A Writer’s Guide to Speech Patterns

So the other day I was talking to someone, and they mentioned how they struggle to write characters with different speech patterns. No matter how hard they try, every character they write sounds the same.

This is a pretty common problem, so here I am to talk about it!

I always like to start these posts by establishing my definitions for the sake of clarity, so here we go:

Speech Pattern: the manner in which an individual person (or character) talks.
Contrast this to Dialect: regional variations in language, often referred to as ‘accent.’

Dialect is something worth thinking about, too, but I’m not going to talk about that as much, today.

Speech patterns are more important, since multiple characters can use the same dialect and still have different speech patterns. 

So now that that’s established, how to we do it better?

Step One: Listen

Make a conscious effort to notice how people talk.

Whenever I’m with friends or watching TV or walking around somewhere with people, a little part of me is watching the world and taking notes. It’s not eavesdropping if it’s research, right?

Step Two: Watch

Pay attention to how you talk in different scenarios.

People use different voices for different situations. You speak to your best friend differently than you speak to your mother, and that’s different from the way you speak to your dog.

You can borrow your own voice and give it to different characters in different forms. If one character sounds like professional-you and the other sounds like you-at-3AM, even readers who know you well probably won’t realize it’s all just you.

Step Three: Pick a Quirk

Everybody has a handful of speech tics. Sometimes these tics are obvious and obnoxious (I had a teacher in high school who always punctuated her thoughts with the phrase “Okay? Okay. Alright, okay.”) but most of the time, tics are subtle and nearly unnoticeable.

It’s all a matter of little decisions. For example, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • Is your character always blunt or do they talk a lot? 
  • Do they prefer using negative language or positive language? 
  • Are they literal or do they like to exaggerate or use a lot of metaphors? 
  • Are they rude? Polite? 
  • Do they like big words or small ones?
  • Are they more likely to ask questions or make statements?
  • Do they like to talk casually or speak formally?
  • Do they use a lot of common slang?
  • Can they pass up the chance to make a joke?

Making those tiny decisions and simple little tweaks can change up your ‘default’ voice to the point where it seems new, and you can use these decisions to reflect your character’s personality and further enhance their characterization.

Here’s an example of how this can look in practice.

  • “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  (a basic statement)
  • “What are you talking about?”  (a basic question)
  • “Could you please explain that again?” (a more polite question)
  • “I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”  (a more hyperbolic statement)
  • “Stop talking unless you plan on making sense.”  (rude and aggressive)
  • “…huh?”  (simple language, doesn’t waste words)
  • “Okay, cool. Now say that again in English.” (pretty rude, but in a casual way)

These are all variations on the same basic thing, but each one feels different. Establishing which one a character might reach for can go a long way towards making their voice sound distinct.

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