July 18 – 24: “Dialogue can be tricky. How do you do it?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Dialogue can be tricky, as the author has to give each character a unique voice that is also distinct from his or her own. This week we’re joined by ITW Members Jean Harrington, Arthur Kerns, Bernard Maestas, L.S. Hawker, Shaun Harris, Lynn Cahoon, Terrie Farley Moran, J. C. Lane, Stephen Morrill, Steven Kuehn, Sharon Potts, Kat Martin, Elizabeth Noble, Susan Israel, Charles Atkins, D. P. Lyle, Joel Fishman, Jerry Kennealy and Alan Jacobson, to ask: How do you do it?




deep sixD. P. Lyle is the Macavity and Benjamin Franklin Silver Award winning and Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, Scribe, Silver Falchion, and USA Best Book Award nominated author of 16 books, both fiction and non-fiction. Along with Jan Burke, he is the co-host of Crime and Science Radio. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of the TV shows Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.



Jack Rabbit Final 12615 150 resElizabeth Noble lives by the adage “I can’t not write.” She can’t remember a time when she didn’t make up stories and eventually she learned how to write them down. A part of every day is spent living in worlds she created that are filled with intrigue and espionage.  Using a real love of scifi and urban fantasy highlighted by twisty plots she crafts stories taking place in a slightly altered version of our world.



Sunken Dreams Cover copySteven Kuehn is a professional archaeologist at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey. After 25 years of preparing hundreds of technical reports and scholarly articles, the call of mystery fiction grew irresistible and Steve began chronicling the adventures of Professor Jake Caine, archaeologist and amateur detective. His first novel, Sunken Dreams (A Jake Caine Archaeology Mystery), was published in May 2016, and one Jake Caine short story,Talked to Death, was released online in Mysterical-E.



Hemingway Thief_coverShaun Harris grew up as the son of a homicide detective in Southern New England. He has a degree in American Studies and Film and Television from the University of Notre Dame. As such he has a crippling obsession with college football. He now lives in rural Wisconsin with his wife and two kids. Jim Rockford is his spirit guide.

ReadToDeathTerrie Farley Moran is the author of the Read ‘Em and Eat cozy mysteries series, including the Agatha Award winner Well Read, Then Dead, Caught Read-Handed and Read to Death. Terrie’s short mystery fiction has been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and numerous anthologies. She also co-writes Laura Childs’ Scrapbooking Mystery series. Together they have written Parchment and Old Lace and Crepe Factor.



drowningL.S. Hawker is the author of THE DROWNING GAME (USA Today bestseller and ITW Thriller Awards Best First Novel finalist) and BODY AND BONE, published by HarperCollins Witness Impulse, with a third title to be released in January, 2017. Visit www.LSHawker.com to view book trailers, listen to The Lively Grind Cafe, her podcast with daughter Chloe, and read about her adventures as a cocktail waitress and traveling Kmart portrait photographer.



Design_is_Murder_cover_SWriting advertising copy for Reed & Barton, Silversmiths, was Jean Harrington’s first job, and she claims she has the spoons to prove it. Then for 17 years, she taught English literature at Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts. After moving to Naples, she began dreaming of murder—and the award winning, tongue-in-cheek Murders by Design Series is the result. Currently working on a new series, Jean is up to her knees in dead bodies and loving every minute of it.



LostCodex (ORIM trade-FINAL) (2)Alan Jacobson is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of the FBI profiler Karen Vail series and the OPSIG Team Black covert ops novels. Jacobson’s books have been translated internationally, named to several “best of the year” lists, and optioned by Hollywood. Jacobson’s twenty years of research and training with the FBI’s profiling unit, DEA, US Marshals Service, SWAT, NYPD, Scotland Yard, and the military infuse his stories and characters with verisimilitude.



mangrovesStephen Morrill was born into the Army, served there himself, and wandered the world for thirty years, living in twenty-one cities in six countries. Finally he settled, like a barnacle holding fast to a piling, in Florida. Since then he has canoed and sailed almost every Florida waterway and SCUBA dived on almost every reef and wreck. He has been a reporter for a wire service, written several thousand magazine articles, edited several magazines, and written books including several Florida travel works.



yemenArthur Kerns is a retired FBI supervisory special agent and past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). His award-winning short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. He is a book reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Diversion Books, Inc. NY, NY published his espionage thriller, The Riviera Contract, and the sequel, The African Contract. The third in the series, The Yemen Contract, was released in June 2016.



