How to Show Character
by Jason Black
Many moons ago, I wrote a pair of
articles on dialogue, one on
writing more realistic dialogue and one on
making your different characters' dialogue sound distinctive.
Those are both important, but dialogue is also a key tool of
Dialogue is all about nuance. There
are almost limitless ways to say any particular thing you want to
say, but each 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 delivering the zine.
Here are three variations on the same
message. Consider the nuances of each:
you mind fixing me a ham sandwich?”
“I’d like a ham sandwich.”
“Fix me a ham sandwich.”
Attitude Towards Others
Those three variations clearly show
differences in the speaker's attitude towards the listener. The
difference comes from the grammatical form 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.
Relative degrees of respect or
disrespect between characters factor into nearly every interaction
your characters will have. If you've got a scene that doesn't quite
feel right, try shifting the dialogue between questions, statements,
and commands to achieve the tone you want.
Remember, too, that 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 habit of issuing commands rather
than stating his opinions. He would say “Hey, don't do that,” rather
than “Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Command versus
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 will use the less respectful
forms, while the person in the lower position will tend towards the
more respectful forms. Which is great because when a character
intentionally breaks the pattern, the sparks will fly: Employees and
soldiers don’t issue commands to their bosses and commanders.
Moods and Emotional States
Dialogue is a wonderful way of showing
moods and emotional states. The underlying axis here is not
respect-to-disrespect, but calmness-to-agitation. 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 people are emotionally
distressed, grammar goes straight out the window. People 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. Note, giving each
character their own specific verbal tics for such situations is another
great way to create distinctive dialogue.
This is not to say that a calm
character should always speak in flawless King’s English. Even when
calm, spoken English is still very different than written English.
But the more agitated someone is, the further they tend to stray
from the strict rules of grammar.
Dialogue is also a marvelous tool for
showing one of the most seminal personality traits, the scale from
introversion to extroversion. Is the character shy or outgoing? Cool
towards others, or engaging and warm? The tool for revealing 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.
Imagine asking a librarian 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 you. Nobody
expects the conversation to end with an invitation to a social
engagement, but still, she’s striving in that brief encounter to
create a relationship. As a reader, you’re perfectly entitled to
conclude that one is more shy and the other more outgoing.
This technique is much broader than
just those three examples. Any personality trait has an opposite.
Greedy is the opposite of generous. Kind is the opposite of cruel.
There’s always an opposite, so there’s always a spectrum you can
work with. Use dialogue to reveal the character's place on the
Take a line of dialogue you’re
struggling with and consider how someone from each end of the
spectrum would say the line. In the ham sandwich example, a greedy
person might ask “Where’s my ham sandwich?” The use of possessive
grammar indicates 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
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.
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Jason Black is a book doctor who has helped over 50 novelists
improve their work in the past two years, has appeared at the PNWA
Summer Writers Conference in 2009 and 2010, and is writing a book on
character development techniques. To learn more about Jason or read
his blog, visit his website at