Editing dialogue to make characters stand out

DSC_0289One of the biggest challenges of writing good dialogue is making characters stand out from each other. Sometimes this is easy, like when you’re writing a conversation between people who have markedly different accents, but most of the time it’s incredibly difficult–and the more people you have in the conversation, the more difficult it becomes.

This is still one of the things I struggle with most when writing, especially when my novel takes an unexpected turn and unplanned characters appear. So between drafts I take the time to develop these new characters further, asking the following questions:

Where are they from?

This question is obviously important because people from different parts of the world have different accents, but there are many other ways location alters speech. Slang, for example, can vary wildly from one city to the next. And where they live will probably influence the answers to the rest of these questions.

How much education do they have?

Somebody who’s never spent a day in the classroom will use a very different vocabulary from a university graduate, even in a society much less advanced than ours.

Are they religious/what religion do they follow?

I’m just going to assume there is some form of religion in whatever world you’re writing about, but that doesn’t mean everyone follows it. Even if there’s one main religion and all others are illegal people will find a way to practice something else. There are also many different levels of devout. Truly devout characters may quote holy texts to prove their point; characters who don’t really believe might make semi-blasphemous comments. And others will deliberately blaspheme, especially when there’s a devout person around.

What is their rank in society?

Since myself and most of the people reading this blog have the pleasure of living in countries without super strict caste systems it can be easy to forget how people from different classes would actually speak to each other in such a world. The stricter your class system is, the more this matters. Just take a look at Etiquette in Victorian England. Your system obviously doesn’t need to have as many rules for social interaction but it should definitely have some.

What do they do when they’re nervous/stressed?

Here’s a simple truth: EVERYBODY has some kind of nervous tick. I bite my lips until they bleed when I’m really stressed or nervous and during an extreme bout of stress I’ll also bite my nails. Some people run their hands through their hair, tap their fingers impatiently against the nearest hard surface, pace in circles, or start stuttering. Really nervous people might even carry something(like stress balls) around to play with.

Even if your character is a member of the nobility who has spent their entire life learning to suppress their emotional responses they can be pushed to the point of breaking. Gradually increasing the rate of these nervous movements is a great way to grow tension and add physical beats to your dialogue so you don’t suffer from the infamous talking head syndrome.


Once I’ve answered these questions for all of my characters–my major characters often end up different than I originally imagined them–I’ll create a dialogue cheat sheet. This simple piece of paper lists every character’s name, education level, religion, nation of origin, and nervous ticks. Some characters also have a favourite phrase or gesture that gets added and others have little personality notes like “most sarcastic”.

For characters who appear only in one scene, people like guards who are there primarily to get beat up, this is often all the background work I’ll do. Of course, this probably only works because I’ve thoroughly developed all the places they come from and can therefore assume certain things about their lives. You have to understand the class system, religion, education system, and the place your character came from before you can understand how those things impact their speech.

This dialogue cheat sheet is something I can easily pull out when I’m editing a dialogue scene so I know exactly what to add. It’s been so useful that I’ve now created a similar cheat sheet for all the POV characters in my current project(pictured above — yes, I know that’s a lot of POV characters).