Writing a backstory for your characters will give you information that influences how they speak – their socioeconomic background, education level and career, for example. You can also define how the character uses language. Are they verbose or reticent? Are they more emotional or more analytical? Are they confident, forthright, deceitful, nervous, shy, mean, sarcastic, polite? What kind of slang do they use?
All of this helps, but I find in practice I write the best dialogue once I start to “hear” the characters in my head. Once that happens I don’t have to consciously think about how they would phrase something. The character has become a real person in my mind and I’m just writing what that person would say in this situation. And the best tool I have to jump-start those voices in my head is the character diary.
The technique is simple: write diary entries in the voice of the character. Think like an actor. Become the character and just write about an average day.
Don’t worry about whether your character would actually keep a diary; pretend they would. And if the character is illiterate, write as though it were a verbal, recorded diary. The point is to get their speaking style, after all, not their writing style.
Here’s a way I used this technique on a recent script: I was writing a story about a crew of six on a NASA mission to Mars. Now, most astronauts will have fairly similar backstories and temperaments. They’re all going to be well-educated, highly motivated risk takers with an interest in science and a lot of self-discipline.
So I had to really work to differentiate the characters. I spent considerable time thinking about what the range of personal traits and backstories could be in this narrow demographic group. I tried to make each as distinct as possible, focusing on how they got into the space program, why they chose their specialty, and what role they perform on the team. For example, one could have worked their way up out of poverty while another came from a wealthy background. One might be the motivator while the other is the stoic, reliable go-to person. One is detail oriented while another can be relied on to always keep the big picture in mind.
Then I wrote one diary entry for each character for every three months of the two-year training period leading up to the mission. In addition to creating distinctive voices, I was able to explore the interpersonal relationships and conflicts that developed between them prior to the start of the script. As a result, from the very first scene these felt like characters that had a history together… because in a way they did, at least in my mind.
Of course like any pre-writing task there is a danger in getting carried away in a subconscious avoidance of facing that blank page. You don’t need to write a diary of the character’s entire life. You might try doing a couple entries they would have written just prior to the start of your story, plus a few spaced out over the course of their life, and perhaps even an entry set mid-story. Sometimes even writing a single entry is enough! However, for some projects, like my NASA story, doing a bunch of diary entries can be an extremely useful part of my development process.
In the screenwriting class I teach, one of the first assignments is for the students to write a diary entry in the voice of someone they know who doesn’t speak like them. It’s a lesson in listening to how people use language as much as it is in writing. If you struggle with dialogue, this might be something to try.
And as I mentioned last time, I usually do another quick diary entry before I do my character passes in the rewriting stage. It all helps to get the characters speaking in their unique voices in my head.