A Story to Kill book final compLynn Cahoon is the author of the New York Times and USA Today bestselling Tourist Trap cozy mystery series. Guidebook to Murder, book 1 of the series won the Reader’s Crown for Mystery Fiction in 2015. She’s also the author of the soon to be released, Cat Latimer series, with the first book, A STORY TO KILL, releasing in mass market paperback September 2016. She lives in a small town like the ones she loves to write about with her husband and two fur babies.



Say That to My Face by Bernard MaestasBernard Maestas lives in paradise. A police officer patrolling the mean streets of Hawaii, he has a background in contract security and military and civilian law enforcement. When not saving the world, one speeding ticket at a time, and not distracted by video games or the internet, he is usually hard at work on his next book.



someoneSharon Potts is the award-winning, critically acclaimed author of four psychological thrillers, including In Their Blood—winner of the Benjamin Franklin Award and recipient of a starred review in Publishers Weekly. A former CPA, corporate executive, and entrepreneur, Sharon has served as treasurer of the national board of Mystery Writers of America, as well as president of that organization’s Florida chapter. She has also co-chaired SleuthFest, a national writers’ conference. Sharon lives in Miami Beach with her husband and a spirited Australian shepherd named Gidget.



Into-the-Whirlwind-cover-(3New York Times bestselling author Kat Martin is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara where she majored in Anthropology and also studied History. She is married to L.J. Martin, author of western, non-fiction, and suspense novels. Kat has written more than sixty-five novels. Sixteen million copies of her books are in print and she has been published in twenty foreign countries, including Japan, France, Germany, Argentina, Greece, China, Russia, and Spain. Born in Bakersfield, California, Kat currently resides in Missoula, Montana, on a small ranch in the beautiful Sapphire mountains. Her last 10 books have hit the prestigious New York Times bestseller list. AGAINST THE WILD, AGAINST THE SKY, AGAINST THE TIDE and INTO THE FURY her latest release, took top ten spots.



student bodiesSusan Israel has published fiction in Other Voices, Hawaii Review, and Vignette and she has written for magazines, websites, and newspapers, including Glamour, Girls Life, Ladies Home Journal and The Washington Post. Her novels featuring Delilah Price are edgy, immediate, and intensely satisfying because Delilah is such a rare combination of tough and vulnerable. Delilah returns in the Spring of 2016 in Student Bodies.



screen test-1600x2400pxJerry Kennealy has worked as a San Francisco policeman and as a licensed private investigator in the City by the Bay. He has written twenty-two novels, including a ten book series on private eye Nick Polo, two of which were nominated for a Shamus Awards. His books have been published in England, France, Germany, Japan, Italy and Spain. He is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Private Eye Writers of America.



Tag You're Dead cover art - by PCJ.C. Lane is the author of TAG, YOU’RE DEAD, her first thriller. She also writes mysteries as Judy Clemens, including the Stella Crown series, the Grim Reaper mysteries, and the stand-alone LOST SONS. She is a past president of Sisters in Crime and lives in Ohio.



Dark Blood Cover (1 of 1)Caleb James is a pen name for fiction/non-fiction author and psychiatrist Charles Atkins. He lives in Connecticut with his partner and too-many cats.





PRISONERDana I. Wolff is the pen name of a former publishing executive and bestselling thriller writer. This is the first Wolff novel.





  1. To produce dialogue unique to each character, I think a writer has to be something of an actor. As Angela Bassett said, “As an actor, you’re used to putting on characters, taking them off, becoming someone else.” If you’ve ever tried to write dialogue you understand what she means.

    In my own work, to help each voice be true to a character’s sex, age and interests, I rehearse the dialogue lines out loud, hoping the neighbors don’t think I’ve gone nuts. Especially when I switch from a female character to a male and back again. I mean, think about it.

    But a little embarrassment doesn’t matter. What does is that before writing I enter the minds of my characters and strive, hard, to think and sound like them—not like myself. Once that’s done with diligence and the dialogue is in the computer, reading out loud becomes a litmus test for whether the scene comes alive. Or not.

    Deva Dunne, in the Murders by Design Series, for example, is a 30 something interior designer. She’s from Boston, edgy, creative and, in book one, Designed for Death, unhappy. While I didn’t strive for a Boston accent, I aimed for the kind of Irish wit and humor that, despite her grief, would be a natural part of her heritage. Then there’s studly Detective Rossi who’s frank at all times—except when he isn’t–and frankly crazy about Deva. All alpha male, he’s a man whose speech is devoid of verbal frills. I admit writing his dialogue was a challenge, though I’m happy to say so many women have told me they’d love to meet Rossi, I just may have nailed him.

