How to Show Character Through Dialogue
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 different. Those are both important, but dialogue is also a key tool of characterization.
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:
“Would 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 statement.
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 spectrum.
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 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.
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 www.PlotToPunctuation.com.