Developing Character through Dialogue

My post marks the end of a two-week blog focus on character. Maybe you're sick of reading about character today. Maybe you're thinking, WHAT ELSE CAN BE SAID ABOUT CHARACTER AFTER ALL THESE AWESOME POSTS? I know. I've been wondering that too. How can I contribute something of value to the conversation on character? Well, here it goes! 

A little recap:

A novel's plot can be a breathtaking, high-stakes ride, but it's the characters who make us care and invest our time in those pages, feeling a full range emotions with each carefully-orchestrated beat. One of the ways characters show us what they're made of is through dialogue.

Following witty banter on the page has always been one of my favorite reading experiences. It's also one of my favorite things to write. As a teen, admittedly, I remember skimming over paragraphs of prose to get right to the dialogue. Dialogue brought me closer to the characters. Who doesn't love reading a laugh-out-loud line? Listening in on the whispers of two lovers? Understanding an inside joke? 

Great dialogue will make readers feel like one of the cast. As writers, our characters have the opportunity to tell people off in moments when we, in reality, might keep our traps shut, ask painful questions that are difficult to voice, gossip about each other, forgive someone, voice love, snub someone, or cry out in fear. 

But, as the sayings goes, actions speak louder than words. So we can also assume that fascinating, plot-advancing, character-developing dialogue isn't just about what a character says – it's also about what they don't say in front of specific people, in a particular setting, during an uncomfortable situation, and so forth. People don't always share what they're really thinking. What a character voices and stays silent on equally lends insight into our characters' motivations, problems, relationships, flaws, plans, feelings, and strengths. 
So, how does a writer craft unpack the elements of dialogue to deepen character? Here are a few points to think about...

1. Consider Voice. It seems like every writing conference addresses voice, voice, voice (for more on voice, check out two key archived Muse posts, here and here.) All of publishing seems to crave the "next great unique voice." It's a loaded term, but when it comes to dialogue, let's break down "voice" to the literal level – how might your character sound? What words might he or she use? How do these words reflect her upbringing, reveal her root need, and mask her sensitivities? Would she say the same thing under the influence of drugs or alcohol, behind her mom's back, on the Internet, or to her best friend's face? A character should sound like a real person and, as former literary agent Mary Kole writes in her craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, "Your characters must have such distinct voices and speech patterns that, if I were to take the dialogue tags out of your scenes, I could still tell exactly who is speaking." Read your text aloud – that always helps find the snags of inauthenticity. 

2. Balance Action and Dialogue. Characters shouldn't just sit around, mindlessly chatting with each other – action should be injected into dialogue scenes. Well-written dialogue has a point – it upticks the plot, raises the stakes, and gives the reader new data about the character(s). If back story and/or information needs to be communicated to the reader, offer it as breadcrumbs over a few scenes or chapters, or try Blake Snyder's "Pope in the Pool" technique which, in essence, means this: if you want your readers to absorb all-important information, then engage them with lively, entertaining action to "bury the backstory." Snyder references in his screenwriting book Save the Cat an example from one of his scripts (Drips). Two of the characters have an iced tea drinking contest before a meeting with the Bad Guy – then, during this big power point presentation, the two guys really, really have to pee. All the water references – like sprinklers going off out the window, and an attractive girl pouring a tall drink – only make it more uncomfortable for the characters, and more entertaining for the reader. But, in the midst of the dialogue and Pope-in-the-Pool action, the reader learns about how the heist is going to go down and gains new insight into these characters' motivations and behaviors.

3. Create Conflict. What happens when you dual characters against each other in dialogue? It makes for a heart-racing scene. We, as readers, pick sides. We better understand why so-and-so's feelings were hurt. We get angry. We sympathize. We forgive. We care. As legendary agent Donald Maas states in his book Writing the Breakout Novel, "Think about it: We read fiction not just to see ourselves but also to imagine ourselves as we might be." That applies to the good, bad, and whole spectrum in between, and well-written dialogue can tap into this core concept, making it a more satisfying read. 