    Anyway, when effectively drawn characters speak, they don’t use the author’s voice. They speak the way they need to in order to be true to themselves, enliven the scene and, not incidentally, further the plot. So I read their words out loud. After all, the play, I mean the plot, must go on.

    1. Thank you for this perfect description of what it’s like. Dialogue is probably my favorite thing to write because of embracing the character and discovering how they communicate.

  2. I write fiction these days, mysteries and some fantasy that’s not published (yet). The mysteries are set in an imaginary tiny southwest Florida Gulf coast town. Check out my mysteries at:

    One would expect most of the Mangrove Bayou residents to speak with some sort of cracker drawl. I live in Tampa but I’m not a native (I’m southern all right — from the south part of Santa Monica, California) and I have to wing it with accents.

    Not always successfully, it seems.

    I went overboard with southern/cracker/Florida drawl in a forthcoming book. And I had to pull it back. Here’s a sample of the original. (There are some other edits but focus on the speech patterns.)

    I’ll bold the problem words.

    “Theah was pig,” he said. “Ah sweah. Saw some one night on tha access road. We seen sign today, hain’t we? Plenty tracks. Droppin’s. Rootin’s.”
    “Pongo, ah cain’t make sausage outta pig-shit. Wheah’s tha hogs?”
    “Mebbe work up the canal, this side,” Pongo suggested, pointing to the right. He hated to quit.
    “Better yet, les’ work back down tha canal, this way,” Mac said. “Back towards ma truck.”

    I ran this by a critique group and they had trouble reading it. (The entire chapter was like this.) As one primary rule of writing is to write to be comprehended, and not to make the reader stop to figure out what you were trying to say, I rewrote:

    “There was pig,” he said. “Ah swear. Saw some one night on the access road. We seen sign today, ain’t we? Plenty tracks, droppin’s, rootin’s.”

    “Pongo, I can’t make no sausage outta pig-shit. Where’s the hogs?”
    “Too tired to wade across that and get all wet. Water’ll get in the boots.” Both men wore snake boots of knee-high heavy leather. “Let’s work back towards the truck. Ain’t no pigs out here today.”

    Same conversation. I THINK I conveyed the southern backwoods drawl in the second example. You be the judge.

    Point is, it’s too easy to go overboard on dialect. I certainly did so at first. There is always a trade-off. Dialect adds color to the writing, unquestionably. But it also slows the reader and forces the reader to focus on those specific words, to reassemble, in her or his mind, the language and sentence structure you have modified beyond the norm.

    So put in just enough to give a hint, not so much it’s hard to read. Wish I could tell you precisely what that magic limit is. I wish someone would tell ME.

    Most authors — and I’m no exception — have a distinctive voice and, frankly, ALL their characters tend to sound alike. I notice this when I read my favorite authors. I used to think they were lazy; now I KNOW they are. I’m the same way. We authors are focused on the plot and the dialogue and not on assigning dialects to every passing secondary character.

    We also tend to avoid strong dialect in main characters because we know this will be a royal pain to keep up through an entire book (or, worse, a series). The chief protagonist — who will have the most to say — is probably going to talk exactly as the author would talk.

    There are some work-arounds. My favorite mystery author, Robert B. Parker, had Hawk, his black associate to Spenser, the protagonist, talk alternately in ghetto-trash and perfect King’s English. Parker explained this by saying that Hawk intentionally altered his speech to suit the occasion.

    I followed suit with a black gang leader who speaks perfect English and uses NO abbreviations. He’s also a Ph.D. in Shakespearean plays. His speech is a little stilted as a result. I’ve done that with other characters in other books. It’s easy to do. Just never use an apostrophe in their dialogue and they sound more formal. But don’t do this with more than one character per book.

    My police chief in the Mangrove Bayou mystery series has a speech pattern of clipped sentences:

    “Chief,” Angel said, “We’re going to have to follow that car all the way to Miami.”

    Troy nodded. “Why I topped off the gas tank.”

    I left out the “That’s.” If you think about it, this is how many of us actually speak. We don’t use all the words. We leave gaps that our listener fills in unconsciously.

    I also have an advantage here: I run an online writing school. I reached out to Patrika Vaughn, my dialect teacher, for a few words. “Dialect is heard with the eyes,” she says. “It is one of the most contrived elements of fiction and must be handled well to avoid turning characters into superficial stereotypes.” She looked over my attempt and said I had done the right thing in deleting most of the bad dialect, suggesting that I retain simple things like “ain’t, cain’t and ‘les”. These are both dialect and also common enough that my reader doesn’t slam on the eyeball-brakes and try to figure out what I was meaning to say.

