Revealing Character through Dialogue

Photo Credit:  Marc Wathieu  /Compfight /Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Marc Wathieu /Compfight /Creative Commons

Characterization is a critical aspect of writing.  Interesting,  believable characters are a key element of what elevates good writingfrom mediocre. Characterization can be achieved in many ways – how the character dresses, what they do, and what they think. 

One of the most important ways to reveal character is through dialogue.

As Stephen Kingsays in On Writing, “...what people say often conveys their characterto others in ways of which they -- the speakers -- are completelyunaware.”

Consider the difference between “Would you mind making me a drink?” and “I’d like a drink,” and even “Fix me a drink.” They each tell you different things about the speaker. (And clearly trying to reveal my characters through dialogue makes me think about drinking.)

Most writers know to avoid the use of adverbs, such as quietly, angrily, and excitedly, to describe how things were said, and as a part of characterization. However achieving characterization through dialogue is tricky. As one emerging writer noted, when he started writing, all of his characters spoke just like him.

In reality, most people speak in a very distinctive manner, with different vocabularies, favorite phrases, word arrangements, tendencies for brevity or length and so on.

Some writers use descriptions of what the characters are doing and how they are reacting during dialogue to contribute to characterization. For example: Sharon slammed the fridge door. “Do you really mean that?”

These descriptions function as dialogue tags and reduces the overuse of ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ and are particularly useful when there are more than two people speaking. However, too many of these kinds of descriptions around dialogue can result in overwriting.

Good dialogue should convey meaning and tone and contribute to characterization on its own.

It should not be reliant on the descriptive items around it.

All characters should have their own vocabulary, speech patterns, rhythm, tone, favorite words, and sentence structure. They should have their own tendencies to be bold or acquiesce, swear or use slang, speak in long or short sentences, respond kindly or critically, tell the truth or lie, and leave things unsaid. 

All of these speaking tendencies combine to reveal character, such as whether the person is introverted or extroverted, forceful or timid, kind or unkind, educated or uneducated, honest or dishonest and excitable or calm. It helps to reveal where they are from, and their past experiences.

Think about all of these things in association with your character and then try to incorporate them into your dialogue in a way that is natural, moves the story forward, and reveals the kind of person your character is. But don't overdo it. Making every character speak in a different dialect, overusing a character's favorite word, and having certain characters always speak in eloquent sentences is distracting.