Character Diction: The Writer’s Secret for Stellar Dialogue
My older Missouri relatives use the phrase “I believe” to state an opinion or even a fact like, “I believe it’s snowing.” My dad’s well-worn line when someone admitted to something embarrassing was, “I don’t believe I’da told that.”
An acquaintance of mine from Brazil was recently asked if she had time to help someone out. “No, it’s okay,” she said. Then she added, “That means ‘yes.’ It’s a Brazilian thing.”
My husband once pointed out that my brother and I both repeat people verbatim as a way of affirming their perspective. If you said, “Diction is a complicated topic,” we’d emphatically reply, “Diction is a complicated topic!” like ultra-supportive parrots.
These are all examples of diction—our word choices and how they reflect everything from our age to our background to our goals in the conversation.
In other words, you’ve got to master the art of diction if you want to write great dialogue. I’m hoping this article will help you take a big step toward that goal. We’re going to cover:
- The many different types of diction
- How this tool contributes to character development
- How to nail your characters’ word choices
- Common mistakes to avoid
- Exercises for mastering diction
You’ll also get a ton of diction examples as we go. So let’s jump in, shall we?
I believe we’ll start with the basics.
What is Diction?
Diction refers to a speaker or writer’s word choice. Seems simple, right?
Until you start thinking about all the reasons we might choose to use one word over another.
Are we trying to communicate as clearly as possible? Or do we care more about charming, convincing, guilting, or frightening the listener?
What words come out of our words naturally as a result of our cultural, regional, economic, professional, and educational backgrounds? How do our speech habits reflect our emotions or echo the people we spend time with?
Diction in dialogue is about so much more than the ideas your characters communicate. It’s a tool for revealing who they are, what they want, and how they feel.
Common Types of Diction
We’re going to cover eight major types of diction, but I want to be very clear that these categories are broad. If you have a character who’s an English poet, their version of formal diction will still sound very different from your Montana scientist’s formal diction.
You can reference these types of diction when you want to zoom out and define your characters’ word choices in a general sense. But remember that there’s a lot of variation within each type.
Polite, exact, dispassionate. That’s formal diction for you. It’s a safe communication strategy—one that prioritizes respect and deprioritizes emotional expression. It’s often clear but indirect.
For example, someone using formal diction would say, “May I ask that you kindly remove your shoes?” rather than “No shoes in the house.”
A character might opt for formal language in professional contexts, situations where they can’t afford to ruffle feathers, or simply because it’s their personality.
The opposite of formal diction, informal diction is playful, casual, and familiar. An example would be saying, “Hey, what’s up?” instead of “Hello.” Your characters would probably favor this type of language when interacting with close friends and family.
If a character were to use informal diction in a formal setting, that choice would stand out to the reader, suggesting perhaps that the character has a rebellious personality, doesn’t respect this particular occasion, or is oblivious to social expectations.
Colloquial diction refers to words or phrases that are specific to a region. For example, when West Texans are thinking about doing something, they say they “might could” do it.
Colloquial diction can clarify your setting or help a fish-out-of-water character stand out. Just don’t overdo it. Excessive colloquial diction will turn a character into a regional caricature.
Slang is similar to colloquialism in the sense that it refers to words and phrases that are specific to a certain community. But it’s not restricted to geography.
Slang can be found in professions, neighborhoods, and subcultures. Age is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think of slang. Something good could be “far out,” “sweet,” “dope,” or “Gucci” depending on which generation you belong to.
Something to keep in mind about slang: it’s fleeting. If you use it in your dialogue, be aware that it will date your book.
Concrete diction is the result of trying to be as direct, exact, and clear as possible.
“You said you’d take out the trash, but I see you haven’t done it. I expect to feel angry and start a fight with you if you don’t do it promptly.”
That’s concrete diction. No guessing, no gray areas.
Concrete diction could be an interesting choice for a character who values clarity above all else, is in a situation where they can’t afford a miscommunication, or is a robot.
Abstract diction is essentially an attempt to give words to something, well, abstract. Ideas, emotions… things like that. This type of language tends to be vague and sometimes difficult to understand.
“I see the trash sitting there all full, and I just feel like this boiling thing… this, like, feeling in my stomach.”
That’s abstract diction. Great option for a character who’s emotionally charged-up and ill-equipped to express themselves.
Pedantic diction comes in handy when you’re writing a character who’s arrogant, condescending, or wildly insecure. Or all three!
Pedantic diction refers to the excessive use of fancy words chosen to make the speaker sound smart or superior. An example would be using the phrase “amiable visage” instead of “nice face.”
As you can imagine, clarity is not an essential element of pedantic diction.
You see poetic diction most often in poems, songs, or speeches when the goal is to arrange words in a way that sounds pleasing. The word choices in poetic diction are often informed by rhythm and inspired by literary devices like alliteration and parallelism.
Shakespeare’s characters use poetic diction a lot, sometimes going so far as to arrange their conversations into sonnets.
But it’s not something you see much in modern dialogue.
The Role of Diction in Writing Characters
Now that you’re familiar with the major types of diction, let’s take a closer look at how this highly specific writing skill can help you create engaging characters.
Here are the major perks of mastering diction:
It’s a tool for indirect characterization - Indirect characterization is the art of establishing certain details about your characters without stating them outright.
Your characters’ diction can reveal where they’re from, how they feel, how they navigate emotions, and even what they want.
Diction clarifies your character’s tone - If someone says, “Thanks for the tip!”, addressing a close family member using informal diction, it’s not immediately clear what their attitude is about the advice they received.
However, if they suddenly switch to formal diction, saying, “I sincerely appreciate your unsolicited parenting advice,” you can probably assume they’re being sarcastic.
