Should my characters use some favorite expressions when they speak so they seem more real?
Published: March 29, 2012
Q: I’ve read that characters sometimes have favorite expressions and that using these in dialogue can make them seem more real. I’ve been looking for this as I read, but I’m just not coming across any examples. Can you help?
A: People do often return again and again to a particular word, phrase or expression. It’s such second nature, that we often don’t notice it in our own speech. Listen for these in your day-to-day conversations and you’ll see the extent of this practice. A co-worker may have a specific way of expressing agreement: “Shoot, that’s right” or “I hear you.” A friend might greet you the same way every time: “Bro” or “What’s the news?” Another friend might trail off at the end of sentences with a phrase like, “that’s about it.”
Many writers have brought this human tendency into fiction. In Dorothy Parker’s short story “Here We Are,” a young newlywed husband often pleads with his wife to listen: “Listen, baby,” “Listen, honey” and “Now, listen here.” Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby often uses the phrase “old sport.” Bartleby in Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, The Scrivener” often replies to questions with the phrase “I prefer not to.” The narrator in Tom Paine’s short story “The Anarchist Convention” is generous with his use of the word “dude.”
As with all uses of repetition, tread carefully. You want this to contribute to a distinctive voice. You don’t want it to clutter the story. In Parker’s “Here We Are,” the husband uses “listen” five times in story that’s about eight pages in length. Fitzgerald has fewer than fifty uses of “old sport” in a novel that’s over two hundred pages. Strive for balance and remember that the reader will notice repetition. Even subtle use can help create a memorable voice.
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Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide
. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including
Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.