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3. Character and dialogue
If plot covers the what and why of your story, character obviously covers the who.
If you need a reminder of how crucial character is to good storytelling, then imagine someone asks you to summarise a short story, a novel, a movie, or a play. What’s the first thing you might say?
‘There’s this guy…’
Your main character is your protagonist, the person your reader expects to most closely identify with in the story.
Opposite the protagonist is the antagonist, the person who gets in the way.
Protagonists aren’t always pure heroes and antagonists aren’t pure villains. Goodies and baddies are never clear in life and neither are they in good storytelling. A hero who can never fail is not nearly as likeable as a villain who can never succeed, but keeps trying. Think of it as the ‘Road Runner Principle’.
Flaws and failings make all our characters human and believable. They mirror our human flaws and as such make characters sympathetic and relatable for readers. If you engage a reader’s empathy and interest, then they will follow your character anywhere.
Dialogue is the gateway to your character’s heart and mind. It gives you an idea of how they are feeling, pretending, thinking, and viewing the world and is the primary technique for showing character both to the other characters in the story and the reader.
We’re going to lay the foundation for creating compelling characters and believable and revealing dialogue. We will explore how to create an authentic character from the ground up, going past character descriptions to techniques that allow you to create a three-dimensional personality.
But before we explore character in depth, here’s an activity to get you into the mood.
3.2 Activity: character profile
The most basic tactic used to sketch a character is to describe their looks and background. After all, we all judge a book by its cover and our neighbours by their birthplace! This is only the skeletal structure of creating character, but you have to make sure it’s solid enough to hold all the embellishments you are going to add. This exercise will help you get into the habit of sketching out an initial character which you can fill out later.
WHAT TO DO
In five sentences, describe a character’s:
- A defining physical characteristic
- Family situation
- Where they live
- Favourite hobby/music/place in the world
Hang onto this profile. We’ll come back to it later.
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3.3 What is characterisation?
Stories are about people, and your choice of character determines who the story belongs to. This will usually be the characters with the most at stake, or who provide the greatest opportunity for your readers to empathise with.
Character can be conveyed explicitly and implicitly; you can either tell the audience about a character directly or put them in situations where the audience deduces character traits for themselves.
- Explicit characterisation is the most obvious technique. The reader is told what a character is like either by the author, another character or the characters themselves.
- With implicit characterisation, the reader deduces traits that are given implicitly through the character’s actions, other characters’ attitudes towards them, and the way they think and speak about themselves.
Both have their merits, but sometimes explicit characterisation can fall into the trap of the info-dump, meaning you (rather inelegantly) dump a whole load of information for a reader to wade through before they actually get to the story. Many readers won’t bother to do this wading, so you need to be careful how you handle that information. However, on the flip side, implicit characterisation shouldn’t be so subtle that a reader can’t get a handle on what a character is actually like.
3.4 Example: explicit characterisation
The newcomers were male and their demeanour bore a striking resemblance to a pair of stealthy birds of prey about to pounce. One was tall and thin, the other short and fat. Both were swathed in so many outer garments that they must have been close to dying of heat exhaustion. Their faces were obscured by bushy moustaches, beards, hats and thick glasses—which accounted for their inability to see well enough to walk a straight line.
Mrs FB was no fool. Her instant recognition of debt collectors in disguise had saved her many times before; and this time would be no exception.
–Sue Gough, A Long Way to Tipperary
3.5 Example: implicit characterisation
The tram ride; the magic box they called a lift; my first pair of leather shoes; the outlaw horse; and the pillow rides—all were lasting experiences, yet nothing could have prepared me for my first sight of the ocean and Redcliffe.
–Herb Wharton, Yumba Days
3.6 Does your character need to be likable?
Of course not! But then a ‘likeable’ character is not someone you might actually want to befriend.
Well written characters are engaging and interesting. Writers everywhere develop their own techniques for creating characters that readers can empathise with, even if they’re not the kind of person you would want to share a meal with. American writer Catherynne M. Valente’s five features of well-drawn characters is a good starting point:
Give them something to want. People who want things passionately are more interesting than those who don’t (usually).
