One of the things it took me a while to get a handle on was giving my characters different speech patterns, depending on both their personalities and their backgrounds. For my first couple of books, I was too busy juggling all the other stuff – background, plot, description, action, dialog, viewpoint, etc. – to even think about getting into more subtle distinctions. I think I managed to make the minstrel’s speeches a little more flowery than everyone else’s, but that was about the extent of it for the first three books or so.
When I finally did start to think about the way characters talked, I was at first bewildered by some of the advice I was getting. “Characters will choose different words depending on their personalities, cultural background, age, class, education and training, and so on,” I was advised. “Two characters should never say the same thing in the same way.” Then I’d look at a simple statement like “That’s a mistake” or “The house is on fire!” and wonder how else to put it. “That’s wrong” didn’t seem different enough to carry all that freight, and I couldn’t see any of my characters choosing words like “The domicile is ablaze!” (though someone who did might be interesting to write about).
What I didn’t realize for a long time is that I had the emphasis wrong. I thought it was “Two characters should never say the same thing in the SAME WAY,” when I should have been looking at it as “Two different characters will never say the SAME THING in the same way.”
Speech patterns are as much about WHAT is said as they are about the WAY it is said. “Madam, will you do me the honor of granting me your hand in marriage?” and “Hey, baby, why don’t we get hitched?” are both proposals of marriage, but that’s not all they are. There’s a lot more information in each of those sentences than just “Will you marry me?”…and it’s different information, depending on who the speaker is and what they think is important in addition to the basic question they’re asking.
A lot of that additional information has to do with the speaker him/herself. You can tell quite a lot about the two people who are proposing in the paragraph above – the first one uses formal, traditional language and is perhaps a little stuffy, while the second is slangy and informal. One can easily picture the first in a tuxedo, on his knees with a diamond ring in a box, while the second seems more likely to be sporting an untrimmed beard and a tie-dye T-shirt. One can, of course, set up circumstances in-story in which it would be the hippy in the tie-dye shirt using the formal language and the stuffy gent in the tux who’s being slangy, but if all you have is the dialog, that isn’t what first springs to mind.
In any exchange of dialog, each of the characters has a lot more going on than just the basic information they’re supposedly telling the other person. They have personal agendas; they have emotional reactions that they may not be able to – or want to – hide; they have ingrained ideas about the proper way to behave and speak (both in a grammatical sense and in terms of good manners). All of these things will affect what they say and how they say it.
What and how are often a lot harder to distinguish than first appears. When I made my first deliberate foray into giving characters different speech patterns (in The Seven Towers) I thought I was concentrating on how they spoke: Amberglas in a rambling, roundabout fashion; Vandaris using colorful swears, Ranlyn in a slightly archaic formal style, etc. But in order to ramble or swear or be archaic, I had to add things to whatever the basic underlying dialog was. And what got added depended on the character.
Amberglas couldn’t just say “Don’t move; you’re injured.” If I wanted her to ramble, I had to add some things for her to ramble about. So what could have been a short, simple, straightforward line of dialog became “You really shouldn’t do that, especially if you’re not feeling well, which I can see you aren’t, what with that hole in your side and so on. I assume you realize that, though one can never tell. People can be so very odd. There was a man I used to know, who always wore his boots on the wrong feet for one day out of every month. So I thought I’d mention it, in case you didn’t.”
What people say isn’t just syntax and word choice (though those are an important piece of how they say things). It’s about what’s important to them – manners, image, people and things they’re worried about or afraid of, attitude toward the listener, and a host of other things. The more urgent the situation, the more of this stuff gets stripped out of the dialog, but one can’t write an entire book with people saying nothing but “Help!” or “Fire!” or “Duck!”
If you haven’t ever thought about this stuff before, syntax and word choice are a good place to start – things like having one type of character use shorter, less complex sentences and words of fewer syllables often work well. Look at the way Shakespeare did it: you wouldn’t mistake any of the rude mechanicals’ speeches for those of the nobility. Or you can try doing what I did – picking a cast of characters several of whom have exaggerated or extreme speech patterns that are very different from each other. Nobody else talks like Amberglas, so it was really easy to tell if I’d gotten her dialog wrong or if her style was creeping into someone else’s dialog inadvertently.
Nowadays, I do this mostly by instinct, and on a much less obvious (I hope) level. But that’s where I started.