Characteristic Words…

Everyone has a style of speaking. Some individuals have expansive vocabularies and others are more “plain spoken.” Neither is particularly good or bad when you are creating a fictional character —it’s more a question of matching a vocabulary to the speaker.

This came to mind when I was introducing the mother and grandmother of the protagonist in my novel-in-progress. I’ve noticed that endearments and other vocabulary habits can run in families, so both the mother and grandmother use “honey” when addressing the young woman. Her father always calls her by her name —especially when he’s chastising her for taking unwarranted risks.

One of the grandfathers is called Grandpa Reggie, but the other is always Marco —even his son calls him Marco. He’s a problematic personality and, I hope, his nefarious past makes him intriguing. I use the word “nefarious” (wicked, evil, sinful), but someone else might say his past was “checkered” or that he was simply a “bad” man. The word nefarious seems to sing to me, where checkered sounds too clichéd.

I’m a big fan of Stephen King’s “On Writing.” He famously stated that “The road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops.” I’m not as adverse to adverbs as Stephen King, but I when you can choose “strolled” or “ambled” over “walked slowly” adverbs seem extraneous.

Of course all bets are off in dialog that must sound like real people. Some real people default to adverbs.

“I walked slowly over the bridge, killing time,” may not be a thrilling sentence, but it’s credible dialog. Another character might say, “I took my time walking over the bridge. I had time to kill.” Both variations say the same thing —with almost the same words, reflecting a different use of language and different speaking styles.

In my efforts to differentiate the characters’ speech, I’m paying attention to the word choices in dialog. Any thoughts on vocabularies?


  1. That’s a nuance a lot of people miss, even published authors. It’s one of those little things that differentiate good books from great books.

    • Candy Korman

      I agree!
      All too many authors write dialog as if all the characters sound the same. My objective is to make it so easy to tell who is speaking that the names become mere verifications and not a needed direction to the reader. I hope I can pull it off.

  2. Do you find that some dialogue comes easy – i.e. you can /hear/ the character in your head because he or she is so distinctive? And then there are the bland people. 🙁

    I guess dialogue is a bit like drawing cartoons or caricatures – the more pronounced the features the easier they are to draw.

    -sigh- I struggle with dialogue.

    • Candy Korman

      I struggle to make it RIGHT but I now enjoy writing it. Part of my M.O. was to indulge in one of New York’s odd & good features… I LISTEN to conversations around me. Tables are very close together in restaurants, cafes and coffee bars. People are knee-to-knee or standing next to one another on subways. You can’t help hearing the conversations of strangers. Some are friendly conversations, others are business and some are even conversations that should be in private, but are in public places.

      I just made a reservation to sit at the bar of an Italian restaurant where a friend will be singing Tango music tomorrow night. Because I may know some of them and others may be friendly, I’m likely to engage on some level, even if I don’t part of my brain will be listening. How does that well dressed man express himself? Does he sound arrogant or kind? What kind of unconscious judgments am I making on the basis of his word choices. It’s interesting and informs my dialog in fiction.

      You’re right about the subtle differences. They are harder to capture than the big ones!

  3. One of the writing exercises I used to have my college comp students do was go to the SUB or some other place where they could eavesdrop fairly unobtrusively and then write down the dialog and try to capture its true flavor and pinpoint the words and styles of phrasings unique to each person.

    • Candy Korman

      When I listen, I notice the: repetition, lack of vocabulary, poor grammar, etc. of so many speakers. The trick for me, is to take that as a starting point and make the dialog more interesting while maintaining some of the authenticity. It’s a balancing act.