dialogue. There are a few simple tricks to make each of your characters stand out from the rest.
Remember in The Great Gatsby how the title character always referred to the narrator as ‘old sport’? That’s Gatsby’s catch phrase. This has been used in movies to catch a bad guy who has a favorite phrase and isn’t bright enough to know it, and it’s also commonly used to define character relationships when they develop nicknames and secret phrases in their dialogue with each other.
A recent version of this is “I am Groot” from Guardians of the Galaxy. In The Grimm Chronicles: Pretty Things, I use the title phrase ‘pretty things’ in the story more than I use a phrase in dialogue, but it does essentially the same thing.
Syntax is the technical term for sentence construction. Have you ever listened to someone speaking a second language? Do you speak a second language? Beyond the accent, second language learners also have a tendency to construct their sentences—the order of their subjects, verbs, and modifiers—according to their first language more than their second language regardless of which they are speaking. You can play with sentence patterns to give a character a foreign flavor.
Joshua Robertson does this in Melkorka with Dorofej frequently ending his sentences in a question, yes? And a classic Yoda from Star Wars is.
Here’s where I frequently see authors hold back and editors over-correct. In the real world, people speak in fragments, use sarcasm, and say plain dumb things. Even the sharpest man I know will turn into an idiot when trying to pick up a woman at a bar. People have a limitless variety of personality quirks, fears, and amazing insights. Use them. The main lesson I learned between my first book, The Plague Legacy: Acquisitions, and my second, Assets, was that I didn’t need to save my great lines for later in the story. I discovered that if I spent them I came up with more.
I do an editing pass on my stories just for dialogue. In Pretty Things, Maddie has quite an attitude and the wit to match. She’s manipulative and dramatic. Her dialogue expresses that. But she’s not always the smartest one in the scene and other characters get to say some cool things, too. And never underestimate the character who knows when to keep their mouth shut.
Great phrases and dialogue can be stolen from the food court at the mall, the airport, kids of all ages. The best way to get great lines for your characters? Go out and talk to people.
And remember—We are Groot!
Christine Nielson Haggerty grew up in rural Utah with three brothers, a sister, several chickens, a goat, and an outhouse. She always loved the escape of fantasy and the art of writing, and her passion for life is to craft stories of strength and survival.
As a former high school language arts teacher and a black belt in karate, Christine has found a niche in combining those skills to help authors write effective fight scenes.
An award-winning young adult author, she is now launching her dark fantasy fairytale novella series The Grimm Chronicles.