Idiots, scholars, and everything in between.

Idiots, scholars, and everything in between.

A Lesson by Mike Lamb

Dialogue by personality.


Think about the major characters in your book. How do their speech patterns vary? Consider the following with each character.


1. Region: this one should be obvious. Did they grow up in the deep south? Brooklyn? London? Russia? Figure out the aproppriate accent/dialect for them. Maybe it's a mix of things. Just don't overdo it. Try to keep it as subtle and neutral as possible, unless they're meant to be a colorful example, i.e. the raging hillbilly or the cockney drunk.


2. Education and vocabulary level: this one should also be obvious. Some people are more sophisticated than others. Some are more street savvy. Some are just plain dumb. Don't get hung up on stereotypes, though. Just because someone is a crack dealer doesn't mean they can't listen to Mozart and quote Hemmingway. Think about where people pick up vocabulary aside from school. Sometimes slang phrases are more witty and intellectual than most people admit.


3. Sense of humor: this is an important aspect often overlooked. It's sad to see nine characters that are completely serious all the time, and then one joker hanging around for comic relief. And odds are, if you couldn't think of anything clever for the first nine to say, your "comedian" character isn't going to be as funny as you think. Everyone has at least some sense of humor in one or more categories. It could be sarcastic, slapstick, morbid, silly, dry wit, crass dick jokes, bad puns, whatever. That doesn't mean that everyone should spout out jokes the whole time, it just means you need to figure out what they respond to. One person might laugh at monkeys and farts. Another might chuckle at car wrecks and people running around on fire. It all depends. It's good to have at least two characters that are witty enough for some clever back and forth exchanges. Loner sarcasm is usually percieved as bitter and mean spirited, whereas conversational sarcasm is entertaining and even friendly despite the negative tone and insult-based subject matter. 


4. Age and peer group: pretty self-explanatory. You don't expect to hear your grandparents have this conversation:


Grandma: "Who da f**k wuz dat b***h?"

Grandpa: "The f**k did you just say to me?"

Grandma: "Muthafukah, I ain't stupid. B***h was all like, hey, what's up, and you was like, oh hey gurl, you sexy."

Grandpa: "B***h I'll smack the dentures outchya mouf."


...But if they did, I'd like to meet them.


5. Attitude: this one is harder to define but probably the most important. Do they say "yes" or "yeah"? "Do not" or "don't"? "Going to" or "gonna"? "No thanks" or "hell no"? "Go Away" or "f**k off"? Should the question mark be inside or outside the quotation marks? No, seriously...I don't know. I don't give punctuation lessons.

Previous Lesson


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Posted 4 Years Ago

You say you want to meet greangparents that talk like that? I work at a deli and every Sunday after they get out of church, this group of older ladies (in their 80's) come in. They curse like sailors, and are completely vulgar. One of them yelled, "I'd let him clean my pipes anyday!"

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Posted 5 Years Ago

Good examples and explanations.

And yes, in #5, the question marks should be outside the quotes. :)

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Posted 6 Years Ago

Do you mean would it "look like this"? But if he said, "What did you say?" Quotation marks go on the inside when it's a dialogue, outside when you are asking a question that has a quote in it. Or at least that's the way I was taught a 100 years ago, lol.

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Posted 6 Years Ago

Another one is temperament. Whether or not the character is irritable, sensitive, depressed, or laid-back affects they way they talk. An angry person would not say the same thing in the same situation as a happy person. Not everyone reacts the same way to stress and danger.

On the technical issue of punctuation, when the sentence is a question but the quote is not (and the quote is at the end of the sentence), where does the question mark go? Anybody? I don't feel like looking it up. Plus I'm comfortable with being incorrect.

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Posted 6 Years Ago

Experience, attention, empathy, focus, are pre-requisites to good and varied writing. Understanding all those things enough to compose with them is another facet.

btw idiots and scholars... pretty much the same thing outside of the ivory towers... just sayin'.

fyi, I put mine inside the quotation marks, so that's probably wrong... oh well.

Good Stuff Mike. Now all's they gotta do is USE it. Thanks.
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Added on October 12, 2010
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Mike Lamb
Mike Lamb

greenville, NC

Artist, writer, and a drunken lunatic prophet. I am the author of Jack's Inferno, a dark comedy bizarro/horror novel about Hell, previously published through Wordplague (now defunct). I am also a pro..