I’ve found Lester Dent’s formula helped me a lot with my writing. I added his article to one of my earlier posts: http://dynamiclethargyfilms.ca/the-lester-dent-master-fiction-plot-test-drive/
In his article, Lester Dent talks about giving characters tags so people can recognize them when they show up. Tags can be based on appearance, disposition, mannerisms and so on. I thought this would create superficial characters, although I also thought they would create the impression of more depth to the character than there actually is. I’ve found it much easier to write dialogue for more fully developed characters. At times it almost feels like they dictate their own lines.
My thoughts on this has evolved somewhat though. While the tags can be superficial, as you develop them, you look for tags that will define the characters. The exercise of developing the tags, causes you to get into the mind of the character.
Verbal Catch Phrases
To be more specific, I feel that a character’s unique verbal catch phases give clues to who the character is. For example, it is common to say “hello” when you meet someone, but people use a wide variety of variations. Some examples include: hi, hey, howdy, top o’ the morning, give a silent nod, or say the person’s name. Which word a person chooses to use tells you something about their personality and mood at the time.
In my own case, I usually just smile and nod, but say nothing when I meet someone. The reason I do that is that I don’t have a lot of confidence in my memory for names and I worry I’ll get their name wrong. That would embarrass myself and might insult the other person. I wouldn’t want to do either. The word, phrase, or action a character adopts would reflect a similar thought process.
People tend to associate certain expressions with types of people, and you need to be aware of that when you choose. An example of this is the word “howdy”. This is usually associated with a “folksy” or rustic person. Or, someone who wants to appear that way. Of course some people make their choice based on what people around them use. Of course that tells you something about the people they associate with, which tells you something about them.
The verbal catch phases people use can include how they say “yes”, “no”, “goodbye”, “but”, “thank you”, “I think”, and of course, the expletives they use when surprised or angry. Some catch phrases have no meaning and are used just to make a noise; an alternative throat clearing.
At the end of a conversation, I usually said, “I should let you go”. Recently, I realized that it was way for me to end the conversation and make it seem it was the other person’s idea. Now I try to say something where I accept that I want to end the conversation. I haven’t a standard phase yet, but I would use something like, “I have some things I should do.”
Expletives can very often reflect a person’s character very explicitly. Some examples of words and phrases can include: damn, drat, golly, holy characterization batman, and the wide variety of four letter words that are available. For myself, I usually don’t say anything out loud. When I do, it is usually something like darn, or damn, depending on the intensity of my feeling. I don’t verbalize anything stronger than that. These choices reflect my desire to remain calm, or at least appear to be calm.
What comes first, the catch phase or the character?
In my, limited, experience, it can happen both ways. When I used Xtranormal to make “The Barrier”, I had to choose the voices and appearances of the characters before I began to write. I also had some preliminary ideas for dialogue. As I wrote and rewrote the scenes, the voices, the appearance and the words they said began to define their character. As the characters developed, they generated ideas for dialogue, which further developed the characters.
Character Traits and Tags List
Some writers have developed lists of words that can be used to describe emotions. I’d like to have a similar list that linked character traits to verbal catch phrases and other types of character tags. While I have found that I can sometimes get a sense of the links without a formal process, I think a list and a process would make it go faster. I haven’t come across that kind of list, but maybe there is one out there I don’t know about.