Give them something to hide. Characters who hide things instantly set up a mystery that the reader starts to puzzle over.
Give them something to fear. Everyone fears something. A character without fear is unfinished.
Give them something to obsess over. People who have obsessions show who they are by how they deal with their compulsions. Also, typically, your character’s obsession will have relevance to the story.
Then hurt them. The easiest way to get a reader to care about a character is to hurt that character, especially unfairly, especially when it’s many against one or when they are humiliated and forced to suffer social castigation.
To create a person for the explicit purpose of harming them is unfortunate, but without unhappy characters you won’t have much of a story. As Tolstoy said in his oft-quoted opening to Anna Karenina, ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ That’s where your story is.
3.7 Characterisation in non-fiction
The emphasis so far has been on creating characters from scratch. However, narrative non-fiction writers can apply many of the same skills, even when you’re working with real people.
In non-fiction, the emphasis is less on creating the characters, but in finding them. Not just finding the people around whom the story happens, but in finding the ‘character’ within the actual person. Actual human beings have complex lives that include traits and details. Somewhere within all that complexity lies the character, the set of traits that relate to the story you want to tell. Non-fiction writers must necessarily make choices as to how the people in their stories are presented, how to introduce the characters to the reader and what parts of their personality are relevant.
This is a delicate skill when your characters are not the product of your imagination and there are plenty of instances where real people have strongly objected to their representation on the page, stage or screen. Of course, it doesn’t help that actual human beings are not typically great at seeing themselves objectively.
Non-fiction writers, have a dual responsibility: to the story and to the truth.
One additional task can help you craft great characters while remaining true to their real selves: regularly step back from the work to determine the integrity of your representation. How does the person on the page correspond with what you know of the actual person? How does your character compare with how other people see the real person?
3.8 Exercise: character profile (part 2)
Remember your character from the first exercise?
Now it’s time to start filling this person out more fully with motivations. It is these motivations that will dictate how your character acts and speaks in your stories.
You will recall from when we talked about plot that a writer knows much more about the story than what a reader finds on the page. The same is true for the characters.
While all of this information is not going to find its way onto the page, it is important that you as the writer know it, as it will help you create believable character reactions. Knowing how your character will react in various situations is the key to a well-rounded personality that jumps from the page.
WHAT TO DO
First, taking your ‘skeleton’ character from the previous exercise, add in details from Valente’s five steps:
- Give them something to want
- Give them something to hide
- Give them something to fear
- Give them something to obsess over
- Then hurt them (go on, be nasty)
You have been building your character up in stages, but another way to think about this process is that you are gradually being introduced. The basic details you began with are the things you might notice about anyone when you first meet them. Above, you got to know them a little better.
Now, we’re going to go deep, getting to know some of your character’s most intimate details. A good way to do this is via a character questionnaire. The following repeats a few of the details we’ve already covered, but it’s a good resource to keep on hand whenever you’re creating someone for your stories:
- What is your character’s name? Does the character have a nickname?
- What is your character’s hair colour? Eye colour?
- What kind of distinguishing facial features does your character have?
- Who are your character’s friends and family? Who does she surround herself with? Who are the people your character is closest to? Who does he wish he were closest to?
- Where was your character born? Where has she lived since then? Where does she call home?
- Where does your character go when he’s angry?
- What is her biggest fear? Who has she told this to? Who would she never tell this to? Why?
- Does your character have a secret?
- What makes your character laugh out loud?
- When has your character been in love? Had a broken heart?
- What is in your character’s refrigerator right now? On her bedroom floor? On her bedside table? In her rubbish bin?
- Look at your character’s feet. Describe what you see there. Does he wear dress shoes, sneakers, or none at all? Is he in socks that are ratty and full of holes? Or is he wearing a pair of blue and gold slippers knitted by his grandmother?
- When your character thinks of her childhood kitchen, what smell does she associate with it? Burning toast? Baking? Paint? Why does that smell resonate for her?
- Your character is doing intense spring cleaning. What is easy for him to throw out? What is difficult for him to part with? Why?
