One way to create memorable characters is to give them verbal tics. An added benefit is that if you have a character who speaks with a certain pattern that is unique and recognizable, you can do away with dialogue tags for that character.
Who is this?
“Strong is the dark side, but fight you must.”
Yoda’s verbal pattern uses a figure of speech called anastrophe, which means he changes the normal words order in his sentences. Most would say, “The boy kicked the ball.” The boy=subject, kicked=verb, the ball=object. But Yoda switches these around from subject, verb, object, to verb, object, subject. “Kicked the ball, the boy did.”
There are other figures of speech you could use for your characters. What if you had a character who often used anadiplosis? Anadiplosis in his speech. Speech that set him apart from all the other characters. Other characters who sounded average and boring. Boring to you and boring to your readers. Readers who love to find quirky, fresh characters in books.
You don’t have to make every line of that character’s dialogue come out that way, but you may have a character who speaks that way when he grows agitated or is speaking passionately. Remember Ricky Ricardo breaking into Spanish when he got frustrated with Lucy?
Memorable characters in books I love
In a client’s book, The McVentures of Me, Morgan McFactoid: Hair Today Gone Tomorrow, by Mark S. Waxman, the main character blurts out random facts when he gets nervous. He’s hilarious. In the opening of the book, he’s being chased by a bully. Here are a few lines that give you a glimpse of how he thinks when he’s nervous. He’s running down the street and this is his internal monolog:
I won’t lie to you: I was scared. My heart (which beats over 100,000 times a day) was pounding. My lungs were burning. (If your lung tissue were spread out, it would cover a tennis court.) And my legs felt like they were filled with sand. (Actors, before they go on stage, are often told to “break a leg.” This reflects an old superstition in which it is bad luck to wish someone good luck, so the opposite is done.)
You can imagine how he speaks to the beautiful girl next door when he comes face to face with her. It’s a riot.
This not a verbal tic so much as a character tic. But it works the same way. Often, when Morgan speaks in his breathless, hilarious voice, the author doesn’t need dialogue tags. Readers recognize that when trivia is spewing it’s coming from Morgan.
You can give your characters all kinds of cool tics.
In her delightful book, The Year the Swallows Came Early, Kathryn Fitzmaurice had Groovy navigate life with various foods. She cooked certain meals if she was happy and certain meals if she was sad. If she aced a test at school, it might be a scrambled-egg day, for instance. I think scrambled eggs were for when things were going well—it’s been a while since I read it. Great book, though. And a memorable character.
Memorable characters need fresh quirks
Be careful not to use the same odd behaviors that we’ve already come to know and love. If you use tics that have already been used, you may create memorable characters but they won’t be remembered fondly. There are characters who always quote old movies, and characters who always misuse or mispronounce words. Those have already been done, but you could put on some fresh twists (just as we do with the cliches we want to freshen up). So instead of quoting movies, your character might feel the fairest thing of all is to quote from fairy tales. Or you might move him in a mysterious way and have him quoting from Cowper hymns—or any old hymns.
He may hop down the sidewalk according to the rules that govern a chess piece—maybe he thinks he has to move two steps forward and three sideways. I don’t know why a character would do that. I’m just saying . . . instead of being afraid to step on cracks in the sidewalk, he might move two steps forward and three sideways.
So think about giving your characters verbal tics or personality quirks. These things help make them feel real.
Who are some of your favorite characters? Do they have any tics that make them memorable?
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