    See Patrika Vaughn’s course at:

    And I learned, thirty years ago at the start of my reporting career, that almost no one speaks in perfectly-formed sentences. Record and transcribe a few hundred interviews and you will see what I mean. When writing up a profile of some bigwig businessperson, I routinely clean up their act. All reporters do this. To not do so would be to make then sound like third-graders. But, in fiction, you can take liberties.

    Just don’t take too many liberties. Remember, the reader has to understand your writing and, preferably, without a lot of time spent trying to figure out what you meant to say.

    Thanks. Check out my mysteries at:

  3. I have to start this response with a minor rant. There is no such thing as realistic dialogue, at least not as people use the term. Listening to other people talk to each other in real life is boring bordering on masochistic. Try it some time on an airplane. Listen in to what Susie from Idaho thinks of the election or what Bill was Muncie thinks about the airplane food. The only time it is remotely interesting is when they are quoting the Simpsons in lieu of an original thought (confession: I often quote the Simpsons in lieu of an original thought). What people are actually looking for in dialogue is hyper-reality, that is, something that sounds real, but is amped up just a little. Elmore Leonard was the best at this. He had a great talent for writing the way criminals should talk. In real life criminals are inarticulate morons. That’s why they’re criminals.

    Ok, getting that off my chest, the question is how do we keep this hyper-realistic dialogue from sounding the same coming out of everyone’s mouth. This is a major struggle and one I find myself wrestling with constantly. The problem isn’t so much making people sound different. That’s actually pretty easy. The problem is making them all sound different, but fit in the same narrative with the same tone and style as the rest of the piece. So let’s say it’s a cool crime caper. Everyone has to be different, but they all have to be cool in one respect or another, but they also all can’t sound like they’ll be played by George Clooney in the movie. Of course, there will be characters who aren’t cool, and they will be used to illustrate how cool the cool characters are, but this creates another problem. You can end up with only two types of dialogue cool and uncool, Good and Evil, intelligent and dumb. This binary approach to the original problem is not much of a solution either.

    So here’s what I do either consciously or subconsciously to keep my characters’ dialogue unique to themselves. I give each character an obsession. This is different than motivation. Motivation is what drives the character which doesn’t necessarily have to do with the character’s personality. If someone is trying to kill a character his motivation is survival and that has little to do with his sense of humor or hobbies. The obsession is more like a filter through which the character sees the world. For instance, in my novel, The Hemingway Thief, the villain is obsessed with Status. Whatever he says it is with the intent of showing, maintaining, or gaining Status. So in that way a simple line of dialogue such as, “Hello.” must be imbued with that obsession. So he doesn’t say “Hello.” he says “Yes?”. Another character, the protagonist, Coop, sees the world through his obsession with pop culture so when he speaks it is with that filter. Everything he says is couched in how he has heard in a movie or read it in a book.

    I don’t always remember to do this in the first draft and usually I haven’t found each character’s obsession until I discover it in a rewrite. Once I’ve found it, however, it makes the dialogue rewrite so much easier. That’s my little trick.

    1. ” I give each character an obsession. This is different than motivation. ”

      This is clever.Got to remember that in my own writing. Adds color. Easy to list in a “bible” of character descriptions. Then easy to implement.

  4. First, let me say that I love dialogue. It’s one of the easiest ways to show action, and I use lots of it in my latest Caleb James thriller, Dark Blood. Similar to a picture is worth a thousand words, when characters converse the reader is front and center for all of the verbal and non-verbal material that makes human interactions so much fun.

    While there are definite techniques to keep the characters unique, including the use of internal monologue, for me it’s about being in the scene as I write it. When I do my first drafts I don’t stop and I don’t edit. This is deliberate as the instant you step out of the flow, too much other stuff can muck up rhythm and spontaneity. I remind myself that there’s always time to edit—and I write in many drafts—but getting the voice and nuance of characters comes best when I let it rip.

  5. Every character needs to have a distinct, individual voice. If you listen to the people around you even if they are folks who grew up in the same neighborhood and lived there all of their lives, their voices do not sound exactly the same.

    Before I begin to write a story or a novel, I think about the characters: who they are, where they come from, where they live now and what their day to day lives are like. Then I start talking to them in my head. Over time, each character’s individual voice becomes clear to me. Does the character drop the last letter of some words? “aw right” instead of “all right”? What is the cadence of a character’s speech? Rapid fire or slow as molasses? Dialect can also be a problem. I find it is better to imply a dialect when someone is speaking rather than to write the entire conversation in heavy dialect that will take the reader out of the story while he tried to decipher what the character is saying. If a character speaks English as his second language, now and again I will put in a phrase or sentence in the character’s first language.

