Why your character needs a dialog signature. The Authors Collection.
September 12, 2013
We all recognize the significance of our signature. Certainly John Hancock did. If you glance at the Declaration of Independence, of the fifty-six names, his jumps out at you. He did not want to be missed. Others, took a difference approach. Lewis Morris had a bit of flourish in his, but is generally unnoticed.
Today, with all the audio equipment, there are many people whose audio signature we will recognize. Most of us would recognize the voice of John Wayne, or Andy Devine, of Phyllis Diller. They had distinctive audio signatures, as do many singers.
What does that have to do with writers? Unless we are doing audio books, the reader doesn’t get to hear the characters. Right?
You, as the writer, can give your character a distinct sound. When you write passages your character says or thinks, you have the opportunity to make the reader hear the character’s voice. You have the chance to develop a unique speech pattern for that character. In my book How to Write Great Dialog I call this the character’s dialog signature.
What does that mean? It is simply how this character sounds. The writer has a lot to do with this. In fact, a good writer can make that determination for the reader without the reader even knowing it was done.
Just how do you do this? First, you must decide how you want this character to sound. What impression do you want the reader to have of this character? Once that is clear, you select a dialog signature that imparts that image to the reader.
Do you want the character to sound educated or uneducated? Young or old? Does this character have a regional dialect? Does she talk with a southern drawl or New York rapid fire? How is the diction, the inflection, the cadence? Does she have certain marker words? (You almost always want one or two marker words for a major character.) What is the flow and volume associated with this character? Will there be a distinct sentence structure, or perhaps no complete sentences at all. While not exactly dialog, will you give this character some distinct body language? Any special mannerisms?
From those and more, you develop a distinct dialog signature for the character and use it whenever the character is speaking or thinking. Done well, the reader will begin to recognize the character without attribution, just as we would recognize Andy Griffith or Katherine Hepburn. As an example, consider Spenser and Hawk in many of Robert B. Parker’s novels. You don’t need attribution to tell who is speaking. They have distinct dialog signatures.
Consider which of your characters will have a John Hancock dialog signature. Or Lewis Morris, quiet but with a little flourish. Or maybe an Abraham Clark, who had a simple signature but put a scroll under his name. Or Wm. Paca or John Morton who didn’t take up much space or get much attention. Ideally, you will give each of the major characters a distinct voice.
What does your character sound like? What is his dialog signature?
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