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“Say What?”–Character Quirks & Non-Verbal Dialogue

Thursday, October 23, 2008

I started getting into this topic a little bit yesterday, but wanted to wrap up the series with a look at how dialogue can make our characters unique and how we can use unspoken “dialogue” to deepen our characterization, tension, and plot.

In the Fun Friday post two weeks ago, I mentioned the way that the writers for the show LOST have chosen certain words/phrases/speech patterns to give unique quirks or insights into the personalities of many of the characters:

  • Sawyer gives people pop-culture nicknames (and his signature phrase is “son of a b****”, so it’s funny whenever anyone else says it because that’s “Sawyer’s Line”)
  • Locke is always telling people, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”
  • Jack is always trying to “fix” things/people.
  • Desmond’s catch-phrase is “See you in another life, brother.”
  • Hurley says “Dude” all the time, along with “I’m not crazy.”

Giving characters a signature phrase or turn or phrase can help create characterization—in the examples above: (1) even though Sawyer comes across as a small-town hick, the cultural references he chooses to create the nicknames show him to be widely read and have a broad knowledge of film, literature, and current events; (2) Lock grew up in foster care and then, as an adult, spent years in a wheelchair, so he was always told where to go and what to do; (3) Jack is a doctor and a natural leader who feels deeply that it’s his responsibility to fix everything; (4) Desmond’s “see you in another life” comes from his meeting Jack before either were marooned on the island and then under totally different circumstances coming to be trapped on the island, and he started calling people brother (or sister) after he spent some time in a monastery; (5) Hurley’s “dude” may stem from his father calling him “Little Dude” before he walked out, and his protestations about being crazy from the fact that he’s spent a considerable amount of time in a mental hospital.

Are you beginning to see how the choice of things your characters say can begin to deepen them by tapping into their backstory/the influences on their lives before the story began?

In writing fiction, we want to be cautious that we don’t overuse this device. Just like with revealing a major truth in a moment of conflict/crisis, these are the types of phrases that, when used judiciously, can be quite effective; if overused, they can just become repetitive and annoying. If a character in a book said “dude” as many times as Hurley does, it would get pretty annoying (though you could use that to your advantage). In this scene from Menu for Romance, Meredith has been on the phone with a contractor she thinks an acquaintance is trying to set her up with romantically, in addition to getting a bid on her house:

    “I have a house I’m remodeling, but I’ve about reached the limit of what I can do on my own—and time is a factor as well.”

    “Oh. If that’s the case, the sooner I come by to evaluate the property, the better, huh?”

    “Yes. But I don’t have my calendar with me. Can I call you back tomorrow morning once I have it in front of me?”

    “I don’t really do mornings, so why don’t I give you a holler some time tomorrow afternoon?”

    A contractor who didn’t “do” mornings? “Okay. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Bye.”

    “Later, dude.”

    Meredith disconnected with a derisive huff and took the earpiece off. Had he really just called her dude? Even the college students they hired to work large events were trained better in customer service than that.

First, of course, you noticed that there isn’t much narrative with this dialogue. I did that for two reasons: (1) because it’s just coming out of a very emotional, introspection-heavy scene; and (2) it really is just a quick dialogue exchange without a lot of time for pauses for introspection or reflection. The most important part of the conversation are the “I don’t do mornings” and “dude” to start setting the stage for what’s going to happen when she finally does meet this guy.

I’ve also been watching the cooking show of the guy who’s the Real World Template for Major in this book (Tyler Florence, whose show Tyler’s Ultimate airs on Food Network at 2:30 central time on weekdays) analyzing his speech pattern (he says “cool” and “all right” a lot) to see what kinds of dialogue quirks I can give to Major (without directly copying, of course). And because Major’s a chef who’s been working in kitchens since he was fifteen years old, I’ve also included some vernacular/jargon that’s specific to that industry (like “in the weeds” when he gets behind on something, “covers” for the number of people served at a meal).

So use quirky words/phrases to deepen your characters and your story.

Working hand-in-hand with quirkiness and subtexting is the non-verbal communication: body language and facial expressions.

In the silences, in the search for the right words, in the subconscious reaction being subtexted over, there is still a lot of communicating going on. A tissue is offered; gazes flicker or drop; eyes roll; arms cross; fingers tap or drum on the table; legs cross or uncross; hair is twirled; fingers run through hair; foreheads are rubbed.

Don’t underestimate the power of silence in your fiction. At the height of an argument, one of the characters stops responding completely when accused of something she didn’t do (instead of continuing to protest her innocence); when a character says “I love you” the other character doesn’t say anything in return; when a character is betrayed by a friend and the friend wants to try to explain; a cop who knows that the guilty can’t stand silence.

Hopefully this series has been as beneficial to you as it has been for me. If you have any lingering questions about dialogue that haven’t been covered, post them and I’ll try to answer them in Monday’s post.

  1. Thursday, October 23, 2008 5:03 pm

    This has been a great series, Kaye. Very helpful to me.

    In general, if you discover your characters are sounding similar in their dialogue do you have any suggestions in how to deviate them? As you said, you can’t go overboard with the quirks or it becomes nausiating to the reader. So what other things can we do to individualize their dialogue in a quick and snappy way after we’ve worked on characterizing already, but it’s not enough for certain dialogue interactions?

    One author suggested that I just go through and slash one or two words from each of a particular character’s lines in the problem scenes to help reveal a difference. Are there any other tricks that you can think of?


  2. Jess permalink
    Thursday, October 23, 2008 5:17 pm

    Good question, Eileen.
    The only verbal quirk I really have right now is there’s one character who sounds very “California;” lots of “mans” and “dudes.” Whenever he says “Wow,” the lm says “Yeah, that’s what I said.” Which is kind of funny, I guess, since he would never actually say that.
    But reading this, I think I need more.


  3. Thursday, October 23, 2008 5:39 pm

    Good wrap up.

    For me, I hate catch-phrases, but I like the ones that change constantly such as Sawyer’s nicknames.

    Hurley’s “dude” is bearable just because “dude” is an easy tag (as is “man”). Same goes for swearing if it’s used properly. No word in the English language is more versatile than a well-placed f-bomb. For me, both of those are in the same category as “Oh” or “Yeah” or “Like” or “Wow” or any other number of sentence fillers if they would realistically be in a certain character’s vocabulary. That’s just how people talk.


  4. Thursday, October 23, 2008 8:09 pm

    In my book, I have the MC’s mom call everyone “Dear”. I wanted to give her the southern old fashioned mom speech and just hearing her “dear” everyone envokes this image of her. It was funny, I had my antagonish call Jenny “dear” once, as in guy calling a girl dear, and my critique partner was like, NO, he can’t call her dear! That’s Jenny’s mom’s line!


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