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I am wondering if I should make the female characters speak in a different way compared to male characters, and I am wondering how to make sure they all sound different.

What are some strategies, techniques, and ideas authors use to make character dialogues sound unique? I feel one way is to show a character's idiosyncrasy by saying things like "I will drink until I pass out", "I want beer!" and the like, but it feels cheap and like bad style. You could also make a character really dumb, but that also is really bad style and most good novels really don't do that.

How do you make it so that each of the 100 characters in a novel doesn't sound like a crazy person having a monologue with himself in a asylum (dark humor)?

  • "I am wondering if I should make the female characters speak in a different way compared to male characters" that sounds odd. Not really from "sexism" point of view (although one can certainly take that) but from purely logical - do women even speak differently to men? Or do different people just speak differently? I don't think I've ever heard speech being divided by gender. It only makes vague sense if you're not writing in English and instead have characters referring to themselves and objects with gendered nouns. Even then the question wouldn't be applicable. – VLAZ Feb 4 at 13:20
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The way a character talks reflects their social class, their level of education, where they come from, what kind of people they are and how the see the world. The last one in particular is key - if all your characters appear to see the world in exactly the same way, it wouldn't matter that they happen to be using different idiosyncrasies.

Some examples:

I glanced at him, and cocked my head to one side. Distantly, but quickly growing nearer, I could hear haunting, musical baying, ghostly in the midnight air. "Holy shit," I breathed. "Hellhounds."
"Harry," Michael said sternly. "You know I hate it when you swear."
"You're right. Sorry. Holy shit," I breathed, "heck-hounds. (Jim Butcher, Grave Peril, chapter 5)

One of the characters in this scene is religious, and doesn't swear. The other has a specific sense of humour. Both elements are reflected in the way they speak.

‘I am sure you have given me all the heaviest stuff,’ said Frodo. ‘I pity snails, and all that carry their homes on their backs.’
‘I could take a lot more yet, sir. My packet is quite light,’ said Sam stoutly and untruthfully.
‘No you don’t, Sam!’ said Pippin. ‘It is good for him. He’s got nothing except what he ordered us to pack. He’s been slack lately, and he’ll feel the weight less when he’s walked off some of his own.’
‘Be kind to a poor old hobbit!’ laughed Frodo. ‘I shall be as thin as a willow-wand, I’m sure, before I get to Buckland. But I was talking nonsense. I suspect you have taken more than your share, Sam, and I shall look into it at our next packing.’ (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, book 1, chapter 3 - Three is Company)

Sam is of lower social class than Frodo and Pippin. This is reflected in how he speaks (both in his language, and in how he addresses the others), as well as in the way the others speak to him - Frodo here is a benevolent master, responsible for his servant's welfare. Pippin teases Frodo, marking them as equals, but also the two display different character traits: Pippin is more light-hearted, he's the one teasing, whereas Frodo speaks in a more lyrical way - "thin as a willow-wand".

The differences between the characters are subtle, but they are enough that over time we learn to recognise them. Listen to your friends and family, and you will observe a similar thing: you do not need idiosyncrasies to recognise that only person X would say phrase Y, whether because of its content, or because of how it was expressed.

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    The references to snails and willow wands is part of how Tolkien made hobbits hobbit-like. Contrast with the horse lords of Rohan being prone to using wind and grass in metaphors and similes. Very effective dialog trick. – Todd Wilcox Feb 3 at 2:58
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    @ToddWilcox: This reminds me of how the environment shapes our vocabulary. I was born in a rainy area (Normandy), and we use a multitude of French words to describe the rain, much as the English do, whereas to people from the South of France it's binary: it either rains or not. Similarly, eskimos are said to have many different words for many different kinds of snow, whereas to me snow is snow. Such slight differences of vocabulary are a reflection of the environment(s) an individual lived in. – Matthieu M. Feb 3 at 16:56
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    @ToddWilcox the down-to-earth imagery is indeed specific to hobbits. But the alliterative element is typical Frodo - that's something that's his own. You have him later addressing Goldberry: "O slender as a willow-wand! O clearer than clear water!" – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Feb 4 at 15:17
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The way I make my characters' dialogue unique to them, is by considering what makes them unique. But that's best explained by examples. So here we go.

Female character is nervous, worries about everything, and is a bit old fashion. "Oh, dear no. I understand equality and all that, but really? You want to be out there in the war? Bullets flying everywhere, people being shot? Think of your poor dear mother. Do you think my heart can take knowing her only daughter is out there?"

French playboy talking about helping a woman relax. "Oh, but mam'selle. It would be a sin to not offer."

A gamer complaining about rush hour traffic. "This is worse than loading screens!"

A posh gentleman that feels like he should have been born in Victorian England. "Is this what society has come to? Vagabonds prancing about, declaring themselves gentry. Politicians speaking ill of women. I'll hear no more of it. Not a word. Good day, sir."