    I find that some characters are more talkative than others. As the writer it is my job not to let the babblers take over entire scenes. I work to give the quieter characters more speaking time than they might like.

    Lastly, just as Jean Harrington does, once the voices in my head are firm and the dialogue is written, I read it aloud in the hope that the dialogue matches the voice. Once they are in synch, my work is done.

  6. Dialogue can be tricky
    I’ve been fortunate that in my job background – policeman and private investigator, I came in contact with real-life characters that had a wide variety of speech patterns and gestures.
    I try to distinguish each character with a novel (novel in a novel?) personality at their first mention in the book, something the reader will remember for the rest of the pages.
    There is a nasty Russian villain in SCREEN TEST, Alex Zek, aka “The Swine.” A guttural -Russian-English accent is pretty easy to portray, and now, with the translation sites on the Web, it’s very easy to insert a few accurate Russian words or phrases that the character himself can then translate to English for the reader.
    I like to combine gestures with dialogue. In the book there is a character who is a little on the shady side, and starts or ends a sentence with, “sure, sure,” and a jutting of his chin—a speech pattern borrowed from actor John Garfield. It has a nice rough edge.
    One character can talk with a drawl, while the other talks in short choppy sentences. And there’s the old standby, “xxx” she said with a smile, a frown, a slight stutter, etc.

  7. These are all such great perspectives! I also hear voices in my head that often keep me awake at night. But I’ve also been listening to a second set of voices—one in the present, the other in the past. My two recent novels, SOMEONE MUST DIE and THE OTHER TRAITOR, have some unique dialogue challenges. Both books are set in the present but have lengthy flashbacks involving the same key characters as they had been in their youth. SOMEONE MUST DIE uses the college revolutionary period of the late 1960s as its backdrop. THE OTHER TRAITOR covers the young American communists in the 1930s and 1940s. I wanted my characters to sound authentic and use expressions that were common back then: “Time to split,” or “groovy,” for the sixties. “I wish they still served giggle juice,” or “That sounds swell, comrade,” in the thirties. At the same time, I was careful not to overload the dialogue with dated slang, which could become distracting.

    My bigger challenge came in aging these characters. How does a former college revolutionary speak at the age of sixty-five after marrying, raising children, and functioning as a respected professional in society? Well, she probably sounds like me! Or a one-time communist who is now a lonely grandmother, haunted by memories, everyone from her youth long dead. She, not surprisingly, sounds like my mother, after whom I based the character. Of course, my characters are fictional, and their present-day voices have been affected by the traumas, disappointments, and fears that they experience during the course of the story. I tried hard to convey the depth of their feelings, not just in the words they use, in their thoughts and actions. My trick—if you want to call it a trick—is that I immerse myself within my characters, seeing the world as they see it based on their unique experiences, then I simply write down what they say and do.

  8. Dialogue can be tricky, as the author has to give each character a unique voice that is also distinct from his or her own. How do you do it?

    For me, you have to have a good hold on your character. As they develop, especially in a series, you can hear the way that character would speak. How they would turn a phrase or pronounce or mispronounce a word.
    When I’m building a character, I tend to listen to others (okay, so I eavesdrop) to find a match to my new resident. I was in Chicago this summer and a group of guys were eating dinner. Listening to them talk about sports and old friends, I knew I had my opening scene for the next Tourist Trap I’ll start writing in a few weeks. I wish I’d had an audio recorder, but instead, I wrote down tidbits of the conversation and took a picture of the group to remind me of the moment.
    As to how to keep my voice out? I’m not sure an author can. As I read my friend’s books, I hear their voice as the story teller. And I enjoy the story more because of that.

  9. It can often be difficult to provide a unique voice for every character in your novel. I use several different techniques to distinguish my characters, and by extension their voice when they are engaged in conversation with other characters. First, I create fairly extensive backstories for my characters, the bulk of which is never used in the novel itself. The backstory provides context for each character, ranging from simple personal history to detailed information on their attitudes and interests. This information allows me to make certain that each character will act and react in a manner consistent with their background and this is reflected in their dialogue. Major and minor characters obviously receive different amounts of detail in their backstories.
    Many of my characters, or at least certain aspects of their personalities, are based on actual people. As such, I can envision how my created characters should react in various scenarios, based on how their real-life counterparts dealt with similar situations. Likewise, it is also possible to have my characters react in a manner contrary to what would be expected. This can hint to the reader that perhaps the character is attempting to hide something or misdirect another character, for a reason yet unknown.
    Finally, whenever possible I have friends or colleagues read sections of dialogue aloud, to see if the conversation flows in a realistic manner. It helps to have the readers roughly approximate the characters; women work best for female characters, and older readers are the best proxies for senior characters, in my opinion. If no outside readers are available, try reading the parts yourself as if you are auditioning for a play. By switching voices, you can more easily “hear” the conversation and make certain your characters have a unique, distinctive voice.

