Creating a character who leaps off the page, someone readers will remember long after they finish the book, is a writer’s Holy Grail. If your characters sound like who they are and no one else, if readers instinctively know who’s talking, then you are more than halfway there.

In my earlier post about dialogue, I pointed out that if your characters each have a distinct voice, you can get away with far fewer dialogue tags in your fiction writing. But how do you make them sound different from one another? You can’t give every character an accent or a verbal tic that makes that stand out. (Well, you can, but please don’t. One accent and one verbal tic per book is my rule of thumb.)

Here are eight things to consider when crafting distinctive dialog.

1. Sentence length

Listen to how people talk. Some go on in run-on sentences while others limit themselves to a word or two, or even a grunt. When reading a Robert Crais novel, you always know if it’s Elvis or Pike speaking, even without an attribution.

2. Exchange pattern

This is related to sentence length. Does your character yammer on for a paragraph at a time, or does he express himself more succinctly? Does she interrupt frequently, or does he trail off, leaving sentences/thoughts unfinished? All of these can make for distinctive dialogue.

3. Vocabulary

Your medieval history professor should be using a different vocabulary than the gangbanger in your novel. Tune a character’s dialog to their profession, education level, socio-economic background, etc.

4. Thought processes

Dialogue should reflect your character’s thought processes and be consistent with her inner dialog. Is she a logical thinker (and thus talker)? Does he have a stream of consciousness style of talking? Is she easily distracted? These thought patterns should appear in the dialog. The Regency romance and mystery author Georgette Heyer was a master at revealing a character’s thought processes through dialogue.

5. Self-centered vs objective

We all know people who only see the world as it affects themselves. If a character references everything back to himself, this can make his dialog distinctive. “So sorry to hear about Bob’s cancer. That reminds me of when my Aunt Mae was diagnosed with IBS …”

6. Metaphors, references, et al

Use metaphors and personal references that reflect your character’s background. When describing a loud noise, a music lover might say it reminded him of an AC/DC concert, a veteran might compare it to mortar shells exploding, and a parent might say it was louder than a two-year-old’s screams. Mine your characters’ backgrounds for these sorts of comparisons and details.

7. Accents or verbal tics

Use sparingly.

8. Silence

We might not think of silence as part of dialogue, but it definitely is. A character who is silent in response to certain kinds of dialog but not others is distinctive, as is a character who uses silence as a weapon, forcing other characters to speak up to fill the gap. Lee Child‘s recurrent use of “Reacher said nothing,” where other characters might respond, helps create a character whose silence commands a situation.

Don’t overlook the opportunities silence presents for creating a distinctive dialog pattern for a character.