A shy nervous wreck that apologizes for everything. touches teapot "I'm sorry!" friend gives them a curious side glance "It's okay. Sorry, I. This isn't. I'm sorry. Really. Sorry. Uh. I should go."

Look for things the individual character values, or things that make them stand out. Give them verbal quirks as well as personality ones. Gender can play a role in this, but isn't usually the defining factor. You can have a tomboy that talk like 'one of the boys', or a more genteel man speaking in a far more reserved or indirect manner.

Typical traits to pay attention to are: cultural heritage (Scarlet o'Hara in Gone with the wind), socio-economic standing (posh rich girl versus trailer park girl of same geographical area), archtypal behaviour (tomboy versus goth girl versus geeky girl).

Note that you should avoid stereotypes as best you can. Some stereotypes are unavoidable, and often true. But if you have one representation of that social group, you could be called out on writing from stereotypes. Easiest way to get around that i to only call on stereotypes you understand, and then contrast them with others from the same social group (example: the flamboyant gay, just have three gay men and have each act differently; no one will deny that some gay men act like that, but it's far from all).

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    I can't help but feel you missed the mark on the gamer example. Loading screens are the equivalent of traffic jams (boring waste of time), but "X! this is why they invented Y!" suggests that Y avoids the problem of X. – Flater Feb 3 at 21:06
  • @Flater "Making words go is hard." "Can't brain today." "No adulting." Examples are not always ideal representations, but they get a point across even when they miss the mark. – Fayth85 Feb 3 at 23:06
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    None of these examples miss the mark, they're simply not grammatical yet understandable. The gamer example is not understandable. Regardless of its grammar, it states almost the exact opposite of what a gamer would say in the given situation of a traffic jam. "Ugh, this is just like a loading screen" makes a lot more sense than claiming loading screens avoid a long boring waste of time. – Flater Feb 4 at 8:06
  • @Flater "This is worse than loading screens!" more your speed? My point in my previous comment is that using terms a (in this instance) gamer would use, no matter how (il)logically, highlights something they think about. Or are you saying that your words are always 100% what you meant, illustrating your point 100% correctly, and in a fashion no one ever misunderstands? Sometimes my characters say stupid things that are illogical, counter-intuitive, or simply wrong. And sarcasm plays a roll, as well. Why is this a bad thing? – Fayth85 Feb 4 at 15:16
  • There's a difference between saying something that's wrong and something that clashes with how you're trying to portray the character. How would loading screens be a solution to traffic jams? Your character is claiming that this is the case. This isn't a matter of wrongness, it's a matter of being a non-sequitur. It is a jarring statement that, without elaboration, makes the character feel disjointed (it suggests author error) rather than realistic. – Flater Feb 4 at 16:36
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By treating each of your characters as individuals.

Gender is an important characteristic, but it's not the only one. If all your female characters speak one way and all your male characters another, that is going to be one boring novel.

Many characteristics will change a person's way of speaking: age, level and place of education, field of work/study, social class (both current and childhood), immigration status, number of languages spoken (and which ones), amount of travel in life and to where, and so many more I can't even list them. If it affects personality, it affects how you speak.

Spend some time hanging out in places where people talk but don't mind if you're there listening. Coffee shops, college dorm lounges, parks, playgrounds, supermarkets, bars, etc. Pay attention to how people speak and what they say and take note of what differences you can figure out about them (at least what you can see: ethnicity, gender, age, etc).

Spend time talking with friends, family, and people you don't know. Even among people with similar characteristics, there are differences in how they talk. Take note of them. Imagine if your aunt was one of your characters and your sister another (or any two people you know well). How would they each speak? Different from each other, right?

Imagine each character as a fully-formed human being in a particular stage of life. Ask yourself, what are their life experiences? their hopes and dreams? their disappointments? Once you know their personalities, their ways of speaking will be clearer as well.

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Know your characters, their personalities and backgrounds. Understand how each will respond to different situations and let things happen.

I have one rather bizarre character who is a country gal at heart, but more of a ninja than anything else. She tends to be blunt and outspoken, often making others wish they could acquaint her with diplomacy and finesse, but it suits her personality and she has never failed of an assignment.

I have a pleasant tempered hacker from Syria who is unstintingly loyal and determined to defend those he loves. He waxes poetic - tending to obfuscate when someone does not understand his initial explanation. Each attempt becomes more and more confusing to his listener. It is his way to make certain that they heed his first explanation.

These are traits I learned about my characters as I wrote them.

Read your dialogue aloud, see if there are shifts and differences in the voices. Removing all the dialogue tags, would you still know who said what?

Do you have a university educated character trying to sound like his less educated friend? If so, why? I have a friend I must simplify my language around if I want him to understand.

See the characters interact with each other and write what happens.

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