  10. My exposure to the difficulty in writing dialogue came in the middle of my pursuit of an English degree. While taking playwriting workshop—from a professor who was a published New York City playwright—I learned the nuances of what makes good dialogue and what makes bad dialogue. Not only did we write plays, but we had to perform them—which lay bare any weaknesses in our writing. When you had to get up on stage and recite the dialogue you’d written, you learned pretty quickly what sounded stilted, out of character, or stiff.

    I learned how to relax, loosen up and write like my characters would speak; for example, I rarely curse, but my characters—who are FBI agents, cops, US marshals, serial killers—definitely do. I had to become them and not speak as I would. As my writing matured, I was able to better tailor the dialogue to match the character I wanted to project. Often, dialogue can paint a picture for the reader as to who that character is without the author offering a physical description.

    The most important concepts to remember are that 1- if you were to record a conversation between two people and then transcribe it, that would be poor dialogue, even though it’s “real”; 2- good dialogue can capture a moment, an emotion, the salient parts of a scene; 3- dialogue can have tension, action, emotion, suspense—all the elements we look to for advancing our plot can be found in a conversation between our characters; 4- differentiation among characters can be in the form of dialect; word choice; sentence length; slang used; formality of his/her language; 5- if you use dialect, do so sparingly. Give a taste—like a spoonful, not a full plateful. If you overdo it, where every other word is spelled out dialect, it’ll be difficult to read fluidly. One thing you do not want to do is slow the reader down so that he/she is aware that she’s reading. Making him/her struggle takes the reader out of the story.

    1. Yes, absolutely, Alan, when you recite your dialogue, it’s standing there naked, no place to hide. Its pot belly shows. Or if it’s toned and buff, that will show too. A great, but simple, technique.

  11. When I’m writing dialogue for many characters, I will reread what I’ve written for them to make sure that their voices ring true. My main character is probably easiest because I strongly identify with her. As others here have said, writing dialogue is similar to writing for theater and each character has to have his or her distinct voice. I read dialogue out loud to myself after writing it (no, I’m NOT answering voices in my head) to gauge how real it sounds. I’ll ask a couple of my regular readers to read it through too.

    Being that I’m working on the third in my series, I know my main characters pretty well. But in Book 3, new characters come into play, Russian emigres with accents and a tendency to lapse into their native tongue when they don’t want others to know what they’re talking about (and a lot of it isn’t pretty)

  12. Dialogue can indeed be tricky because it’s easy for authors to use their own voice and not that of the character. This is particularly true in first person narrations because the writer often identifies deeply with first person characters. This is fine IF the character is you or very similar to you. If not, that’s a different story.

    So how do you do make each important character distinct? It requires living inside that character. Really getting to know them. Know how they think, act, and speak. Like making good chili, this takes time. It can’t be rushed. Think about when you meet a new friend. You know that person on a fairly superficial level, at first, but maybe you then go to lunch together, and then spend more time doing various activities, vacation together, and gradually you become deeper friends. The person you thought you knew back during that first encounter is now someone else altogether. You know how they think, act, and speak. Can even anticipate what they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it. You now know them.

    Same is true with fiction.

    I, and many others, consider Elmore Leonard the master of dialog. If you haven’t read him and you want to write true dialog, read his works now. They are textbooks on this skill. Many years ago at the now defunct Maui Writers Conference, I met Elmore and had the great pleasure of sitting and chatting with him for an hour or so on two occasions. We talked about writing and story telling. I told him that I loved his characters and asked if he did character sketches or anything like that. He said no but that he would spend weeks or months coming up with a name and once he had a name he knew the character. That struck me as pure genius. What he meant was he lived with these characters in his head—-getting to know them—-and once he did, he had a name—and he knew them intimately. This not only revealed to me the importance of names but also the need for time to truly know any fictional character.

