Being a non-native English speaker, I have always thought my weakest point, as a writer, would be dialog. I mean, how would I be able to write a dialog that would sound different from one character to another? I hardly master the dialogue of one character… ME!
But then I decided to turn this weak point into an advantage. I’ve noticed native speakers tend to take their own language for granted. They tend to write in their own voice no matter which character they are writing. As a non-native speakers, I’m sensitive to the differences, even though I don’t always know the terms or rules for what I hear and read.
So, yes, I still tend to fall into the occasional mistakes of colloquialisms, but I know how to use them when I want to make a character stand out.
Here are 7 ways to make a character’s speech unique and reflective of their personality:
#1 – Use specific and descriptive vocabulary.
Characters who use a wide range of vocabulary and can describe things in great detail can come across as smart, cultured, and well-educated. This can be a way to reflect their personality and background. A scientist or a professor is more likely to use more specific terms and technical jargon
In “Breaking Bad“ Gus Fring speaks in a calm and measured tone, using specific and descriptive vocabulary to reflect his intelligence and attention to detail.
Another one is Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” speaks in a formal and precise manner, using specific and descriptive vocabulary to reflect knowledge of mathematics and cryptography.
#2 – Use colloquialisms and idioms.
Characters who use a lot of slang and phrases can come across as relatable, casual, and down-to-earth. This can be used to reflect their personality and background. For example, a character from a small town or a working-class background, who is more likely to use colloquial language.
In the movie “The Big Lebowski” Walter Sobchak uses colloquialisms and idioms to reflect his gritty, no-nonsense personality. In the show “The Sopranos” Tony Soprano uses colloquialism and idioms to reflect his blue-collar background and New Jersey roots.
#3 – Use repetition and catchphrases.
Characters who have a catchphrase or use certain phrases or words repeatedly can come across as quirky, eccentric, or even a bit obsessive.
In the show “Arrested Development” the character of Gob Bluth frequently uses the catchphrase “I’ve made a huge mistake“ to reflect his impulsiveness and poor decision-making.
In the show “The Office (US)” the character of Michael Scott frequently uses the catchphrase “That’s what she said” reflecting his inappropriate and juvenile sense of humour.
#4 – Use accents and dialects.
Characters who speak with a unique accent or dialect can come across as exotic, foreign, or even mysterious. It can be used to reflect their personality and background.
In “Game of Thrones” Daenerys Targaryen speaks with a distinctive accent to reflect her foreign origins and unfamiliarity with the culture of the Seven Kingdoms. In the show “Fargo” the character of Lorne Malvo speaks with a distinctive accent to reflect his mysterious and enigmatic personality.
#5 – Use nonverbal cues like body language and facial expressions.
Characters who convey a lot of meaning through their body language and facial expressions can come across as nuanced, complex, and hard to read.
In the movie “The Social Network” Mark Zuckerberg’s whole body language and facial expressions reflect his arrogance and detachment from others.
The character of Lisbeth Salander in the movie “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” whole body language and facial expressions mirrors her guarded and reserved nature.
#6 – Use interruptions and incomplete sentences.
Characters who frequently interrupt or speak in incomplete sentences can come across as impatient, impulsive, or even a bit scattered.
Peggy Olson in “Mad Men” frequently interrupts and speaks in incomplete sentences, reflecting her ambition and impatience.
Frank Underwood in “House of Cards” also frequently interrupts and speaks in incomplete sentences, this time reflecting his ambition and manipulation.
#7 – Use a mix of all of the above.
Characters who use a mix of different speech patterns can come across as complex, multi-faceted, and hard to pin down. This can be used to reflect their personality and background, for example as a character who is eccentric, unique, and hard to define.
The character Dwight Schrute’s speech in “The Office“ is a unique combination of specific vocabulary, repetition and catchphrases, and nonverbal cues like body language and facial expressions, reflecting his eccentric and quirky personality.
In “Stranger Things“, the character of Eleven’s speech is a unique combination of specific vocabulary, repetition, and nonverbal cues, reflecting her otherworldly origins and special abilities.
Bottom Line – creating a unique and believable character is essential to any story. One of the most important aspects of this, is the character’s speech. From the words they choose to the way they speak, a character’s speech should reflect their personality and help the audience understand who they are.
Next time you create a character, don’t forget to pay attention to the way they speak, it can add a lot of fun to their personality and make them more relatable and lovable to the audience.
How do YOU make a character’s speech stand out and memorable for the audience?
Can you think of any examples of a character whose speech reflects their personality in a movie or TV show?
Would love to get your input in the comment box below
4 thoughts on “Speech, The Key to Memorable Characters”
What about using your words and style? I’m not a native soeaker in English too and when I write, I do it my way. For grammer and spelling someone edits the text. I like your article and it’s a lot to take in and apply it. I still think spontaneity is still the best form of self expression.
It’s a great point, Caroline. The challenge of using your own words and style is that it limits you. When writing a piece that has more than one character. If all your characters would speak in your words and style what would make them different from each other?
Spontaneity is great, but when writing you need to think about each character and see how would they be able to stand out as a real-life person. When you start listening to people you start noticing that no one really speaks the same as the other and that is what you should try and capture in your story.
Thank you, Vered Neta, for your perceptive article.. I wrote a feature script including a young Oscar Wilde character. I had researched his sayings, plays and other works, so it was relatively easy to pepper his dialogue with his sayings and wit to betray his character. I think setting up and deciding the fine characteristics of a character, will help a lot when writing their dialogue. “This is how she is, so she’d react and respond with this.”
Thanks for your valuable input Eddy. I like your idea very much of adding their speech pattern to the outline and plotting part of the writing.
I love the part of the outline and structure before sitting down to write. It’s a pain-in-the-a$$ but so worth it and adding your idea to it is fantastic.
Thanks for it.