Speech Patterns: What are They?

People Talking. Photo courtesy of MorgueFile.com

People Talking. (Photo courtesy of MorgueFile.com)

Speech patterns. You might not have realized it, but most people have a speech pattern. It’s easiest to notice when people break them. For instance:

I was friends with a guy in college who was having a relationship with a married woman. I didn’t know about it. I was crazy about him. But one day, I’d asked him if their relationship was more than what it appeared to be. Something had happened and I’d felt compelled to ask. He dismissed my concerns and I believed him. But that night, he brought up the discussion again. In our three years of friendship, he’d never done that. Ever. He remembered conversations if I brought them up, but he’d never brought them up himself. That was when I knew something was wrong. Because he varied his speech pattern.

In a more recent example, there is a young woman I’ve been friends with for some time. In the last year, I’ve noticed our “friendship” is rather one-sided. She hasn’t once asked what’s going on in my life, returned my calls (unless she initiated the call), responded to my emails or acknowledged my texts. However, last weekend, she changed her speech pattern. She asked me how I was doing and if I’d been in our hometown the day before. Two questions. Unprecedented. I already knew why she was asking, but it still amused me.

What Does This Have to Do With Writing?

Not a whole lot. And a lot.

As writers, we’re trying to create interesting, unique characters that remind us of real people. That means they need speech patterns. In one novel I wrote, my character is very gruff, very to-the-point, very demanding and, quite frankly, rude. But he starts to change for one character (because he wants to impress her) and gradually that starts to influence all of his reactions.

Not all of your characters will have identifiable speech patterns. But, when they lie, they should do something different – and it should be something specific. A tell of sorts, even if it’s not an action. Or if they’re embarrassed, they should do something different. It makes them feel more like real people. And the thing they do should be pretty consistent. In the example with my friend from college, he’d had several hours to figure out how he wanted to handle the situation and address it, once we were face-to-face. He clearly had no idea what his speech pattern was. (I’d wager that most of us don’t.)

Speech patterns have one other thing to do with writing: We all have speech patterns. When we write, it’s very easy to force our own speech patterns onto our characters. The way we think certain things or say them. Sometimes, it doesn’t sound like the character thinking or saying them, but the writer. (You can tell this more if you have a friend who’s work you’ve read, not from an author you don’t know.)

This can be a difficult problem to solve. Again, most of us don’t recognize our own speech patterns, or we recognize them incorrectly, so how do we catch them in our writing? The truth is, we probably won’t. You need other people to read your work and critique it, to tell you when a character’s voice is off so you can fix it. Sometimes you’ll catch it when you edit on your own, but most of the time, you need someone else to spot it for you.

Creating speech patterns for charactersTalking on the beach

Creating speech patterns can be easy. Think about:

1- The time period the story is set in.

2- Where the story is set. Someone who is from Pennsylvania speaks differently from someone from Georgia, who speaks differently from someone in England or California or Australia or who’s just learned English.

3- Your character’s character – how do they behave? How do they act? How do they treat others? What do they think of people – or one or two other people in particular? This should all come out in speech patterns.

4 – Your character’s education. Very intelligent people – say someone with a doctorate – tend to speak differently than young children or people who have a high school education. It’s important to recognize the differences and use them to develop your character.

Creating more specific character patterns is hard. But ask yourself the following questions:

1- Does she value what other people have to say? Or is she always right?

2- Does he want to do the talking? Or does he let others lead?

3- Does your character want to hide himself from the world? Is he open? Is she private?

All of this will influence how your characters speak.

Happy Writing!

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Comments

  1. Hi Robin- Great post! I worry about this with my wips, sounding like my characters. Tell all–Did I do this with CACHE? Did you see my speech patterns in my characters? I think this is one of the toughest parts of writing unless we’ve conquered our character’s personalities.
    I will ponder this post all day!
    Michelle

    • Robin says:

      Michelle,

      I agree completely that it’s hard unless we’ve completely conquered our characters. I think that’s why it always astounds me when authors write two (or more) first-person characters incredibly well.

      No, I don’t think you did it with CACHE to any large extent. There might have been a few lines that struck me that way, but none that I can recall. Your characters each had very distinct voices. 🙂

      Enjoy your day!

      -Robin

  2. Very helpful observations and post. This is info. I’ll want to remember!

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