Diction differentiates character voices - If you want to write realistic characters, you’ve got to give them distinct voices. Now, a character’s voice includes several elements in addition to diction, but make no mistake: the words they choose say a lot about who they are.
Diction hints at goals, emotions, and subtext - Most of us don’t go around saying what we want and feel outright. We often talk around it, and the bizarre little language games we play are part of our diction.
For example, if a perfectly likable character suddenly slips into pedantic diction on a highly anticipated first date, the reader can probably guess that the character is nervous and trying too hard to be impressive.
Choosing the Right Words
Time to dig into the business of actually writing diction for your characters. Here are some questions that will help you find the right words to fit the moment and their personality:
- How did people in your character’s region, culture, and social class speak in the time period of your story?
- What slang was common at the time?
- Based on the norms of the period, how would your character address people of other social classes, religions, cultures, or genders?
- Where is your character from? Where do they live now? How do these aspects of their background show up in their diction?
- What about their cultural heritage?
- Is their diction influenced by any other language?
- Are they religious? If so, does their religion influence the words they use? Do they say “blessed” rather than “lucky,” for example?
- How old are they?
- How do people their age talk in the world of your story?
- What are their current language limitations? How do they explain things they don’t have the words for?
- What’s their level of education?
- What’s their area of expertise? How do they use diction to demonstrate their intelligence?
- What situations make them feel stupid? How do they talk their way through that?
- What jargon do they know because of their profession?
- Does their professional diction ever find its way into personal conversations?
- Are they confident or insecure at work? How does it show in their diction?
- Are they playful? Romantic? Reserved? Aggressive? How does their personality show up in the words they use?
- What tactics do they use to connect with others? Compliments? Personal questions? Bragging?
- Does their personality seem to change in different situations? How does that show up in their diction?
- How do they use words to protect themselves when they feel vulnerable?
- How do they want others to see them? How do they alter their diction to achieve that goal?
- What emotions are they comfortable expressing? Which do they attempt to hide? How do they use words to hide those feelings?
- How does their diction change between work and home? Get-togethers with friends and conversations with strangers? Encounters with insiders and encounters with outsiders?
The tricky thing about managing your characters’ diction is that they probably use language in ways you don’t. You might end up writing in jargon that’s new to you or trying to represent the dialect of a culture that’s not your own. It’s safe to say, there’s a lot of potential for error here.
Here are a few common pitfalls to look out for:
Inconsistencies - If a character uses formal diction to speak to their crush on page 20 then seems to easily address them using informal diction on page 42, your reader will want an explanation. What changed? Why are they suddenly so relaxed and comfortable?
Generalizations - For example, if your characters speak with a “Southern accent,” you’re probably generalizing. Texas accents are very different from Arkansas accents which are very different from Louisiana accents. Even within these states, there’s a wide range of dialects.
Exaggeration - This usually happens by accident when a writer is having so much fun with diction they overdo it a bit. They create heavy accents that are almost impossible to decipher in writing. They use excessive slang that fails to represent the way anyone would speak in real life.
In short, they veer into caricature.
Stereotyping - When you’re writing your character’s diction—especially if you’re dipping into a cultural dialect—take the time to learn what that dialect sounds like in real life. If you base the diction on your own assumptions or what you’ve seen in movies, you risk writing a stereotype.
The Fix for All These Mistakes
All of this comes down to authenticity. Do your research. Listen to people who speak the way your characters would speak. Question your own assumptions. And if you’re writing a character from a marginalized community you are not a part of, consider hiring a sensitivity reader to help you get the voice right.
Exercises for Experimenting With Your Characters’ Diction
Allow me to conclude our little diction expedition with a few writing exercises for honing your word-choice wizardry. Exercises like:
Eavesdropping - It’s the oldest trick in the writer’s book. Go alone (or with a patient partner) to a coffee shop and listen to the conversations around you. Write down interesting phrases you hear and notice what the speaker’s words suggest about their personality, feelings, or goals.
Character interviews - A character interview is a writing exercise in which you ask your character questions and write their responses in their voice. It’s a great way to get to know these fictional folks better and clarify the way they speak. Find interview questions here.
Writing dialogue for people you know - Think of someone you know very well. Then write them into different situations. Make them a hostage negotiating for their freedom. Have them propose to the love of their life and then comfort their child during a thunderstorm.
You’ll likely find that you not only know this person’s voice very well, you’re also unconsciously aware of how they change their diction depending on the context. When you start to see it, it becomes easier to play this game with fictional people.
Ultimately, writing effective diction comes down to listening carefully in the real world.
If you can do that, you can write realistic dialogue and unforgettable characters.
Did you know you can add notes to your character profiles in Dabble? It’s a great feature for storing character interviews and diction exercises as you develop your fictional friends’ voices.
It’s also one of many ways this all-in-one writing tool makes the planning, drafting, and revising process much, much easier.
If you’re not a Dabbler already, you can check out the tool for free for 14 days just by clicking this li’l link. There’s no credit card information required, so you can get right to Dabblin’ without worrying about accidental charges when the trial period ends.
So Gucci, as a zoomer in a soon-to-be-outdated novel might say.
There's no avoiding it: critical feedback is an essential for becoming a great writer. Here's how to navigate the process with grace, create excellent work as a result, and get through it all with your self-confidence intact.
While it's not for every story, tragic irony can be a great way to mess with both your characters and your readers... in a fun way, of course. Learn all about it in this article.
Sensitivity writers are more prevalent than ever before, and for many authors, they're an essential part of the editing process. But what do they do exactly? And how do you know if you need one? We've got those answers right here.