I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because proofreading my own writing at three in the morning is about as useful as a chocolate teapot.
I think I’ve said it about a hundred times before on the blog, but I’ll say it again: writing good dialogue is hard. We have conversations all day, conveying complex things with our speech and mannerisms that go beyond the actual words we speak, yet it all comes so naturally to us that we don’t analyze it very much. And then we sit down to write smart, realistic, subtle, and useful lines for our characters, and often two things happen:
1) The characters all sound the same; or
2) They end up sounding like caricatures of their essential “type.” (i.e. Cowboy, Villain, Sexy dame, etc.)
One thing I’ve found that helps overcome both of these pitfalls is researching via YouTube a real-life person with the traits or speaking patterns you want your character to have and his or her using their mannerisms, cadences and syntax (or a composite of several people’s) as a template.
For instance, the other day I was trying to write dialogue for a woman who is non-confrontational but strong and self-assured. I didn’t want her to be sassy, but I wanted her to hold her ground and be pleasant at the same time. For reference I looked up Martha Stewart. I’m always amused by the segments of her on Conan in which Conan tries to mess with her and she doesn’t let him ruffle her feathers or make her look foolish. (Here’s one for your viewing pleasure.) Instead she looks like she genuinely has a good time, even though she’s still regular old Martha Stewart the entire time. So I watched a few videos and noted some of her speaking traits:
1) She lets Conan say whatever ridiculous thing he’s going to say, but she simply ignores his words when they go too far astray from her Martha Stewart-comfort-zone.
2) She doesn’t giggle. Far too much of female dialogue devolves into nervous laughter and giggling.
3) She often starts sentences with phrases that soften the command she is about to give. “You could…” “I thought we’d…”
4) She often raises her intonation at the end of a sentence so that it sound like she’s asking a question even when she is actually telling Conan what to do. It’s a great way to make her seem like she’s inviting him to do what she wants rather than demanding it.
From this list I was able to pinpoint a few specific things I wanted my character’s lines to reflect, and from then on she got a whole lot easier to write. The benefit to using this method is that you’re not going to end up with a character who simply talks like YOU, nor is your character’s way of speaking going to be farcically unreal.
Another bonus to using YouTube is that when I inevitably begin to lose my grasp on the character’s specific voice once more, I can always get back on track by watching a few more videos, which results in a nice bit of procrastination that I can genuinely justify as being productive. Give it a try, and see if it works for you.