4. Diversify the Cast. Work to make your characters different from each other. For the purposes of this post, zoom the lens on their dialogue (and lack thereof.) Is a character particularly quiet? Maybe it's not because she's shy. Maybe it's just in front of Johnny, or when she's depressed, or after her mom's had a few drinks, or when she's hanging with the softball team. Maybe it's because lies come too easily. Maybe her body language is giving something away. Dig deeper. Layer in an assortment of folks, and give them each a unique voice, perspective, motivation, and purpose – and see what happens when they engage in conversation with each other.

5. Unleash the Unexpected. Author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford once wrote on his site, "There's nothing worse than reading a stretch of dialogue where the characters are saying precisely what we think they're going to say... The best dialogue counters our expectations and surprises us." So true! Let your characters loose on the page. Allow them to be larger-than-life. What then might come out of their mouths?

5. Be Smart with Blocking. Say your lead is blubbering away about something, but then suspends conversation to perform a physical action (please, limit the arched eyebrows) before finishing his thought – that's blocking. What's so important that caused your character to pause? Why didn't he just say what he was going to say? Blocking, when written effectively, can inject action on the page and reveal depth of character. Too much craftiness is only going to pull the reader out of the world you've created by shouting HEY YOU'RE READING!! Use blocking to your advantage – showcase what your character isn't saying and why that's important for the reader to know. (Added tip: during revisions, look for places to cut out sub-par blocking, bloated exposition, and excessive dialogue tags. You may be surprised by how much can be trimmed from your dialogue scenes, allowing the real conversation to shine.)

6. Calm Down the Clever. You know that side-splitting one-liner in your manuscript, the one that's there just because you're so proud you came up with it? It might be witty, but if your character's chatter doesn't advance the plot or a reader's understanding of the novel's cast, cut it out. I find this point particularly heartbreaking. Chop, chop! 

7. Don't State the Obvious. If a character is generically commenting on the season's first snow and we already know it's winter, the dialogue isn't offering anything new to the story. But what if the character is making a snow angel for the first time? And with his younger half-sister, who he only just met this afternoon? What if she didn't have gloves, and he used all his allowance money to buy her a pair at the store? What might that first snow mean then? Find creative ways to layer in the plot with the dialogue and build connections between characters, enriching the reader experience.

One of my favorite examples of awesome dialogue is from Charlotte's Web. Writer E.B. White crafted an unforgettable tension-filled, character-enhancing, plot-propelling scene right from the very first line (!). Brilliant.

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
"Out to the hoghouse," replied Mrs. Arable. "Some pigs were born last night."
"I don't see why he needs an ax," continued Fern, who was only eight. 
"Well," said her mother, "one of the pigs is a runt. It's very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it."
"Do away with it?" shrieked Fern. "You mean kill it? Just because it's smaller than the others?"
Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. "Don't yell, Fern!" she said. "Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway."

Two recent (and very different) favorite YA reads of mine: The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan (the striking voices, regional slang, and captivating dialogue had me saying babs, mams & lads for weeks!) and Insignia by S.J. Kincaid (the banter between Tom, Vik, Wyatt and Yuri made me feel like one of the gang.)

Now, your turn. What have you discovered that works and doesn't when writing dialogue, from the perspective of developing character? Any additional tips for allowing your character to reveal himself or herself through verbal or body language? And feel free to share your favorite character quotes, below!


Such great advice, Jodi! I love dialogue--reading it and writing it. I'm going to have to refer back to this as I dig deeper into my first draft!

These are such great tips! I love the one about having your characters say the unexpected. It really does make for a much more entertaining read. And now I want to read Charlotte's Web again--haven't read that book in ages. :)

Great post! I loved the dialogue in Insignia, too!

Ooh, the next thing on my list is to revise dialogue in my WIP. I'm so excited to do that with your techniques in mind!

thanks for the post. Particularly about nixing the arched eyebrows!!

Jodi, this is a treasure trove of good ideas! Thank you!

These are great! I really need to be smarter with blocking. One arched eyebrow is okay, right? Right? :)

I'm bookmarking this. I know I'm going to want to (need to) read this again. Thanks!

Such a good summary of things to consider with regards to dialogue revealing character, though I particularly liked the last one—the encouragement to not state the obvious. Truly great dialogue always carries an undercurrent of subtext, just like the best chocolate cake has a whisper of rum and espresso in it. Barely noticeable, but there, creating more layers for your mind to work on.

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