Mine Your Memory

When you’re writing characters, it’s always good to use dialogue to create the character. You can say how they walk (if it’s part of their character), or what they look like, or provide some background, but if you infuse your character’s language with clues, you’re reader will have a better image and understanding of that character.

HOW your characters speak can tell a great deal about them. For example, is your character overly or excruciatingly polite when he speaks? Does he bark and command, or does he speak gently, in an almost-whisper. Does she use a baby voice to get what she wants, or does she plant her feet and declare her desires? Does he speak so softly that people have to lean in to hear, and thus, he gains the upper hand? Does she always start a sentence looking at her listener, and then turn away, her voice trailing off, indicating loss of interest or something more pressing on her mind?

WHAT your character says is vital. It’s not that your characters must only speak bon mots, but you should pepper their conversation with memorable lines that give an idea about that character. This is where mining your memory comes into play.

Think back to lines you’ve heard in your life: favorite sayings or unusual phrases. Things that stand out in your memory. These are the phrases your characters should speak.

My grandmother never said she was full or satisfied. Instead, she’d say, “I’ve had a flippancy-flappancy.” It was something her father used to say, and she adopted it. Now I use it. Not all the time, but then, I’m not 86 yet, either!

My step-grandfather apparently used to answer the request, “Shall we say grace,” with “Say what you please, you won’t ruin my appetite.”

My father doesn’t say, “Hey, you’re blocking the TV,” or, “I can’t see,” but rather, “You make a better door than a window.”

Then there’s my mother’s bon mots, which we all imitate when we watch TV: seeing someone in dishabille, “I’ll bet he stinks”; seeing a criminal smile when he gets away with something, “He thinks he’s so smart”; watching someone get their comeuppance, “Well, I should say so!” These Lucille-isms are classic, and say so much about my mom.

My mother-in-law gets in touch with her Irish, saying things like, “Does his nibbs want pancakes for breakfast?” or “Will you give himself this book?”

My son, when he was little and about to render a criticism, would say, “Not to be mean or anything, but…” Or, as a little guy or even as a teen, he’d play the “absolutely literal” game with me, where he would take everything I said at face value. If I said he couldn’t eat cake for lunch, he’d then ask if he could have cookies. When I said no, he’d ask if he could have ice cream. When that got a no, he’d ask if he could have pie. This would go on as long as I played along. If I wanted to end the game, I’d have to make an all-inclusive, but very specific, guideline about what he could actually eat for lunch. It should come as no surprise that he is a musician and an engineer, using both halves of his brain. But you likely already surmised that, given his methods of speech.

My daughter would create words, infinitely logical words, for what she saw: bite marks were “tooth measures,” artichoke seeds on the wind were “fur stars,” refills of drinks at the fast food restaurant were “free fills,” and fingers that were wrinkled from being in the water were “all brained up.” From these, you can get a sense of her mind as a child, and you’re likely not surprised that she is very artistic.

All of these are examples of character through speech. You’ve heard many of these in your lifetime. Take the time to sit and sift through your memory. Then write down those sayings you remember from your family, friends, characters in books or movies, or something overheard on a bus. Those are the lines that will highlight your character creation. Use them sparingly, but use them.

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