One of the most common questions I get asked after reviewing a manuscript for a consult is:
"Did you see any places where any of my characters spoke out of character."
To which, I usually sigh.
My frustration doesn't come because I think that is a bad question. Normally, the authors I consult with are in early stages of development. It is a good question and it is something every author should be concerned with. My frustration comes in the fact that throughout the pages of the manuscript, I virtually always provide tips along the way to help said author build stronger characters. By asking me that question after, I am left with the impression that they either didn't read those tips, or didn't understand them even though I try to avoid making the tips overly complicated.
What I see most often in underdeveloped characters is dialog that is very generic in nature. It is the type of dialog that could be spoken by anyone at any time. If you have a character that speaks in very generic terms, with no specific dialog, key phrases, or style, then how can you determine that a character would or wouldn't say any one specific thing. There is nothing wrong with having a 'well rounded' character I suppose, but if all of your characters fit this description, then all of your dialog will be 'well rounded.'
Here is one example I ran across recently. In the story in question, the author wrote a young homeless girl character. In the beginning of the story the girl stares into a diner wishing she could eat inside. She is shooed away and ends up in an alley where she is stabbed only to be saved by a nearby vampire who was out hunting for the evening. In the beginning of the story, she paints the character, making her out to be pathetic and weak in order to try and pull at her reader's heart strings. All of her characters dialog was generic, there were awkward scenes infused into some of her chapters because she understood that she needed drama, but the drama didn't occur naturally. The author inevitably asked me that question.
What these authors are looking for is the 'Han Solo' effect, I think. If you're not familiar with the 'I know' story, here it is paraphrased.
During the filming of The Empire Strikes Back, just before Han is lowered into the chamber where he's encased in Carbonyte, Leia hollers out, "I love you."
They filmed his reply in many different takes. Originally he was supposed to reply, "I love you too," but it just didn't fit. It didn't feel right. After a time, Harrison Ford eventually said, "I know." It was a Bingo moment and they used it.
Not to say that Han Solo was the greatest character ever written, but he was a very 'trait specific' character. He's been described as a 'rogue space cowboy, a ladies man, a bad-boy along with other things. He was arrogant and self centered, but likable, witty and determined and by the end of the movie, he develops a bigger heart. Everybody knew when they heard him say, "I love you too," that it just didn't fit his style. "I know," did.
So how do you develop a character like that? Here is what I told the author in regard to her homeless character:
"Change your character's personality traits right from the beginning of the story. Instead of making her a 'pathetic' homeless person, make her a survivor. Make her the type of girl who is determined to make it through every day and is willing to do what it takes. She is the type of girl willing to sleep on a rat infested mattress, wait behind dumpsters for restaurants to throw away leftovers. She has learned the skill of pick-pocketing, has developed connections with fences and disguises herself as a boy so that she doesn't come off as weak. That way, when your hero is stabbed, you don't have to go to such extremes trying to tug your readers heartstrings about the fact that her life is being cut short. That will happen naturally, because being a survivor is a likable character trait and later on, when she is under the care of her vampire savior, the fact that he views her as a 'stray' won't be so emotionally damming to her, and you won't risk your readers not liking him. That minor flaw in his character won't matter because your hero has a sense of self worth. On top of that, you also have something through which you can filter her dialog. She is a survivor and has a certain toughness to her after living in the streets for a year so successfully."
There were more things that had to do with other aspects, but that was the gist of the advice for her hero and her heroes personality.
One of the most common practices in writing a character is to use a character profile sheet. I have seen many of these and I do use character profiles in my own writing, but the one thing that I make sure to outline for myself are specific character traits. If you build a character profile or use a template lifted from the internet, make sure that character traits are a part of it. It isn't enough to list out place of birth, occupation, hobbies, marital status, college education and etc. You must have a very specific idea of personality specific traits. Without that, you can't really determine whether your character would or wouldn't say any one thing in particular.
Doing so can be a huge help in your dialog. When writing dialog, it is very important to always keep your character's motivations and slants in mind. If you find yourself writing dialog that looks similar from character to character to character, it is because you don't really know who your characters are. To fill the gap, you end up writing all of your dialog as if you were the person speaking and not your character. The words are yours and not theirs.
To be fair. This happens to me all the time during my rough drafts. Usually, I am half way through a manuscript by the time the traits I outline in my profiles really start to sink in. I don't sweat it. That's what editing is for. For the most part, I spend quite a bit of time and effort fleshing out my characters during the editing process and I do this by focusing in on those personality specific traits that I assign to my characters, often adding backstory in my head during the edit, so that as I'm rewriting the dialog, I can understand why my character behaves and/or says what he/she does.
So, whether you do it during the edit or the rough draft, make sure you have personality traits assigned to your character. It should take you a long way to improving your characters.