Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Do, Do, Do, Da, Da, Da: The Day The Police Taught Me About Character Dialog

Back in the 1980s, Missing Persons asked in their deconstructionist anthem "Words" the important question: "What are words for when no one listens anymore?" Two years prior, though, The Police had their huge hit "Do, Do, Do, Da, Da, Da" where they answered the question with: "Poets, priests, and politicians have words to thank for their positions."

I never really thought much about that line, just chalking it up to another triplet of alliteration (one of my favorite tools to use when writing). But, after years of telling stories, I see that there was something there I hadn't noticed before, something that has been a part of my writing toolbox all these years even if I didn't acknowledge it as such. 

What are words for?

Words are for distinguishing and differentiating characters. That's what words are for. 

Word Choices

When we do this writing task correctly, each character has their own vocabulary and way of speaking. This means that one person may know and use more words than another while another person may speak with a far more limited personal glossary in their brain. Some folks may even have access to a huge vocabulary but play those word options close to the vest and speak differently around different people in your story. 

For example, a character might speak normally around co-workers but rein in the level of words they use when around family, particularly if the family is less educated and sees using a larger vocabulary as showing off. (I have known people like this, who say things like, "Stop using those big words. This ain't college. Speak English when you're home.")

Or maybe you're writing a character who has a more basic English vocabulary but tries to use "ten dollar words" to impress a potential date or to show off to some particular other character (perhaps a competitor for that love interest). 

Regardless, word choices that a character makes can be a vital tool for us in revealing something of that character's, well, character.

Tone and Intent

It's not just the words your characters use though that reveal personality traits. It's the way they use them. There's a world of difference between a person who is well-read and who engages a large vocabulary as a matter of course and a person who treats a large vocabulary as a way to impress people. Same words. Different deliveries. 

Does your prose reflect that difference?

Some characters will wield words as weapons, beating their opponents with them. Some use them as shields to keep them safe from the world outside their bubble (Emily Dickinson, anyone?). And still others are as warm and friendly and sincere as Aunt Bee's (our your own sweet aunt) apple pie. 

But most aren't. Most of us in reality tend to use our words with a purpose. It doesn't have to be nefarious, but it is a specific purpose for a specific moment. And the tone, speed, and even timbre of our words will change based on that purpose. 

Some even play against what the person they're talking to would normally expect to get around this notion. I think of Colombo's unassuming "One more thing," which was the most polite nail ever pounded into a criminal's coffin. Also, many cozy mysteries use this to great effect as well, with kindly old ladies and unassuming caterers who can speak with suspects on a far more personal level than the detective officially investigating the crime. 

But let's look at the three examples we have been given by Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland. All three manipulate words for a specific purpose, but they do so in quite different ways. 


So, you've got a character who speaks with the heart of a poet. Just how would a person like that actually speak?

  • Hides truth in stories
  • Speaks ideas, not always concrete facts 
  • Has and uses a big vocabulary
  • Understands and uses metaphor and symbolic language


What about that character who speaks like a priest? Just how to they use words and ideas when talking?

  • Sells a dream
  • Uses words to box in and label the infinite
  • Use rules words, lots of imperatives and/or implied imperatives
  • Highlights delayed rewards
  • Invokes a higher authority


Let's say your character speaks like a politician. What does that look like?

  • Hide lies in truth
  • Use words as weapons
  • Obfuscates to render meanings pointless
  • Use us vs. them dichotomies
  • Takes things up the chain

Some Examples

Now, that's all well and good, but what does it actually mean for my writing, Mr. Smartypants? (Eventually, that'll be Doctor Smartypants to you, but I digress.) I hear you, and I offer the following examples of flat dialogue we can run through the Police's little exercise to give a little snap to.

1. Brenda and Charles realize their relationship has run its course and it's in their best interest to break up before they make things worse. 

Let's start with the basic dry-alogue. (See what I did there?)

Charles: What's up? You said you wanted to talk.

Brenda: I feel like we're drifting apart.

Charles: I've felt that too, but...

Brenda: But what?

Charles: I've been too afraid to say anything because I didn't know how you felt. 

Brenda: So, what do we do now?

What happens when we give Charles a dash of poet and Brenda a sprinkling of politician?

Charles: So, what's taking up all your thoughts? You seem like you're somewhere else lately. 

Brenda: I feel... Well... I feel like you aren't committed to this anymore. 

