Why your character needs a dialog signature. The Authors Collection.

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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.

James R. Callan
James R. Callan

What does that have to do with writers? Unless we are doing audio books, the reader doesn’t get to hear the characters.  Right?

Wrong.

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.

ATonOfGold-3dLeftDo 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?

Please click the cover image to read more about James R. Callan’s books on Amazon.

 

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    In today’s books, readers do like for the dialogue to tell the story. They want narration kept to a minimum. As a result, your post is extremely timely. Changes in dialogue and speech patters make the characters distinctive and separate from each other.

  • Darlene Jones

    Dialogue is a powerful tool in any story and your concept of showing the character through “dialog signature” is spot on.

  • James Callan

    Thanks, Darlene. You are so right. Dialog is such a powerful tool. And because we all hear it every day, participate in it every day, I think we are not always as careful when we write it. We know that; what’s the big deal? But novel dialog has to be much better than our everyday dialog. Thanks.

  • James Callan

    Absolutely right on, Caleb. And unfortunately, many manuscripts are turned down for the poor dialog in them. Thanks for the comment.

  • Chris Swinney

    I’ve read Jim’s books and his characters have specific and distinctive voices. It makes the dialogue fun to read. This was a great tid-bit on information. Writers of all levels would do well to remember this concept the next time they write dialogue.

    • James Callan

      Thank, Chris, for the kind words.

  • Elaine Faber

    Just another ‘ball’ the writer must keep in the air when writing the novel, along with plot, suspense, character arc, point of view, etc, etc. Thanks for giving us more information on this vital step to help us make our writing zing.

    • James Callan

      It is sort of like keeping all the balls in the air. Looks so easy – from the outside. Lay the groundwork before you get too far into the process and it will make it a little easier – and the book better. Thanks for the comment, Elaine.

  • Marja McGraw

    Excellent post, Jim. I use a lot of dialogue in my books, so for me the dialogue signature is very important. If I’m reading a good book with this signature I find myself reading over the “I said”s and the “she” saids.
    Marja McGraw

    • James Callan

      Thanks, Marja. Good point. The use of the dialog signature does make the “saids” fade into the background. Well “said.”

  • Eileen Obser

    This is great information, Jim, and useful for all writers to recall over and over in the writing process. I use lots of dialogue and that’s what holds my attention when reading anything – fiction or nonfiction, even news articles. A course in playwriting and/or screenwriting can’t hurt any writer, especially those who hold back with dialogue.

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