How to Write Authentic Dialogue for Fictional Characters

By Maggie Hamand

Effective, compelling and realistic dialogue is crucial to successful creative writing. Without authentic-sounding conversation, your characters and plot will seem undeveloped and unbelievable. At its best, dialogue should be able to build tension, reveal individual character and add sparkle to your fictional storytelling.

Listen to conversations: You might be surprised at how little listening goes on. Many people are preoccupied with what they’re going to say next, or think about how to turn the conversation back to themselves. Consider emulating these social realities as you develop dialogue between your fictional characters.

Think about what each character wants to gain from the conversation, and this will help determine their style, tone and attitude. Jot down phrases you overhear when listening to people’s conversations. Think about what this tells you about the person.

Rhythm and voice in character development

In speech, dialogue can be full of hesitations and uncertainties, which (though authentic) may not make sense when written down on a page. Speech should sound natural when you read it, and shouldn’t feel unnatural or stilted.

A character’s vocabulary and rhythm of speech often reflects their personality. People also have distinguishable mannerisms and catch-phrases which can help the reader to identify a character from the dialogue. Think about the choice of words, the level of formality, use of slang.

Characters speaking in varied situations

Be confident in your dialogue and let it speak for itself! There’s nothing more boring than reading pages of ‘she whispered softly’ or ‘he murmured sadly’ in fiction. Try to avoid doing this too often. It’s better to make it clear through the dialogue who is speaking.

When your characters are in each other’s presence, writers can rely on descriptions of body language and props to add colour to the dialogue and let the reader know what they’re feeling. When dialogue is taking place in a crowd, it can be a challenge to let readers know who’s speaking. One useful method is for the characters to mention one another’s names.

Dynamic conversation between fictional characters

It’s important that the reader feels as though the conversation is moving forward. Without a sense of purpose to the dialogue, the reader is likely to become bored and frustrated. Another pitfall to avoid is dialogue which goes on for too long: Keep it short and make every line count.

Revealing subtext: what characters don’t say

Often people don’t talk about the things they’re really thinking about, and social convention dictates that lots of lies get told. Another common occurrence is for people to talk about one thing while thinking about something else. Try uncovering your character’s hidden depths and inner emotions through revealing dialogue.

Accents and dialects can be a useful way of creating a distinctive and memorable voice for your characters, but it can be a challenging way of doing so. Writers such as Emily Bronte and Mark Twain have made excellent use of these tools, but it can mean that work becomes difficult to read.

If you want to convey language from an earlier time period, there’s no substitute for simply reading literature written at the time you’re writing about – and designing your dialogue accordingly.