Charles: Me? I have always tried to be as committed to us as you are. I'm following your lead. 

Brenda: That's just like you to turn this around and blame me. 

Charles: I've let my timidness stop me from pointing it out, but now that you are of a separate mind about us...

Brenda: Fine. I should have known the first time you... (and so on and so forth)

Okay, so it's not Shakespeare, but they have some personality, and their word choices reflect that, and so does their new tone. Charles clearly wants to talk around it (like a poet), while Brenda wants to take no responsibility for anything bad (like a politician). 

2. Scarlet accuses Tina of stealing her lunches from the work refrigerator. 

First the bland and basic.

Scarlet: Someone has been taking lunches out of the fridge. Other people's lunches.

Tina: Oh?

Scarlet: Yeah, and I think you know who.

Tina: How would I know?

Scarlet: Because it's you. You're stealing my lunches.

Tina: I didn't see your name on anything. 

Scarlet: You know the blue bowl is my Tupperware.

Tina: Lots of people have blue Tupperware. I own one too.

Now let's give Scarlet a dose of politician and Tina a few drops of priest. 

Scarlet: Someone should do something about the way people are treating other people's property, namely their lunches. 

Tina: If it's a big deal, sure. Probably bigger things to worry about though. 

Scarlet: It's not like we don't know who's behind the stolen lunches.

Tina: We do? Since when did I become my sister's keeper?

Scarlet: This is a problem, and I will take it to HR unless it stops. 

Tina: Can anyone really own food anyway? It's out there for all of us.

Scarlet: I can own the bowl I brought it in. That makes it mine.

Tina: What is a bowl except for a cage for trapping something that God intended for all of us?

Okay, so Tina's a bit of a hippy-dippy priest, but Scarlet isn't having any of it. Like a good politician, she wants to manipulate the rules and appeal to a higher court if she doesn't get her way. Tina, on the other hand, doesn't see it as that big a deal and likes to keep the conversation vague and spiritual to avoid the physical and real. 

3. Ms. Wilson explains to her 12-year-old son, Colton, that she can't afford to send him on the school trip to the amusement park. 

Here's the basic conversation outline:

Colton: But I want to go.

Ms. Wilson: I'm sorry, Colton.

Colton: Everybody else in the class is going. Why can't I go?

Ms. Wilson: You just can't, son. We don't have the money.

Colton: I hate this. I wish I lived with dad. He has money.

Ms. Wilson: You don't mean that. 

Colton: I do too. I do mean it.

Sadly, I remember conversations like this with my kids growing up (except for the divorce part). Guilt aside, let's beef this up with some help from Andy, Sting, and Stewart. Let's make Mom a bit of a poet and Colton a bit of a priest. 

Colton: Mom, it's the experience of the year. I'll die if I don't go. 

Ms. Wilson: It may feel like it, Colton, but I'm sure you'll be back from the grave in no time.

Colton: You don't understand. My whole popularity depends on this. My whole life.

Ms. Wilson: Let me tell you a story about popularity, son --

Colton: I don't want a story, Mom. I want a different life.

Ms. Wilson: Our money is dried up, Colton. We're done for the month. 

Colton: This isn't fair. Other people have money to go. Even dad would be better than living with you.

Ms. Wilson: That hurts. That really hurts. 

Colton: Well, it's the truth.

Aunt Bee's Apple Pie, as hinted at above. Want her recipe?

Still not Pulitzer-Prize-winning prose, but I do feel like I know more about Colton and his mom this time. Mom feels things intently and wants to protect her son from the truth with softer language and personal stories. Colton elevates the trip to something above the importance of the real world and makes it more important than the here and now. 

Triplets in Action

Now, as you well know, "poets, priests, and politicians" is by no means an exhaustive list of character types with their own ways of speaking (or communicating by not speaking). You could pretty much choose any other triplet of your own choosing:

  • '50s moms, '20s single women, '70s bra-burners
  • prophets, priests, and kings
  • elves, orcs, and dwarves
  • married guys, single guys, divorced guys
  • poor, rich, middle class
  • college-educated, street-educated, blue-collar educated
  • the list goes on

The point is each has his, her, or their special patterns of saying things. Each has his, her, or their special common vocabulary. Each has his, her, or their special circumvention to avoid being direct or forcefulness to try to force the other person to be more correct. 

Each is different, and the dialog you create should reflect that truth. 

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