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!
10 Replies to “Deb Susan’s Dialogue Has a Limp and an Eyepatch”
Ana sounds awesome. 🙂 I try to do this with my characters too, with varying success. In Book Two I’ve got one character who is considerably older than the others. I’ve tried to pay attention to making sure his idioms come from an earlier era.
It’s kind of a fun challenge, making sure the word choices are right, isn’t it? Taking idioms from an earlier era is a fantastic way to “age” your character – it’s amazing how much we can do with relatively little “effort” (even though it takes a lot of effort behind the curtain!!).
I love the example. You know when you’re writing a bit of dialogue, and then think, oh, that character would NOT say that. Then you’ve got it!
So true, Amy! And you’re right. I’ve absolutely written sentences and then thought, “uh, no, that doesn’t sound like him…” It’s awesome, and scary, when the characters take on life of their own.
Love how you find the characters’ voices through journaling as them! I have mine write letters to one another. It’s the most surefire way I’ve found to discover their voices. And now they won’t shut up…
It’s a great tool, isn’t it? Your letter writing sounds a lot like my journal entries. In fact, half the time the characters start talking about one another. So far, the thing that surprises me most is the amount of time my murderers DON’T spend talking about their victims. They always have an agenda, but it’s rarely the one I expected when I created them.
And yes…they don’t shut up as easily as they start, for sure.
Hi Susan! I, too, love the idea of journaling to find my characters’ unique voices. I’ll definitely have to try it. In my first novel I have a Russian immigrant to Ireland. He drops his articles and pronouns when he’s nervous (which is most of the time, actually). He was fun to write, that’s for sure.
In the current novel I’m revising, I have a character who is selectively mute. That’s a challenge! I didn’t realize how much I rely on dialogue until I created her.
Your Russian sounds like a fantastic character – and you have an awesome way of distinguishing his nervousness! People absolutely revert to old speech patterns under stress – what a great idea.
I also like the challenge you gave yourself with a selectively mute character. Talk about a way to turn the dialogue on its head. I’ll be she’s great fun to write, despite the difficulties (or perhaps because of them!)
I have one character who exclaims, “Zeus!” instead of “My god!” It really fits his character, I think. Another character quotes poetry. I’m about ten chapters into (and enjoying) your ARC, Susan. Now I will pay special attention to the dialogue tics!
Thanks Kris! I’m so, so delighted to hear you’re enjoying the ARC. Also, I think “Zeus!” is a fantastic exclamatory phrase. When authors develop those kinds of traits, it feels like a treat for me as a reader!
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