- It’s Saturday at noon. What is your character doing? Give details. If she’s eating breakfast, what exactly does she eat? If she’s stretching out in her backyard to sun, what kind of blanket or towel does she lie on?
- What is one strong memory that has stuck with your character from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?
- Your character is getting ready for a night out. Where is he going? What does he wear? Who will he be with?
Remember, these kind of details won’t make it into your finished work unless they’re relevant to the story (a common bugbear for editors is eye colour: unless it’s relevant, don’t tell us). But this kind of information is invaluable for you as the writer. The more you know about your character, the more implicit characterisation will unfold as you tell your story. You will know what they think, how they move, and how they speak and that depth of knowledge transfers to the page without you having to force it.
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3.9 Stereotypes in characterisation
How do you make characters different and unique and avoid the dreaded stereotype?
Stereotypes exist for a reason. They’re an easy form of shorthand that relies on an assumed knowledge in your readers.
You know the kind.
Stereotypes are shortcuts and they’re lazy. The thing about shortcuts is that you miss out on a lot of detail. You might save time, but you don’t get to know your character properly. And if you don’t know your character properly, your story will fail. Stereotypes can make your story and characters come off as cliché and one dimensional; readers will sense there is no depth in the character and won’t be interested enough to stick with the story. So to create characters that jump off the page you’ve got to give your characters traits that go against the stereotype.
Remember too that your characters will change over the course of the story; they are affected by what goes on around them, what happens to them.
To make a character different you can give them something unexpected. It might be as simple as an object that becomes associated with them during the story. But more commonly, to kill the stereotype, you need to give your characters personal traits that run counter to the stereotype. Physical characteristics, family, friends, hobbies, habits, and behaviours can combine to form how your characters present themselves to the world and all can be used to provide additional texture to the people in your story.
But what if this isn’t an important character? What if you just need this person for a walk on bit? While it’s true you don’t need to invent 300 years of family history for a character with one line of dialogue, you still don’t have to rely on a tired set of traits everyone has seen over and over. A stereotype can be shattered with a few choice words and a little extra effort: a physical trait, a way of speaking, or a small behaviour can give glimpses of greater depth.
Your reader will appreciate it.
3.10 Exercise: Stereotypes
Let’s buck the stereotypes – the hero, the damsel in distress, the knight in shining armour – and make them into characters that are less lofty and more relatable. This is an exercise to get you thinking deeply about your characters.
WHAT TO DO
Here are five stereotypes – make them better! Add something to them to make them interesting, engaging or different. What would a reader not expect from one of these overused shortcuts?
- The bitter divorcee
- The boofhead footy player
- The overbearing father
- The jealous sister
- The pretty blonde cheerleader
Write a walk-on scene for your character. One or two sentences to describe them and maybe a line of dialogue that conveys everything you need to know to smash what could have been just another boring stereotype.
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3.11 Character motivation
A character’s motivation is all important because, unlike life, everything in a narrative happens for a reason. What is it that drives your characters?
Is there a journey, or arc, they follow in the course of the story/novel? The character arc links directly with the rising and falling action we talked about last week, it hangs on the plot points/turning points. Traditionally, an arc is used to expose the character’s flaws which exist at the beginning of the novel, so that by the end she has changed in some way. This shows character development.
Characters’ actions must make sense in terms of their being consistent with their motivation, and what you’ve told the reader about the character (or you know from your character profile). If they do act out of character then there had better be a good, foreshadowed reason for doing so. Take for example a character with a fear of heights in a story requires that they jump off a cliff. Why would they do that when it goes against what we know about them? If there was no pressing reason, the reader would lose faith. However, if the motivation was to save someone else, then suddenly the decision makes sense. Of course, your character is still afraid of heights and, despite the motivation, you need to address that fear in order to maintain your character’s consistency.
For a character to change convincingly, the change must:
- Be consistent with the individual’s characterisation throughout the story
- Be sufficiently motivated by the circumstances in which the character is placed
- Offer sufficient time for the change to take place and be believable
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3.12 The purpose of dialogue
We briefly mentioned the relationship between dialogue and pacing, but there’s a lot more to creating convincing voices when your characters speak.
