This is how I’ve come to think about it. (Hold onto your hats, ladies and gentlemen, we’re about to get technical.)
Unique dialogue comes through layers and filters.
Huh? What are layers and filters?
Layers affect what is said, while filters affect how it is said.
Layers are drawn from your character’s backstory. They are a part of your character and remain in place throughout the entire novel, forming the foundation of word choice. Things like who I am (personality), how old I am (age), where I’m from (nationality/location), are all layers that you use to influence your character’s dialogue. This is also where accents, slang, nuance—all that exciting stuff—comes in.
Filters, on the other hand, are more immediate, changed by whatever is happening at the time. Filters can be anything from a different setting, to a new circumstance, to a strong emotion. Using filters enables you to change the current tone you’re attempting to convey through your character’s speech.
Okay, so that all sounds great (and highly technical), but let’s get practical. What in the world does that look like? How do you use layers and filters and whatnot in your dialogue?
Let’s try an example. Say we’re writing a story about a two-bit, down on his luck, rough-riding gunslinger in the old west, named Brett Martin. After being out on the trail for three months, he finally has some hard-earned cash in his pockets, so he walks into the bank only to see a bunch of robbers stuffing cash into their saddlebags. And the robbers have the drop on him.
What layers do we have in this scene? Just from the information above, we can make a few educated guesses.
Layer 1: WHO: Brett Martin, two-bit gunslinger. He’s not the most educated person in town—had to start working at a young age, wasn’t able to finish school. Doesn’t possess the largest vocabulary, but gets by on common sense rather than book smarts.
Layer 2: PERSONALITY: Hardened—he’s had a tough life, but it’s just made him tougher. Tends to be a bit short of speech. Doesn’t waste his words.
Layer 3: AGE: He’s a young feller. Most folks consider him still a bit wet behind the ears, but that’s just their mistake.
Layer 4: HOME: Old West! He’s from some little old Texas town, so you can expect plenty of “y’alls” and “reckon” and “fixin’ to” in his speech.
We could keep going, but this is enough to start with. You can see how the layers that we’ve highlighted would affect Brett’s speech regardless of the situation. This is Brett’s VOICE. How he usually talks as a character.
But now, we start on the filters that have to do with this particular scene.
Filter 1: EMOTION: Bone-Weary—Brett’s been on the trail for three months, probably rode all day long just to reach town.
Filter 2: EMOTION: Pride—It’s been a long time since he’s had cash in his pockets. Now look at him, walking into a bank like one of them big rich men from back east.
Filter 3: LOCATION: Bank—This is where the snobbish bankers work. It’s frequented by the rich who like looking down their noses at hard-working folks who don’t have as much as they do. But as Brett walks up to those doors, money in hand, he can’t help standing taller and talking a little bit more refined.
Filter 4: EMOTION: Fear—Brett spies the robbers and freezes, unable to draw his gun, as his grand dreams come crashing down around his ears. The robber asks him a question, and Brett manages to stammer out an answer.
Or EMOTION: Anger—Brett spies the robbers and anger courses through his veins. Steal his money, will they? He’s not Brett Martin the gunslinger, for nothing!
So you start with the layers—that’s what give you your character’s voice—and then for each individual scene, you add in the filters to change the tone of the dialogue within the scene.
Can you see how each of those things is going to affect the choice of words? The length of your sentences? Even the things your character does and doesn’t say?
You don’t have to do this for every scene. But it’s something I think through whenever I hit a roadblock while I’m writing a tough scene where all my characters sound the same and I can’t figure out how to make their dialogue unique.
And if you want a fun “dialogue-crafting” research assignment, watch The Avengers. Awesome movie with seriously hilarious one-liners and dialogue that perfectly matches each individual character. And yes, it does count as research! :)
What tricks do you use to craft dialogue to match your individual characters? Any fun dialogue research assignments you can think of?