Characterization Through Dialog

Did you know that there are over 2,000 words for drunk, meaning inebriated? Good Lord! Can't you just imagine Forest Gump telling someone that he's drunk – in the same way he held forth on the many varieties of shrimp dishes?

"I was drunk. Snockered. Pickled. Hammered. Messed up. Trashed. Looped. Ripped. Sloshed. Wasted. Plastered. Tight. Zonked. Tanked."

Yes, there are a lot of synonyms for inebriated. Which one of 2,500 words do you choose if you're writing about a character who is drunk or you're writing dialogue for a character who is inebriated? As a writer, you must pick the best word for your writing situation.

You have a lot of choices when it comes to word selection because there are literally thousands upon thousands of words, proper language and slang, for every object and action. Don't take the easy way out. Give some thought to it.

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5 Rules About Characterization Through Dialog

1. Search for the right word that expresses the layers of meaning attached to the word.

2. Make sure that your character who is either the speaker or the viewpoint character would use that specific word based on his or her economic and educational background, personality, attitudes, and vocalization patterns.

That's a long way of saying that if you have a viewpoint character thinking about the drunk he sees across the street, then he will process that information in a very specific way. If your viewpoint character, or your character who is speaking the dialog you write, possesses three advanced degrees and is a Harvard professor from a long line of professors, he probably wouldn't think: "That dude is totally wasted." Nor would he be likely to say: "Hey, bro, I'm so trashed I'm going to barf."
He'd be more likely to think and say, "That man across the street is severely intoxicated."

3. Unless ... A character speaks in opposition to his background as a deliberate act, and that is part of his characterization.

If a character's dialog doesn't reflect his background, personality, etc. then he's deliberately changing it for a specific reason. For instance, he's trying to fit in with a young, urban crowd – maybe to impress a girl or to sound less stodgy and more mainstream than he's perceived by others. There are many scenarios that would warrant someone speaking in opposition to their true nature, but the internal dialog must be true to the character you've established.

4. A character's internal dialog must always be true to his nature.
He may be spouting dialog you'd have to have an Urban Dictionary to define, but his thoughts will always match his demographics. If he's a Harvard prof, he's not going to be thinking in terms of the words in an Urban Dictionary.

5. Unless ... A character may speak dialog that sounds educated and intelligent, but his internalization may represent his true background, i.e., a self-made man who, although clearly educated, still thinks in terms of the poor sharecropper's son that he once was.

Takeaway Truth

Listen to people talk. Try to imagine their backgrounds based on their word choice. When you write, make the language -- expressed and internal -- match the characterization you have created.

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