In earlier posts, I covered dialogue punctuation and layout in fiction and memoir. But what about the things the characters actually say?

Sounding natural

A mistake often made by fiction writers is to think that ‘natural dialogue’ means including everything a speaker would really utter.

Not so. In reality, people hesitate, repeat things, change their minds, overlap with other speakers, ramble unnecessarily… If you faithfully reproduce every word and pause, your readers will soon become confused and/or bored. (It is quite a different thing to transcribe actual speech. This is usually done specifically for analysis, where an accurate record of every pause and repetition could be crucial.)

Your job as a writer is to give enough of a flavour of a character’s speech that the reader can picture their personality, mood or situation. Enough… but not too much!

Speaking of situations, you also need to consider what they might or might not say at the moment they are in. If Jim is caught up in a high-speed car chase or is being pursued by velociraptors, he is unlikely to start reminiscing about his childhood. If the scene is a tranquil meadow with a tinkling brook, dappled sunlight and detailed descriptions of flora and fauna, it’s a brave author who would suddenly have a character yell, “I always knew Astrid was an evil, scheming bitch!”

Keeping in character

Of course, keeping in character is part of sounding natural too. But it’s more specific to the individual person you are trying to portray.

  • Age – Children go through distinct developmental stages in their speech. A 2-year-old might be at the “Me want biccy” stage, but most 4-year-olds will have moved beyond it. 6-year-olds don’t tend to use many very long words (apart from the names of dinosaurs!). Would your child character be able to use complex abstract reasoning? (“If we use the green dinghy instead of the red one, Old Stumpy will think we are still in the boat-house. Then he’ll go to the cove instead of the ferry crossing, and we can catch him in the act!”) If you aren’t sure how to make children’s conversation realistic, try to borrow some youngsters of the right age and record them (with parental permission, of course!).
  • Era – Related to age (above), eg, someone in their 70s will not have entirely the same personal vocabulary as a 20-year-old, because of different experiences. On a broader scale, the longer ago your setting is, the greater the difference in language from that of modern-day speakers.
  • Accent & dialect – Someone who grew up on a tough inner-city council estate is not likely to speak the same way as someone educated at Eton. This is just a fact of British life. However, there’s a fine line between showing cultural variation through speech, and having your characters speak like the worst kind of stereotypes. Also, beware of falling into the trap of using accent to portray intelligence (or lack of it).
  • Personality – If you’ve introduced someone as an optimistic, upbeat person, she needs to have a good reason for saying, “I always knew it would end in tears,” or similar. (This is obviously a pretty simplistic example. But the mood or intention of a character at any point is indicated by the kinds of things they say, as well as the actions they take or the clothes they wear.)

Would she know that?

  • Who was there?  – In a story with many characters and shifting scenes, it’s easy to lose track of who knows what. Was your character actually present at scenes they will talk about later? If not, you will need to consider how they came by that knowledge (or if they need to mention it at all). This is a particular issue in mystery or ‘whodunnit’ novels. “But it was Lady Arbuthnot who poured the tea!” only works if the speaker saw her do it, or was told by someone that she did it, or cleverly deduced that she poured the tea because of other information previously made available to reader and speaker alike.
  • Historical settings – I once edited a book set in the 1600s. One of the characters referred to a famous painting that would not exist for another 200 years. Your readers may be quite knowledgeable about the era you have chosen. It’s up to you how precisely accurate you are with historical details, but being out by over two centuries probably isn’t advisable!

“Your father, the King of Spain…”

There are various ways to convey important background information in writing. One way of avoiding a lengthy ‘info dump’ (a long passage telling the reader everything you think they need to know to ‘set the scene’) is to have your characters mention things in their dialogue. But if you’re not careful, this can give rise to clangers like the one in the heading.

It’s a real example from a historical novel. It went something like: “Your father, the King of Spain, has decided you are to marry.”

Why is it problematic? Well, if your father really was the King of Spain, don’t you think you would know about it already?

If your characters are closely connected, there are many, many things that they would not need to bring up in conversation. Reminders are fine – “It was back in ’62, just before Bertha joined that cult!” – but don’t try sneaking a scene-setting fact into dialogue unless it’s the kind of thing they would genuinely say.


There will be exceptions to much of what I written above. You may deliberately choose to go your own way for effect… but make sure you know why your characters are saying the things they say!


If you have written fiction or a memoir that includes dialogue, a proofreader should flag up any inconsistencies in punctuation or layout. But commentary on character voice and viewpoint comes under editing, not proofreading.

For advice and support with your writing, just get in touch for a chat: