In his book, Save the Cat!, Author and screenwriter Blake Snyder advised all writers to give every character “a limp and an eyepatch” – an easily identifiable characteristic that sets the character apart from all the others in the scene.
I love this advice, and take it to heart – and I use it with dialogue too.
When creating characters, I write a journal entry in each character’s voice – a free writing exercise in which I let the character tell me anything he or she wants to say. (If you think that means I need therapy, you should read a few of the journal bits. You’d have me in a padded room post-haste. But I digress…)
The exercise serves a second purpose too. It helps me develop the character’s voice – the phrasing, the cadence, the verbal tics that set that person apart from all the others. Every person speaks differently, and characters should too. Dialogue tags are useful, but I try to make it clear who’s speaking before the reader even gets to the tag.
By way of example:
Father Mateo and Hiro live in a house which the Jesuits purchased for Father Mateo upon his arrival in Kyoto two years before the start of Claws of the Cat. Along with the house, Father Mateo acquired an elderly, crotchety housekeeper named Ana.
Ana rules the house with an iron fist and sternly disapproves of any shenanigans. But, you see, what I just did was telling - and in the novel, I wanted to show. So I gave her a verbal habit to express her critical nature:
Ana frowned at the men around the hearth. “Who brought that cat in?”
The tortoiseshell kitten had followed her into the room. As she pointed in its direction, it turned around and streaked into Hiro’s room.
Hiro and Father Mateo exchanged a look.
“I did,” Hiro admitted, “as a present for Father Mateo.”
He hoped Ana’s love for the Jesuit would prevent a scolding, but didn’t count on it.
“Hm,” she said. “Is it staying?”
That “Hm,” sets Ana’s dialogue apart. She uses it to express concern, frustration, and disdain. She’s also the only character who says it.
A word, an expression, or a unique turn of phrase can become a character’s signature. It has to be used judiciously – too much, like too much salt, will spoil the dish – but properly utilized, a verbal limp (or an eyepatch) can make dialogue sing and characters stand out from the crowd.
Do any of your favorite characters have a special gesture or phrase that sets them apart? I’d love to know what sets dialogue singing for you!