    I have always recommended writing first drafts fast and not sweating the small stuff. Don’t edit heavily until you finish. The reason is that your characters will evolve. The character you knew in Chapter 1 is very different from the one you know by Chapter 50. When you go back and edit, you have a better grasp of how that character acts, thinks, and talks. You will say to yourself, “No, she wouldn’t say that.” Happens all the time. More proof of the writing adage: Writing is rewriting. And this rewriting is often where the characters will distinguish themselves.

    So relax, take some time, get to know your little imaginary friends and soon you will instinctively know how they speak.

    1. Sound advice, Doug. Leonard was the king. I do not do character sketches, either–tried it once early in my career and it did not help me at all. However, I have found that the name is vital in me knowing the character. A poorly chosen name will throw me off such that I will not be able to write him or her effectively. So the name comes simultaneously with the creation of the character–but I don’t get to know him/her until that name is set. Of course, there have been a couple of occasions where I’ve had to change a character name midstream, for external reasons. Oh, man. Painful!

      1. Yes and a couple of times half way through a book I suddenly realized I had changed a character’s name. I stuck with the new one because it meant I finally knew the character and that the name I originally chose was wrong. Old Elmore was right. Know the name, know the character,

      2. I agree on Leonard, and getting that just-right name can be a chore for me, especially for a minor character. Early in my career I’d have a notebook handy when watching old Perry Mason reruns for those names.

        1. And I find scrolling through movies playing on TV and looking at the cast helps. Looking at names helps other names pop into your head. Works for minor characters but less so for major ones as those need a bit more thought I think.

  13. I hear voices in my head. The important thing, I think, is to picture your characters as distinct beings, not just as figures who are there to move the plot along—an easy trap to fall into. When I picture them in my head, I try never to forget their sex, age, background, education, and what they want in the story (not just in the scene). In addition to a person’s background, what a person wants out of life has a big impact on how they speak, and what goes for real-life people goes for characters, too.

    Also, I always keep in mind that how a character speaks is part of their characterization (distinct from their character), but that doesn’t mean you should beat it to death. For example, whether someone is tall or short, fat or thin, a wiseacre or a serious bore—these are variables in characterization. But just as you would remind the reader someone is extremely tall when the scene allows, that doesn’t mean you remind them he’s tall every time we see him. Similarly, less can be more in dialog. It’s fun to give a character a bit of a tick, but it’s burdensome to overdo it. That’s why, if a character does have a bit of a tic in his or her way of speaking, I’ll sometimes add it later.

    Finally, reread your work. Aloud? Sure, if you want, but I personally find that distracting. I reread and try to hear it in my head. Does this person talking on page 187 sound like the same person who was talking on page 3?

  14. Thanks so much for this! I have a character in my WIP that is recently from Italy, English her unfamiliar language, and writing her dialog without using too much dialect, or lack of full sentences has been difficult. This helps!

  15. Varying sentence structure for different characters can help distinguish among them. Some people ramble, using run-on sentences, and others speak in a staccato manner–short sentences, sentence fragments, etc. A great example of this is in the movie “Fargo.” Steve Buscemi’s character Carl Showalter never shuts up, while Peter Stormare’s Gaear Grimsrud only speaks in one-word answers when spoken to, and sometimes not even then.

    Some of my characters have pet phrases as well, but I’m careful not to overuse these–I’ll give my characters the opportunity to say their pet phrases maybe three times in an entire novel.

    A good trick to differentiate among characters is to give each character a specific sense through which they filter the world–whether it’s visually or auditorily. For instance, some characters will say things like, “I see what you’re saying,” or “I hear you.” It’s a subtle thing, but it helps.

    Recording yourself reading your dialogue aloud and listening to it to see how it sounds can help you determine whether your characters sound alike. If you can convince a friend to read your dialogue aloud, even better.

    One last bit of advice I got from an editor friend: “No llamas at the table.” If you’ve got a conversation going among more than two characters, make sure that none of them are only contributing phrases like, “Right,” or “Yup,” or the like, just to remind your reader that they’re there.

  16. Since I was never very good at description, letting the characters tell the story is my favorite part of crafting a book. Of course there has to be narration, and your story may not call for as much dialog as I generally use it a book. But I thought I would give you a few helpful tricks I’ve learned from other authors over the years.
    First, enter late and leave early. Readers don’t want to hear “How are you?” “I am fine.”
    Second, once they start talking, let them talk–you can always delete or change later.
    Third, don’t overwork unfinished sentences. Yes, this is how people talk in real life, but your job is to make it sound like real conversation when it actually isn’t.
    Fourth, use conjunctions–unless you have a character whose voice calls for “I cannot do that,” use “can’t” or “won’t,” or whatever.
    So there are some of the rules I follow. Now you just have to listen to your characters, get them talking in your head. Which I think is at least partly determined by how you describe them. Once I sat in front of the post office with the car windows rolled up and tried to hear the voice of every person walking out. It was amazing–no two voices sounded the same! Strange but true.
    So listen to the voice in your head. That’s my best advice. And just keep writing. It gets easier as you go along.

