Believable dialogue: the secret to making your characters come to life

Shirley Holder Platt

by Shirley Holder Platt

Dialogue, if done correctly, can make or break your story. When your audience reads your book, you want them to hear each character’s voice as separate from the others. How to do that? There are several things you can do to distinguish the people in your book. These include the words you use, dialect, and cadence. Dialogue tags should disappear; their only purpose is to let your reader know who is doing the talking. Done right, dialogue can put your reader inside the book, living life alongside your characters—and that’s just where you want them.

The words you choose to put into your characters’ mouths can show where they were born and raised. For instance, a person looking for the loo is going to sound different than someone looking for a toilet, who’ll sound different from someone asking for the gents’ or ladies’ room. You immediately know that the first is from the U.K., the second is probably lower to middle class from the U.S., and the last from the U.S.’s upper-middle to upper class.

Choice of language can also convey education. A learned man might claim that another character’s actions will “only exacerbate the situation.” An uneducated street urchin might say that the same action “is gonna bite us in the butt,” while a mom in Appalachia might say, “You’re gonna be sorry when that comes back around atcha.” These people might be responding to the exact same thing, but the words they use tell us more about them than the situation they are talking about.


Done right, dialogue can put your reader inside the book, living life alongside your characters—and that’s just where you want them.


Cadence is a bit harder to convey, but it can be done. For instance, if you are describing an auctioneer, your audience is set for rapid fire:

“Five, we have five, do I have six hundred? Six hundred to the lady in red. Six hundred, do we have seven? Six hundred, going once…”

The cadence is familiar to anyone who has heard an auctioneer. But what about a southern gentleman? Something like this:

Martin wiped the sweat from his brow and loosened his tie as he sank onto the veranda’s only cushioned chaise lounge. “Melinda, would you care to bring your old daddy a cold iced tea?”

Did you read that slower than the auctioneer? Of course you did!

Or how about a Londoner coming in from the rain:

“Bloody cold out there, mate. What say we head to the pub for a nip?”

Can you read that without hearing the rhythm and an accent?

Word to the wise: don’t rely upon dialogue tags to convey your meaning and message. Let the dialogue flow. Tags should let your reader know who’s speaking. What the speaker says should do the rest of the work. “S/he said,” or “s/he asked” should do it. Exclaimed, shouted, screamed, whispered? Don’t use as tags. Use setting and description instead. For example: Todd had to lean in to hear her as she said, “yes,” works better than, “yes,” she whispered. If your character is shaking visibly, red-faced, fists clenched, his or her words will come across as an emotional outburst. No “s/he screamed” necessary; you don’t then have to tell your reader that the person shouted.

If you are in doubt about creating authentic dialogue, my best advice is to go out into the world and listen. Coffee shop patrons, a harried mother with children grabbing candy in grocery store lines, the guy at the convenience store counter, your uncle from Nebraska, or that new neighbor from Sri Lanka—they all have distinct voices. Listen carefully. Take notes. You’ll soon find that each of your characters has a unique and believable voice if you can translate what you hear to the written page.

Shirley Holder Platt is the author of five romance novels and one chick lit novel. Her book-in-progress, Mama Needs New Shoes, won the October 2018 Most Buzz Award, and several of her now-published novels appeared first on ChapterBuzz.

P.S. Your friends will love this article. And they’ll love you for sharing it with them: