Using Dialogue to Bring Your Characters to Life

They say we all smile in the same language*. Fortunately for us writers, just about everything else we say, we say in our own unique way. It doesn’t matter if everybody in the room speaks the same language (English, for instance); accent, dialect and all the different words and idioms we tend to use have given each one of us a way of speaking which is almost as peculiar to ourselves as our fingerprints. For us story tellers, understanding and harnessing this knowledge can be the difference between writing a good story and creating a masterpiece.

No, I really don’t think I’m overstating it at all. I think they’ll probably put this on my gravestone but I’ll say it again anyway: characters are always the beating heart of a good story. You can plot until you’re blue in the face, but if all your story has in the end is a good plot and shallow characters, your story will feel abstract, flat and difficult to relate to; in a word, boring. And how are you characters manifested in your story? To some extent it is by what they do, but I would argue that to a greater extent it is by what they say, and more importantly, how they say even the most mundane things. For example, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the character Data frequently irritates other characters by giving time intervals to the nearest second.

BORG QUEEN: How long has it been since you’ve used them?
DATA: Eight years, seven months, sixteen days, one minutes, twenty-two…
BORG QUEEN: Far too long.

(Star Trek: First Contact, source: http://www.chakoteya.net/movies/movie8.html)

This is more than just a recurring joke. This absurdly precise approach to calculating time is a constant reminder to the audience that Data is an android. At a fundamental level, his mind works like a computer and we can see that in the way he speaks. He doesn’t have to say ‘I’m an android!’ in every single episode to remind us that that is what he is. It’s made obvious by the kind of expressions he uses.

The way a character speaks will tell your audience buckets of information about that character without it being explicitly stated at all. The kindly, elderly member of the local parish church in a quaint middle-class village is unlikely to replace all her commas with strong profanities. Again, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot frequently code-switches into French, signifying his Belgian origins. In addition, a character’s accent will also tell you something about their origins and you can communicate this accent to the reader through how you spell and punctuate your character’s dialogue (this little article I found might prove useful if you’re planning on giving it a go). In short, a character’s register and accent tells you something about their social and geographical background without it being explicitly stated.

Of course, I’m sure that’s obvious to you. But if you really want to harness the power of dialogue to build your character, it’s time to start thinking about your character as an individual. Go back to your character profile and consider his needs, wants, fears and goals, as well as his personal history. Bring it out in everything they say. For example:

Character A: Oh dear, I missed my bus! C’est la vie! I’ll catch the next one. If I’m late, I’m late!

Character B: Sake! See these #$@&%*ing buses! I think they just print the #$@&%*!ing timetable to noise us up; some kind of sick #$@&%*!ing joke on the stupid little commuters! They’re never here when they say they will! Now I’m going to be late again!

Character C: Oh no! I think I’ve missed my bus… ohh, what do I do? I’m going to get the sack for sure! Oh no, no, no, no, I can’t be late again! Oh please, why is this happening to me?

In all three situations, our characters have missed a bus and are late for work. In all three, our characters are miffed to be in this situation but they all express their disquiet very differently and this tells us something about their personalities. One of them is a bitter and twisted man who has had a few hard knocks in his life and is convinced the world is out to get him. One of them is a worrier, constantly nervous and assuming the worst. The other is a carefree optimist. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which is which based on the above dialogue.

There are two reasons these characters personalities come out so clearly in their dialogue. The first is what they said. Character A easily laughs off the inconvenience with a pithy little c’est la vie, while character B’s bitterness is immediately evidenced by the fact he not only blames the bus service for his trouble, but goes as far as to suggest they have deliberately conspired against him.

But if we go a little deeper, we can also glean the personality of each character by how they said what they said. Character B is the only one who uses bad language, for instance (I’m afraid you’ll need to use your imagination as to exactly what he said, I’m determined to keep this website family friendly). He could have just as easily said, ‘These buses are always late! I think the timetables are just there for fun!’ but that would not have communicated the same kind of pent up angst this character obviously has. Indeed, if he had said it that way, it might have even sounded jocular, even though it communicates exactly the same idea. The audience would simply have no way of knowing for sure what this character was like, or even how he really felt. The original version, on the other hand, leaves the audience in no doubt that Character B is one angry man. In the same way, Character C’s repetition of the word ‘no’ brings out the growing sense of dread he feels that his life is going more horribly wrong than he ever dared to imagine. He could have just said ‘Oh no, I can’t be late again!’ but… it just doesn’t communicate his barely suppressed panic in quite the same way.

If you’re a writer of fiction, it would be well worth your while investing some more time in studying this. I can only scratch the surface of this in a 1,000ish word post but if you master this, dear writer, you will have taken an important step forward in becoming a better story teller. Your characters will have been endowed with a personality that really shines through and makes them stand out as unique individuals. It also goes a long way towards mastering the art of subtext in your dialogue but… alas, that is a subject for another time.


