by James R. Callan
Each of us has an individual signature, a sign that represents us. Put it on a check and the bank will deliver money to whomever you directed it. Or put it on a contract and people will act based on your mark.
When you begin a novel, you should decide what is the signature of your principal characters. In this case, we are talking about a dialog signature.
Whoa. What does that mean? Just as your signature is a unique mark that represents you, that allows you to be identified, so the dialog signature of a character should allow the reader to identify the character, to know which person you are presenting.
How do we develop a dialog signature?
When you make a bio, or a character sketch, include those things that will form a dialog signature for the character. What is unique about this person's dialog? Look at these aspects of dialog:
- · vocabulary
- · sentence structure
- · diction
- · cadence
- · inflection
- · accent
- · regional dialect
- · marker words
- · flow
- · volume
- · eye contact
- · mannerisms
- · body language
Let's look at a few of these and see how you can use them to make up a unique dialog signature for a character.
Vocabulary is easy. Does this person have an extensive command of the language, or minimal? Does he sound like a college graduate, or a high school drop-out? Does his choice of words indicate that he was raised on a farm or in a New York private school? (Yes, of course any of these stereotypes can be violated. That's what makes your character unique.)
Does the character speak in complete sentences? Always? Sometimes? Never? Does she use complex, compound sentences, or short, simple sentences?
Is the diction distinct, precise, careless, casual, haughty?
Does he have a recognizable cadence? Maybe it appears that he is always speaking in a hurry, as if he is late for an appointment? Or is he casual, relaxed, slow speaking? Is her cadence consistent?
What about inflection? Is every sentence treated as if it is important news? Or perhaps each is just a throw-away comment? How does he deliver his usual sentences?
Does she have an accent? Or maybe a regional dialog? Does she sound as if she is from Boston, or Atlanta? Those are very different.
Does she have certain marker words, words that offer nothing? These might include "Well," "Just," "Of course," "really," "so," etc. Many people have such words that they throw in frequently. Well, you know, these words just don't really add any information. Leave them out and you get all the information - except, they might help identify the speaker.
You might think eye contact, mannerisms, and body language are not actually dialog; they are not words. But, studies show that non-verbal communication conveys more than half the information. Suppose a person says, "You're crazy." What does that mean? It all depends on the non-verbal aspects. What the person smiling? Was he dead serious? Was he laughing? Was he shaking his fist at you? Was he slapping you on the back in a friendly gesture?
These non-verbal aspects are very important. Does your character always look a person in the eye? Does she have some nervous mannerism? Does her body language indicate she's receptive to the conversation, or merely tolerating it?
If you write down a dialog signature for major characters, and then look at it when writing dialog, your characters will be consistent, identifiable, real. The reader will recognize each one as an individual. They will not all sound like the author (a common problem with beginning writers).
It's a little work. It is most definitely worth it.
After a successful career in mathematics and computer science, receiving grants from the National Science Foundation and NASA, and being listed in Who’s Who in Computer Science and Two Thousand Notable Americans, James R. Callan turned to his first love—writing. He wrote a monthly column for a national magazine for two years. He has had four non-fiction books published. He now concentrates on his favorite genre, mystery/suspense, with his seventh book releasing in spring, 2016.