Dialogue is a useful tool in creative writing. Not only does it add texture and depth to your piece, but it also allows the reader to learn more about your character in a way that “shows” instead of “tells”.
When writing dialogue for different characters, it’s important to keep register in mind.
What is register?
Register refers to the level of language used in a piece of writing. It is the degree of formality of the writing – formal or informal.
When thinking about using the correct register for your character’s dialogue, it’s important to choose the right words and phrases, the right grammar, and the right spelling and punctuation.
For example, the way one old man speaks to another old man will be different to the way two teenage girls speak to each other. The register of these two conversations will be very different.
Here is a conversation between Leila and Noxolo, two 14-year-old girls.
Leila: Hey girl! How you doing? You see what Thabiso was wearing yesterday? OMG he looked so fly! I died!
Noxolo: I know babes, his looks are, like, on fleek for real! I wish he noticed me. I’m so jelly of his main bae, Portia.
Now, here is a conversation between Manfred and Cedric, two 80-year-old men.
Manfred: My friend, this life has been so generous with us. We must be grateful for all of our blessings. We have been given so much.
Cedric: Indeed, my compatriot, the Lord has showered us with blessings of which we must take none for granted. A day taken for granted is a day lost. Do you not agree?
Can you see the difference between these conversations?
When writing your dialogue, these are some questions to keep in mind:
1. Do all of my characters sound like me?
2. Could I delete one of my characters and give their lines to another character without any problems?
3. Could I swap the dialogue of any two characters without changing any significant details about them?
If you’ve answered yes to any one of these questions, your dialogue is probably not specific enough to your characters.
Here are a few tips to avoid your characters’ dialogue sounding the same:
1. Know where your character is from – Where did they grow up? How do they speak in that part of the world? This will influence word choice and their manner of speaking.
2. Know your character’s personality – Is your character shy? Bold? Rude? Polite? Knowing how they would respond in different situations will help to create the words that come out of their mouth.
3. Know how you character speaks – How does the rhythm of your character’s conversation flow? Do they speak in short, snappy sentences? Or are they long-winded? Whatever your choice, remember to keep it consistent throughout the piece.