Dialogue is a story within a story. It tells you something about the person speaking (which you’ll now recognise as implicit characterisation, right?) and reflects back on the action of the main narrative arc (the shape of your story).
Dialogue can serve a number of purposes in your story. Sometimes it will:
- give the reader information
- move the story along
- set cues/foreshadowing for scenes still to come
- set mood
But good dialogue will always:
- show character and reveal motivation
3.13 Example: dialogue
Presently my friend said:
‘You remember when we were in the boat yesterday, we saw a man driving some horses along the bank?’
He nodded at the hearse and said:
‘Well that’s him.’
I thought awhile.
‘I didn’t take any particular notice of him,’ I said. ‘He said something, didn’t he?’
‘Yes; said it was a fine day. You’d have taken more notice if you’d known that he was doomed to die in the hour, and that those were the last words he would say to any man in this world.’
‘To be sure,’ said a full voice from the rear. ‘If ye’d known that, ye’d have prolonged the conversation.’
–Henry Lawson, ‘The Union Buries its Dead’
From this example you can see that good dialogue sounds like real speech (but isn’t – it is condensed only into what is necessary), it gives the reader more information than is apparent on the surface and tells the reader about the characters’ hearts. It does this obliquely and implicitly, not by info-dump. It’s precise and sparse yet imbued with emotional weight and gives information the reader needs about things in the past, especially relationships.
3.14 Ten dialogue pitfalls
Google the phrase ‘dialogue’ pitfalls’ and you will be transported to a wealth of advice, usually in the form of numbered lists of ‘don’ts’. The list of ten below, adapted from UK-based blogger Ali Luke, is a great starting point to get you in the mindset of how dialogue works.
Being too formal. Prose typically sounds much more formal than speech and a common mistake early writers make is not changing the tone of the language once characters start talking. Your teenage protagonists in a post-apocalyptic hell are unlikely to take the time to craft beautiful or clever metaphors for their predicament. Match the tone of the language in your dialogue with the people doing the talking, not the text that surrounds it. What kind of words do they use and with what kind of mannerisms? The way someone speaks gives cues to the reader about the character’s up-bring and social status. But if all of your characters speak formally – “I will” instead of “I’ll”; “do not” instead of “don’t” – you may give an incorrect idea of who they are. And remember, the language of your storytelling is not the same as the language your characters use.
Too much realism. Dialogue sounds like real speech but it isn’t; it’s filtered so that it tells us about the character and gives information. In real life, we babble and go off on tangents, say um/ah/like a lot more than we think we do. And verbatim speech this doesn’t work very well on the ‘page’.
Dialogue is meant to create a rhythm that feels natural.
Your dialogue can borrow a few characteristics from real conversations such as:
- Frequent vocal interjections (like, um, er, etc)
- Unfinished sentences
- Abrupt subject changes (mid-sentence)
- Gaps, pauses, silence
- Misunderstandings and mistakes
But like anything, don’t overuse them. Place them carefully and thoughtfully and with a purpose in mind. If you want more emotional impact, increase the number of self-interruptions and false starts. Alfred Hitchcock said that a good story was “Life, with the dull parts taken out.” Dialogue is the same.
Obtrusive dialogue tags just clutter. The inclusion of tags such as ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ are necessary, but too many slow things down. If you’ve only got two characters in a scene, you don’t need to put a dialogue tag after each piece of dialogue unless the reader will be confused without it. Once you’ve established who’s who, the reader will assume back-and-forth conversation until you break it up. If you’ve got a long stretch of dialogue, especially if you have more than two speakers, then by all means pepper it sparsely with tags to keep a reader on track.
Also remember that while ‘said’ seems boring, it actually becomes invisible to the reader, whereas tags like ‘bemoaned’, ‘cried’, ‘wailed’, etc. are distracting, so use them sparingly. To get the emotion across, but avoid pulling a reader out of the story, you can include a line of action instead of tags.
