A while back, I read an Onion article detailing alarming events occurring in Indiana. Every citizen had begun to work and speak in unison, declaring in a single voice, “We are Indiana. All will be Indiana.”
While the hive mind scenario works well for satirical journalism or science fiction movies, it’s not something you want creeping into your writing. Too often, I’ve read over my dialogue and realized that my characters sound exactly the same. Characters are created by the writer, after all. If we’re not careful, our personality will show through too much. Having a unique voice is one thing. But when your characters start declaring “We are the author. All is the author,” you need to give them voices of their own.
This is hard. Crafting a separate voice for each individual and making sure they stay true to it is long, exhausting, brain draining work. (I’m going through it right now and it sucks.) You’ll have to rewrite dialogue. Tweak personalities. Maybe even alter the flow of the story. If you do it right, though, it’s worth it. Your characters will sound like real, three-dimensional people, not words you’ve put down on paper.
In the work of a true master of dialogue, you should be able to look at a line of speech and identify the speaker. Your goal in the quest to avoid the hive mind is to give each important character a unique way of speaking. This will differentiate him/her from the other characters and make him/her more memorable.
A good way to learn how to do this is to study other works. What makes characters sound like themselves? When you think of them, what phrases come to mind? After thinking about different characters and their dialogue styles, here are a few tricks I’ve picked out. Try including them in your own work to break up the hive mind and bring your characters to life.
I’ve often had to deal with people who never stop talking. They’ll go on and on: repeating points, tossing in anecdotes, or overusing transitions. I’ll eventually interrupt or make my escape. I have also run into people who rarely speak. Dragging information out of them is a chore, and their answers are always brief and to the point.
The structure of characters’ speech can help define them. One might talk everyone elses’ ears off. Another remains strong and silent. A third fires off questions. Everyone’s sentence lengths vary, but different people lean in different directions. Exploit that.
Looking further into syntax, punctuation can be played with. One person might string details together with commas or jump from idea to idea with hyphens. Another might have a fondness for lists or parenthetical asides. This can be overused, but if done sparingly it can help identify a character’s text.
Different people have different vocabularies. Their careers, backgrounds, and interests can shape the words they use in conversations. Mark Twain manipulates dialect masterfully in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to give characters authentic flair. In the Beka Cooper series by Tamora Pierce, Beka’s mix of street cant and guardsman jargon speaks to her complicated background. A british character speaking in a slightly different form of English or a foreigner who throws in the occasional bilingual phrase can spice up a monotonous conversation. However, if you’re going to borrow vocabulary from a real group of people or a real language, do your research and make sure you get it right. Don’t rely on Google translate, or actual speakers will be shaking their heads. Finally, don’t use gratuitous ‘unusual’ vocabulary to look clever. Only have characters use it when it makes sense in context and make sure the reader will understand.
3. Word Choice
Less specific than dialect, this focuses on how people say everyday things. Are they formal or casual? Knowing if a person says ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’ is a way to get started. ‘Would you like to go to a party with us?’ and ‘You game for a bash?’ clearly come from two very different personalities. Maybe one character uses old-fashioned expressions or clichés. Perhaps another has a catch phrase like “Excellent” or “sweetheart”. (Would Haymitch from The Hunger Games sound the same without his patronizing use of the term?) Identifying the character’s style of speech and a few key words can be really helpful.
4. Figurative Language
This one’s tricky. I’ve seen people horribly overdo flowery language and purple prose in an effort to make the protagonist sound smart or romantic. However, figurative or playful language in small doses – and used correctly – can give a character depth. It can also be used for comedic effect if a person always comes up with terrible or simply ridiculous phrases. (Karkat’s creative insults from Homestuck are examples of the comedy angle.)
When assigning syntax, word choices, expressions, and anything else, make sure that the dialogue fits. Shy, insecure characters would be more likely to tack on an apologetic “that’s only my opinion”. Confident people intent on getting their way won’t make many requests. They’ll make demands. Link your characters’ personalities with their dialogue and you’re well on your way to breaking free from the hive mind’s nefarious clutches.