Characterization through Dialogue

Have you ever overheard a conversation while sitting at a coffee shop or on a bus? Without looking at the people speaking, have you been able to pick up on their personality traits, educational levels, ages, social circles, etc.? The answer is probably yes. This should work the same when reading dialogue in a novel. No matter how much an author describes a character physically, the reader gains more insight about that character from the words that come out of his or her mouth and how he or she uses those words.

What does the following piece of dialogue from The Witch’s Salvation reveal about the character who is speaking?

“I have no intention of waking the slumber of Wallachia’s soil or invoking the Strigoaic’s wrath. I do not wish to be choked by its roots or tossed out as an enemy instead of one of its most loyal sons. I want that witch to grant me entrance or to leave her domain and meet me on neutral territory. I want a private audience with her. Once she hears what I have to say, she can either turn her back on me or consider my plea. I want to go home. I want all of us to go home.”

Does it show how archaic, pompous, and authoritarian the character is? It should. Constantin Mushati Seneslau is an immortal prince and military ruler from the fifteenth century. From his language we can infer that Constantin is still throwing his weight around in the twenty-first century. Do you like him? It really doesn’t matter. You’re supposed to be intimidated, just as the hero and heroine of the novel.

How about the following dialogue? What does it say to you about the character?

“Ah, you both render me speechless, ladies. Dusk and dawn. You are most certainly not little girls. I’m afraid we meet during deplorable circumstances, my fair maidens, but civility should never be forgotten. I am Austin the Imprisoned, and this is Matthias the Damned. You, my sultry dawn maiden, are the damsel the old hag requested—I recognize you from your image in the water. If you will allow me to say, you are far more beautiful than your image in that environmentally challenged pool. But you, my cool dusk maiden, I don’t know and desire to know.”

Does the dialogue suggest a chatty and outgoing young man, a smooth talker, as well as a poet at heart? That’s Austin. I needed a light and airy character to offset the dark and brooding male protagonist of The Witch’s Salvation. Austin was the perfect foil for Matthias. Do you like him?  I’ve had many readers tell me they do. That’s good because I needed Austin to be entertaining. He doesn’t take anything away from the male protagonist. He merely offsets the male protagonist until he can come into his own and be understood by the reader. 

Dialogue authenticates characters. Characters talk the way they think and feel. Their voices reflect their lives, backgrounds, cultures, histories, education, aspirations, and so on.  Of course, this means that we as authors need to know our characters before we can make words come out of their mouths. If we don’t, we probably don’t know that character’s function in the novel. Most of us, however, will never really know a character’s function until we’ve finished the first draft of the novel. Once that first draft is completed, we go back to the beginning and personalize and validate our characters with the right voice and dialogue.

Some of us find it helpful to interview characters in order to get to know them. By interviewing characters, we are forced to think about our character’s age, culture, educational level, position in the family, greatest fear, greatest loss, weakness, strength, immediate goal, long-term goal, etc. This exercise may help some of us shape our characters better or it may be superfluous.  Either way, don’t lose the opportunity to create a two or three-dimensional character through authentic voice in dialogue.

Dialogue does more than bring characters to life. It can move your plot or character into another direction, and sometimes more quickly and smoothly than narrative can. I needed my female and male protagonists to go from dislike and disrespect to attraction and mutual understanding in a very short time. I needed them to start working together and to get on with their romance. Dialogue was the perfect vehicle.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Matthias demanded.

“I’m going back in time,” Anasztasia replied.

“You’d never survive.”

“I’d rather risk going back and finding that cup than marry a man who wants  nothing to do with me. I’m not spending the rest of my life in hell for you.”

        “This marriage is a farce.”

        “I don’t hear you laughing.”

        “It’s the Strigoaic’s revenge.”

        “Then fight her instead of your grandfather.”

“You overheard?”

“Who didn’t?” She leaned in closer, pulling him down into the searing condemnation of her eyes. “I have some news for you, Matthias Stefan Bogdan Craiovescu. You may hate your grandfather, but you’re exactly like him.”

Matthias drew himself to his full height, looking way down at her. “I am nothing like my grandfather. My grandfather is a man imprisoned in his past, in his godforsaken soul, and in the mortality of his only heir.”

“And you’re a poet like him, too! Get over yourself, bro!”

He propped his hands on his hips. “I inherited the damnation of his cursed deed!”

“Sorry, I’ve got my own curse to worry about,” she replied, stomping away.

“You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into!”

She brushed his words off with a wave of her hand…and kept on stomping.

“I don’t want any of this!” he cried. “I want out!”

She stopped, and turned around. “Do you want to be immortal?”

“I want my grandfather off my back.” He hesitated. “You?”

“I want my grandfather to be happy.”

Matthias’s indignation came out as mirthless laughter. “You don’t need me to be in hell. You’re in hell already.” 

The exchange between the two characters is direct and to the point.  Each character also has a distinct voice. Matthias’s voice is cut and dry, strung with pride and arrogance. Anasztasia’s is light but at the same time, blunt, her honesty, openness, and feelings evident. I provided their names only when I thought it was necessary.

The dialogue is also dramatic.  Most of us could speak like Matthias and Anasztasia or even like Constantin or Austin if we had time to plan and edit and write and rewrite what we wanted to say.  But we don’t.  Dialogue is not conversation. It needs to be edited and re-edited not only to suit the character but to make a point. It also has to make that point in the best possible way that will keep the reader entertained and interested. A reader doesn’t want to read every day, ho-hum conversation. He or she can get that sitting at a coffee shop or on a bus. If dialogue doesn’t have a point, then it’s just fluff and should be edited out (even if it’s the best dialogue you’ve ever written).

A lot of us authors muse over descriptors. Should we use said, asked, told, exclaimed, whispered, shouted, demanded or something different like rattled, stammered, or hummed? If we’ve set up the scene properly, the reader should know how a character would say something. “Said” is neutral and unobtrusive. I have used descriptors, such as rattled, whispered, and hummed, when I wanted to make sure the sound of the words was heard. Rattled, whispered, and hummed are sounds as much as they are descriptors. However, I have had some authors remark that my use of these descriptors was intrusion. Be careful with descriptors and use them only when you feel you need to add some element that the scene or dialogue or narrative can’t provide.

Most of us use dialogue during our first drafts. It’s easier to write “he said” and then “she said” to help us plot rather than to write paragraphs of narrative, which will probably be edited extensively. Use dialogue to flesh out characters. Just don’t let your characters converse.