Sarah came running down the stairs. “I can’t find it anywhere!”
Using phonetic spelling to show an accent. Not so much a firm ‘don’t’ as a ‘tread very carefully’. Accents are difficult to do well. And even when they’re done well, they can be hard to read especially when they’re written phonetically and you have to stumble through a minefield of apostrophes and creative spelling. Irvine Welsh demonstrates ably just how tricky this is to pull off and the result is not for everyone:
The boy curled up in his bed like a skinny black question mark. Ain’t like he got a lot of time to be layin bout. A woman gotta keep him on his toes. That’s me job; to keep the boy goin. Hard but, bein a single mother n all. Be all right if the boy had a father. Arhhh, a woman think a lot a shit, eh? A woman’s thoughts get mighty womba sometimes!
–Vivienne Cleven, Bitin’ Back
(note: womba is slang for crazy)
Instead of writing words out phonetically, try using occasional dialect words (ken, lass) although even then it’s easy to drift into cliché or, worse, insensitivity. Your French character probably shouldn’t exclaim ‘sacré bleu!’ and your Mexican character shouldn’t sound like Speedy Gonzalez. Unusual word order may indicate a character’s unique speech patterns or their unfamiliarity with English, but again it’s a minefield, even for experienced writers to navigate.
Constantly using a character’s name. This is off-putting, especially when you’ve only got two characters in a scene. They know each other and don’t need to use each other’s name except to make a point. This relates to repeated dialogue tags.
Not using narrative breaks between dialogue. A break between dialogue helps ground the reader in the setting, otherwise you just end up with a ‘talking heads’ scene. You can do this via an action, or with a character’s thoughts, like this:
Julie couldn’t stand Mark, but she managed to fake a smile. “Hi. It’s lovely to see you again.”
Or with description, like this:
The pub was dimly lit, but now they were sitting down, Lucy could see the stains on the walls, and the deep scratches in the furniture. She cast around for something to say. “Do you come here often?”
Every character sounds the same. Not all characters need a speech quirk, but it can help sometimes to differentiate them. But don’t give the same speech quirk to everyone. Keep a document listing characters’ habitual phrases, words they don’t use, levels of eloquence and politeness etc. to aid this.
Misuse of indirect speech – or how to tell, not show. Indirect speech is a great way to let the reader know that a conversation is happening, without having to go into any detail.
Tom and Jonathan chatted for a while about the football game they’d seen last night. Beth, bored, went to get another drink.
But too much of this is telling not showing the conversation and that leaves out all the drama and emotion we might pick out of the dialogue.
Anne was angry with Todd so she yelled at him, accusing him of sleeping with her sister.
‘You bastard, you slept with my sister!’ yelled Anne.
Repeating in the narrative what the dialogue has already shown. This one is pretty self-explanatory:
‘You bastard, you slept with my sister!’ yelled Anne, who was angry with Todd the bastard because he’d slept with her sister.
Dialogue as info-dump. The aim of the game is subtlety, not this:
‘As you know, Bob, I’ve been plotting the destruction of the world from my Hawaiian underground lair in the south pacific since April 12, 1982, which is when my father, Rex Palindrome, was killed in an unfortunate donut factory explosion, which was caused by …’
It’s amazing how frequently these kinds of info-dump occur in finished works by writers who should know better. No one ‘recaps’ their backstory with a friend/enemy who should presumably know all about it.
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3.15 Ten steps to great dialogue
Because we’re not all about telling you what not to do, here’s the more positive side of creating good dialogue:
- Listen to people speaking – but don’t steal conversation verbatim!
- Work out what needs to be left out (i.e. whatever doesn’t move your plot forward)
- Read your dialogue aloud (you’ll instantly hear anything clunky)
- Don’t give everything up at once – you need to lure the reader through you story with narrative breadcrumbs
- Punctuate correctly (see more on this in Dialogue mechanics and punctuation) – that’s how you get your meaning across
- Use dialogue to show conflict – what someone says and does can be two different things
- Use a combination of characters directly expressing what they feel, and then implying what they feel: “I don’t want you to go.” versus “Do you have to catch the early bus?”