      1. So truu, J.E.. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to chop off the head of a story that started too far before the action got good. I’ve come to view this as the fish head approach to editing. Every fish needs a head, but no one wants to eat it.

  17. I have to begin by saying I LOVE dialog. So much of the character’s personality can come out through the use of dialog.

    What Jean Harrington said about acting is dead on! I’m another writer who talks my way through a scene out loud. I sometimes have to remember not to do that in public since inspiration almost always hits when I’m in line at the grocery store. I’m quite sure my neighbors think I’m nuts and talk to my pets far too much.

    Since I tend to write in series I have the advantage of getting to know some of my characters quite well. Maybe too well. Many of the supporting characters are based on people I know or come into contact throughout my day when I’m working my day job.

    One aspect of writing a series is eventually I get feedback from readers about their favorite character. I make a few notes with my character profiles to remind myself how the outside world views the characters. In those profiles I keep lists of private jokes between the characters, their likes, dislikes and common phrases each uses. As I write I’ll concentrate on one character’s dialog in a scene then go back and flesh out another character’s dialog. That way I can ‘stay in character’.

    In Code Name Jack Rabbit, the main characters are a werewolf and three vampires. Beings that live much longer life-spans. Declan is a three-hundred-something year old vampire who was born in 17th century France. He was also a fur-trapper in Canada prior to the American Revolution and speaks several languages. I used that knowledge of languages to enhance this man’s character by adding colorful phrases in French to his lines of dialog. I don’t like to write more than a few lines of dialog with an accent and then when only absolutely necessary. I find it exhausting to try to read something like that. However, the little reminders that this character has a French accent are accomplished when he swears in French. It’s also good for a bit of comic relief during an otherwise tense scene.

    Lucas Coate is a forensic pathologist, he’s a man (werewolf) of science. His dialog often takes on a life of its own. He’s the absent minded professor type of man and sometimes he tends to ramble, a contrast to other characters who use few words to express themselves.

    I think the key to dialog is keep it consistent with each character. Does a character use slang or is he someone who speaks in phrases that are grammatically correct? Some people speak with more flourish and hand gestures. All these things will help develop a character and show their personality.

    1. I’m enjoying all the insights into different processes. As I too dip into the paranormal when our characters morph, their dialog is naturally influenced by their changed perceptions. This is both with internal monologue and the spoken–possibly barked–word.

  18. Any writer can easily fall into a pattern where every character speaks the same way.
    I have many characters that are foreign nationals. There it helps to put inflections, terms of speech, and references that an Arabic, Italian, or French speaker would use. Have to be careful here though by being judicious in its use. Otherwise it can come across as corny or comic or worse for a writer, boring.
    I try to picture my character when he/she comes on stage. At this particular time is the person funny, laconic, rough, snarky, sad, or angry? Use words and phrases that are apt for that moment. On the other hand, if appropriate, have them speak in silence, say nothing, refuse to answer if that is how they are.
    I work on dialogue when I edit my third or fourth draft that is if my writing group hasn’t already pointed out the sameness if all my characters speech.

  19. Before I was a published author I worked in theater. This was a wonderful place to learn about dialogue! The words in a (good) play are pared down to the absolute essentials — the least amount of words to portray the character and the meaning in the best way. What great training for writing dialogue!

    I agree with what Shaun said earlier — if we wrote what people actually said, “realistic dialogue.” our readers would be bored out of their skulls. It’s much more fun to read (and write) dialogue that is witty, fun, and to the point. (Well, most of the time – some characters never get to the point.)

    I love writing dialogue, and often start out my books or short stories with it. I’ve been criticized for this — mostly by teacher-types who like to be very technical about their writing — but I love reading dialogue and think it’s the quickest way to get to know characters. Perhaps I’m not always correct in doing this, but it’s fun for me — and I hope for my readers.

    One thing I was taught early was that I should take a look at my dialogue and see if I could tell who was saying what without seeing the dialogue tags — for the most part, each character’s rhythm and type of speech should tell you who they are. LS was talking about this earlier. For more generic conversation this can get tricky, but it’s a fun exercise!

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