I recall reading my first book by a best-selling author. A male character discovered a young girl, about 5 years old, who had been left to die in the woods. He brings her to his cabin and finds she cannot or will not speak. I was impressed with the way the character spoke to the child—it seemed exactly how someone should deal with that situation. However, as more characters entered the story, I discovered that he spoke that way to all of them. Not only that, almost every character in the book spoke with that same "Talking to a Child" voice. Obviously, it doesn't bother the millions who buy her books, but it bugged the heck out of me. And it's consistent with all her books in that series. It wasn't just a one-time deal.
It's important in a book that characters not only sound like themselves, but don't sound like each other. That means knowing their history, their age, education, as well as occupation, nationality—the list goes on. Ideally, a reader should be able to know who's speaking from the dialogue on the page without beats, tags, or narrative.
Cowboys don't talk like artists, who don't talk like sailors, who don't talk like politicians. And men don't talk like women. They're hard-wired differently. I'm a woman, and in my first drafts the dialogue will lean in that direction. After I've written my male characters' dialogue, I go back and cut it down by at least 25%.
A few tips to make your characters sound like themselves. (I could go on forever, but one of the guidelines I was given for these posts was to hover around the 500 word mark.)
Don't rely on the "clever." Dialect is a pitfall—more like the Grand Canyon. If you're relying on phonetic spelling to show dialect, you'll stop your readers cold. Nobody wants to stop to sound out words. You can show dialects or accents with one or two word choices, or better yet, have another character notice. "She heard the Texas in his voice" will let the reader know.
Give your characters a few simple "go to" words or phrases. For me, this is often deciding what words my character will use when he or she swears (since I write a lot of cops and covert ops teams, swearing is a given). Then, make sure he or she is the only person who uses that word or phrase.
Keep the narrative "in character" as well. This especially includes internal monologue, and even extends to narrative. Keep your metaphors and similes in character. If your character's a mechanic, he's not likely to think of things in terms of ballet metaphors.
What your character says and does reveals a lot to your readers. Workshops I've attended have given out the standard character worksheets (which have me screaming and running for the hills), but it's the "other" questions that reveal your character. What's in her purse? What's in his garbage? What does he/she order at Starbucks? Would he/she even be caught dead in a Starbucks?
How do you keep your characters distinct? How do you get to know them? Do you need to know a lot before you start, or are you (like I am) someone who learns about them as you go?
Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.