- Read widely and see what other people do
- Keep dialogue on track
- Keep dialogue consistent with character
3.16 Dialogue mechanics and punctuation
There are multiple methods writers have used to punctuate and format dialogue over the decades. The standard in publishing at the moment is using quotes, either double or single (it doesn’t matter which — you see both frequently) to indicate speech:
The Australian Style Guide prefers single quotation marks:
‘I think that’s it,’ said Marcus.
But double quotation marks are fine if you like them better, especially for creative writing:
“I’m not so sure,” said Hilda.
Whether you choose one or the other, the most important thing is to stick to it. Use only double quotes OR single quotes throughout your manuscript. Mixing and matching styles in the one story is distracting and looks unprofessional.
Over the years, many creative writers have used other methods to punctuate dialogue. In your reading, you may have come across these.
Dropping quotes (“” or ‘’) altogether:
But there’s more to it, said Hilda.
What do you mean? said Marcus.
—You know, the way the writer is messing with our dialogue, she said. I don’t like it.
—I find it a bit confusing too, he said.
These styles are used infrequently because of the difficulty in separating tags from speech. However you will notice that even in these rare examples the dialogue punctuation is consistent and remains consistent for the entire piece, minimising the confusion for the reader.
You’ll also notice another common feature in all three examples. Each time a new speaker begins, he or she is given a new line, typically indented. This is a subtle cue to help your reader follow the dialogue and makes a huge difference in making your story readable. Observe the confusing mess below:
I’m not sure this is working, he said and leaned back in his chair. I think most people would follow. Don’t you? she replied. He shrugged and eventually said, Maybe. I don’t know what to think any more.
Applying standard punctuation, and using new indented lines for each new speaker we get the following:
“It’ll be fine,” he said and leaned back in his chair.
“I think most people would follow. Don’t you?” she replied.
He shrugged and eventually said, “Maybe. I don’t know what to think any more.”
See the difference? I thought so.
3.17 Examples: direct and indirect dialogue
Here are some excellent examples of writers using direct and indirect dialogue. Note how the writers change the tone of the language between narrator and speaking characters, and how they use punctuation and tags throughout.
We’d been talking about getting married. ‘But you’d get old,’ I said to her, ‘and then maybe I wouldn’t love you any more.’
She wasn’t shocked or hurt by this as expected. ‘You’d get old too,’ she said. ‘You won’t be twenty-three forever.’
‘What’s that got to do with it? What if I don’t develop the maturity to love you for what you are? What if I’m shallow, a skin-deep merchant?’
‘Growing old gracefully, Tom. Gracefully. Haven’t you heard of that?’
–Gerard Lee, True Love and How to Get It
He had been sent by the executive of his union to make a full report on Golconda, and all morning he had been wandering about with ears pricked and eyes wide open balancing one bit of information against another. What was the truth about the field? they wanted to know. Was there any chance it might develop in a big way, giving employment to the miners who had been thrown out of work by the fall of copper prices? If so, how long would such development take? And what was the condition of the men already there?
–Vance Palmer, Golconda
3.18 Activity: character and dialogue
Combine strong dialogue with character and you have a dynamo combination. Deciding who the story is about and what motivates a character through your narrative will give you a story arc that pulls on a reader’s sympathies.
In this exercise the goal is to reveal the nature of the relationship between the characters using dialogue. This helps you to get a feel for what can be communicated with speech and how drama can arise from a scene you may normally skip over on your way to more action packed scenes.
WHAT TO DO
If you are currently working on a story, take one of the characters you know best. If you don’t have a story you’re actively working on, you could take one of your characters from an earlier activity: the questionnaire or the stereotypes.
We’re going to ask you to write a scene between your character and someone with whom they have a familial relationship (parent, child, spouse). What kind of relationship do they have? What are the conflicts between them? Do they avoid sensitive topics or charge right into them?
Now, write the scene using only dialogue—no narrator, no description.
How do you get across your characters’ worlds—external and internal—using only the words they speak to each other?
It’s much harder than you think.
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