My professional hero Blake Snyder gave me a rule that I've been having trouble implementing in my work: "In a good script, every character must speak differently. Every character must have a unique way of saying even the most mundane 'Hi How are you I'm fine' kind of chat" (Save the Cat! 154).
I've found similar advice in at least two other books, and I think it's a good strategy no matter whether you're writing a script, a book, or something else. The problem is, nobody seems to have much to say about how to give your characters unique ways of speaking. Once in a while, it's easy. For example, I had a lot of fun writing a guy in several screenplays who never said more than five words at a time because I'd arbitrarily assigned him the core personality trait of "silent." But that was just one character. How do you come up with enough verbal rules for an entire movie's or book's worth of characters?
Surprisingly, my online searches for lists of verbal rules have been almost completely fruitless. Nobody in Internet Land seems to be talking about it. So, for all you other writers out there who've been having this same problem, here are some verbal rules I've come up with, including some stolen from books and movies I've encountered.
This character . . .
Uses big words
Never says more than X number of words at a time
Speaks only in present tense
Speaks only in past tense
Speaks in third person (Jenny: "Jenny is just confused now. All she wanted was directions to the library!")
Mixes languages ("Ja, ja, I get it.")
Has a thick accent
Always relates the conversation to a certain topic
Deflects conversation away from him- or herself
Defers to another speaker in the conversation
Uses a catchphrase
Misuses words or phrases
Uses analogies/examples from a certain profession or hobby
Speaks a certain variety of English (RP, surfer, Ebonics, etc.)
Never takes anything seriously
Takes everything (too) seriously
Never says what he/she means
Uses literally translated figures of speech from another language (e.g., "you're breaking my feet" [from French] instead of "you're driving me crazy")
Speaks his/her mind
Goes off on tangents
Always brings the conversation back to a certain topic
Talks in a different register than the audience expects from him/her (e.g., the Impressive Clergyman from The Princess Bride, a kid who talks like an adult)
Uses speech that's too formal for the situation
Uses speech that's too informal for the situation
Has a speech impediment (e.g., the Impressive Clergyman, Kahmunrah from Night at the Museum 2)
Drops subjects or helping verbs at the beginning of sentences ("Never wanted to go anyway"; "You ever learn people's names?")
Uses incorrect grammar
Is a nonnative speaker of the language he/she's trying to use
Never gets the joke (e.g., Captain America in Avengers)
Uses archaic language (e.g., "Forsooth! Let us away!" instead of "All right! Let's go!")
And for even more ideas, check out this amazing blog post I stumbled across in my search.
P.S. What's the number-one thing stopping you from finishing your story? Let me know in the comments so I can address those blocks in future posts!
(Thanks to Carlos Gil for sharing their work on Unsplash.)