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How to show character through dialogue

A long time ago, I wrote a pair of articles about dialogue: one about the importance of realistic dialogue, and one with techniques for creating distinctive dialogue. This, then, is part three: techniques for revealing details about your character through dialogue.

Dialogue is all about nuance. After all, there are almost limitless ways to say any particular thing you want to say, but each one carries its own flavor. Showing character through dialogue is all about being sensitive to the nuances of these different flavors, and picking the one that best matches the traits of the character saying the line.

Consider, just for example, the difference between “Would you mind fixing me a ham sandwich?” and “I’d like a ham sandwich,” and even “fix me a ham sandwich.”

Attitude towards others

Speaking of ham sandwiches, that example shows clearly some differences in attitude towards others. Respect versus disrespect. The part to clue in on is the grammatical nature of the sentence. The question is the most respectful. It gives the listener the opportunity, at least on the surface, to say no. It expresses the speaker’s wishes without being too pushy about it. The simple declarative sentence is pretty neutral. Context would indicate whether it’s a request or just a wish. The imperative sentence, a literal command, is the least respectful as it leaves no linguistic room for the listener to say no. It attempts to impose the speaker’s will on the listener.

When attempting to convey nuances of respect or disrespect, look to questions, statements, and commands as your tools. And remember, respect and disrespect factor into all sorts of personality traits. For example, simple arrogance—a character who always feels he knows better than everyone else—can manifest as a tendency towards issuing commands rather than stating his opinions declaratively. He would say “You don’t want to do that,” rather than “Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Command versus declaration.

This is also a useful tool for underscoring relationships between characters where there is a difference in social power. For example, an employee/boss relationship, a soldier/commander relationship, et cetera. The person in the higher position of power can get away with using the less respectful forms, while the person in the lower position will tend towards the more respectful forms. And if you have a character intentionally break the pattern, watch the sparks fly: Employees and soldiers don’t issue commands to their bosses and those of higher rank.

Mood

Dialogue is a wonderful way of showing moods and emotional states. The underlying axis here is not respect-to-disrespect, but rather, calmness-to-agitation. And the tool for revealing it is grammatical correctness.

A character who is calm and collected will naturally speak in sentences that are more complete and more correct than one who is agitated. When a character totally freaks out, it’s natural for them to stutter and splutter, speak in sentence fragments, re-start sentences or switch to a new sentence half-way through the old one, and generally exhibit all manner of verbal tics.

This is not to say that a calm character should always speak in flawless King’s English. No. Of course real people speak in ways that are very different than written English, even when they’re calm. But the more agitated someone is, the farther they tend to stray from the strict rules of grammar.

Personality

Another core character trait that dialogue excels at showing is the scale from introversion to extroversion. Is the character shy or outgoing? Cool towards others, or engaging and warm? The tool for doing this is simple word count: Expansiveness versus brevity.

Shy people don’t tend to talk as much. When they do, they choose their words carefully. Outgoing people tend to talk more. They’re more likely to gab, to expand on a thought with tangents and side-thoughts, and so forth.

Let’s say a patron walks into a library and asks where to find a book on Detroit muscle cars of the 1950s. One librarian says “Those are in the 629s,” and points you towards a particular shelf. Another librarian, given the same question, says “Oh, yes! All the stuff about cars is in the 629s. Here, let me show you.” She comes out from behind her desk to lead you to the right shelf.

One is all business, she says the minimum necessary to end the conversation. The other is happy and personable, and attempts to make a connection with the patron. Nobody expects the conversation to end with an invitation to a weekend bar-b-que or anything, but still, she’s striving in that brief encounter to make a relationship. As a reader, you’re perfectly entitled to conclude that one is more shy and the other more outgoing.

Going further

Those are just three character attributes you can play with. But you can take this technique much further. Most personality traits have an opposite. That is, there’s a spectrum for that attribute, just as with the three I’ve covered here. Greedy is the opposite of generous. Kind is the opposite of cruel. There’s always an opposite, which means there’s a spectrum.

Take that ham sandwich line—or the particular line you’re struggling with—and ask yourself how someone from each end of the spectrum would say the line. For example, the greedy person would say “where’s my ham sandwich,” the use of possessive grammar indicating a focus on what belongs to him. The generous person might not ask at all, but might instead suggest a trade, “Boy, I’d give you the keys to my car for a ham sandwich right about now.”

Those are extremes, but considering the extremes can be very instructive. Once you have a handle on the spectrum you’re working with, you’ll have a better sense for where to pitch your specific character’s line of dialogue.

November 20, 2009 21:05 UTC

Tags: character, dialogue, attitude, respect, mood, personality, introverted, extroverted

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5 Comments:

Posted by Elizabeth Spann Craig on November 20, 2009 23:04 UTC

Great ideas, here. I’m tweeting this one.

Elizabeth <a href="http://mysterywritingismurder.blogspot.com/"> Mystery Writing is Murder</a>

Posted by Terry Odell on November 21, 2009 00:51 UTC

Excellent advice. I’ve been doing edits/revisions and found my cop was far too deferential for a police chief. Nice to see I figured it out on my own before I saw this post. Always feels good to know you’re ‘right.’

It’s important that the reader recognize each character through their dialogue. My 78-year-old characters won’t speak like my 30-something characters. And they’d darn well better not speak like ME! Not after the 1st draft.

Posted by Camille on November 21, 2009 08:24 UTC

Nice essay. And of course violations of these social rules may be subtle clues too. If, say, the quiet, respectful elderly secretary speaks in the pattern of commands toward her younger boss, and he doesn’t object - that tells you something about the office dynamics.

(I think of it as the “Columbo” factor - when clues like that tell you that all is not what it seems.)

Posted by Jason Black on November 21, 2009 17:51 UTC

I think of it as the “Columbo” factor - when clues like that tell you that all is not what it seems.

Heh. “Columbo factor". I like that. At heart, it’s the essence of “Show, don’t tell.” The writer’s whole job is to construct a series of clues that enable the reader to play Columbo and figure out what’s going on. Good metaphor. I’ll have to remember that one.

Posted by Camille on November 22, 2009 06:34 UTC

Well, that wasn’t how I meant it, but that works too.

I just meant that Columbo appears to be unimpressive. He schleps around the scene, super polite and deferential, all the time controlling what is going on. And the writers show us that through subtle violations of expectations, especially in dialog.

But yes, it’s also a matter of the audience acting as Columbo. I like that.

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