Last updated on August 20, 2017
Revealing characters through dialogue is one of the easiest things to convey and at the same time? It’s the most challenging approach to characterisation.
Writing natural-sounding dialogue under any regular circumstance is already tough. And a lot of writers aren’t good at it. To think about revealing characters’ personalities through their patterns of speech is a big challenge.
When you’re writing, you know in your head that all your characters are different people. Of course, you do. And if you’re a student of human behaviour, you’ll know from listening to people around you that every person speaks in a distinctive way. They have their own crutch words, their own tendency toward brevity or long-windedness, their own vocabulary, sayings and overall manner.
If you closed your eyes and listened in the middle of a crowded place like a mall, you would hear a symphony of speech patterns. No two would be the same. And so it should be with your characters.
Revealing Characters through their actions
Most writers who’ve been at it for a while know enough to lose the adverbs from their dialogue tags – angrily, sadly, excitedly, etc.. Alluding to their state of mind or revealing characters’ feelings through their actions is preferable. The description of their actions, instead, then becomes part of the characterisation.
A picture is worth a thousand words as they say. It’s this description of actions that paints a picture of the character for the reader. It let’s them see the person in action. This prevents resorting to a lot of narrator telling and keeps characterisation in the realm of showing, instead.
How does this look in practice?
- Jim massaged his temples, “We’ve been at this for hours.”
- “What do you want from me?” Rita slammed the stack of books down on the tabletop.
- Henry stabbed an accusatory finger in his direction, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
- Rico’s knees gave out and he sank down into the chair, “I don’t think I can do that.” He spoke to the floor, “Don’t make me do this.”
Using your characters’ actions to support their dialogue then takes the place of dialogue tags. It adds impact to their words, can reveal their state of mind and shows their emotions despite the words coming out of their mouth. In addition, because it’s action, it gives the story movement and becomes a productive part of your story-telling.
Another benefit is losing a lot of ‘he said’ ‘she said’ – this adds clarity when there are several characters talking.
One thing to watch out for, though, is overuse. The same as when employing any other writing device, overuse of describing actions will kill what you’re working to achieve. It can lead to a lot of overwriting which will bog the story down, so something to keep in mind.
Revealing Characters through their words
Thinking about your characters as people, you know they all have a back story. If you’ve built them out well in a character sketch already, you can use their back story to create distinct speech patterns for them.
No two characters should sound the same in dialogue, even if they come from the same fictional background. Their experience that led them to the moment they emerge in your story should dictate the words they choose to use. Their personality should come through in their tone, the rhythm of their speech and even the way they structure their sentences.
Their level of education and where they were educated can come through in the way they express themselves. Even if you never say it and never explain that history, it will become clear to the reader and they’ll pick up on it from that character’s words.
Vocabulary is a huge device for revealing characters in your story. Just like in the real world, a person’s vocabulary reveals a lot about them without those things being mentioned. A large vocabulary can allude to having gone through higher education. Colloquial expressions can help a reader zero in on knowing where in the world (or the universe) characters hail from. Passive words and use of adverbs can reveal a wall flower or an introvert who doesn’t like attention on themselves. Short, sharp words and directives can indicate someone who’s used to being in charge and was a leader in the past.
Are there any earth-shattering revelations here?
Um, no. Why mention it at all? Because it’s easy to forget there are more ways for revealing characters than through narration. When you get on a roll and are using dialogue tag after dialogue tag that aren’t adding any life to your story, it’s good to take a step back.
A character’s motives or desires can be revealed to your reader through clever use of dialogue. Creative use of dialogue language and descriptive action can sneak those clues to the reader in an understated way. And you never have to come out from behind the curtain to do it.
Using this device well can convey much more alive and well-developed characters to your readers. It will result in characters they develop an emotional attachment to who they’ll remember long after the story is over.