*Although it might be more accurate to say, we all speak the Universal Language of Smiling, which arguably has a vocabulary all of its own. After all, we all know that a sneer, a grin, a grimace and a chuckle all mean quite different things, don’t we?

What Do Your Characters Think of Each Other?

Think about someone you know well. Anyone. A friend, a relative, a colleague, anyone. I bet if I asked you what that person was like, you would be able to easily give me your opinion on what sort of person they are.

John? Oh, he’s loud-mouthed, arrogant and opinionated. He’s not a bad person but he’s a real pain to be around…

Jeanie? She’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever laid eyes on but she’s a liar and a thief. I wouldn’t turn my back on her. 

Willy? Nice guy I suppose, doesn’t say much (but let me tell you, he’s got the sharpest wit you’ve ever come across).

Now ask yourself… would that person’s own mother sum them up the same way you did? What about their spouse? Their boss? Their arch-nemesis? Even though you see John as loud-mouthed, the chances are his mother would focus on some other, more positive qualities, such as how kind-hearted he is. If John has a wife, she would be more likely to emphasis his physical attractiveness than his mother would (or, perhaps, she thinks he’s a lazy good-for-nothing and she can’t believe she married him).

As we all know, characters are the beating heart of any good story. However, no character is an island. How they respond to other characters is often essential in making your plot work (indeed, this arguably is your plot), so don’t be fooled into thinking it’s obvious how your characters will respond to one another. Just because you would respond in a particular way to Character A doesn’t mean that Character B will respond to Character A in the same way you would. Even though you, as the author, know all the facts about all of your characters, you’ll still have your own narrow opinion about what sort of person they are just the same as anyone else. That is why it is vital to know what every character thinks about every other character if you want to create a rich, vibrant and believable story.

Fortunately, it’s easy to do this. Here’s how I like to do it:

Start with a nice blank page. For me, it’s a separate document in my Scrivener project, but whatever floats your boat is fine (if you’re writing on paper, I would strongly recommend having plenty to spare; this could take up a few pages, especially if you’ve got a lot of characters). Now we make a table, as I’ve illustrated below, with as many rows as you have characters and two columns. Only the top row should have a single column, as this will act as a header. In this header, we write the name of the character we are wanting to find out about; Mr. Protagonist, for instance. In the cells below this, we ask every other character in the story for their opinion on Mr Protagonist. I find the easiest way to do this is to write out the answer in their voice, as if they were speaking to me. Even though I’ve only included two other characters to show you how it works, I would recommend you have a much larger table which includes every character in your story so that you get the most out of it.

Mr. Protagonist
Baron Antagonist Mr. Protagonist is a meddler and a constant thorn in my side. We were friends growing up but it is clear now he does not understand the great work I am doing here. His table manners are appalling but he has great taste in single malts.
Lady Loveinterest Mr. Protagonist is ruggedly handsome. His personality is quite charming, if a little brash and uncouth. He has a fiercely righteous (if misguided) streak which almost makes up for his poor breeding. Unfortunately, he drinks a little too much.

Once you’ve done it, repeat the process for all of your other characters.

Baron Antagonist
Mr. Protagonist Baron Antagonist is a snake-in-the-grass. He acts all sophisticated and like he’s everybody’s friend so that he’s got the whole world wrapped around his finger. How do you expose a guy like that? Even the king’s daughter has agreed to marry him. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he beat her.
Lady Loveinterest Baron Antagonist is a great man; a real visionary and a man who knows how to get things done. He’s got the patience of a saint too. I can see Mr. Protagonist irks him sometimes but he has never lost his temper with him, not once. Mr. Protagonist is fortunate to have a friend like the Baron.

Do you see how this can help you to gain a much deeper and fuller understanding of all your characters and the threads of friendship, enmity, mistrust and devotion which bind them together in an elaborate web which I like to call a “Story”?

If you really want to go the extra mile, why not throw in an extra row on each table telling us what each character thinks about themselves?

Mr. Protagonist
Mr. Protagonist I’m a cook and an employee of my former friend, Baron Antagonist. I have to say, I feel a bit out of place living in such a splendid house. The other servants don’t talk to me ’cause I don’t live in the servants quarters. I think that’s why anyway. But I’m more a man of their stripe than the Baron’s. I wish they could see that.
Lady Loveinterest Mr. Protagonist is ruggedly handsome….

Not only is all of this an effective means of fleshing out your story, it can actually be a pretty darn effective means of coming up with a story idea, similar to (in fact, arguably better than) auditioning characters. The above example, for instance, is only that: an example. I made it up as I was going along purely for your benefit. And yet, without intending it, I actually found myself getting quite involved in the story – a story which did not exist before I started filling in those tables. The embryo of a plot began to form in my mind as I learned more and more about each character from the lips of those people who knew them best. Who are these three people? What is the Baron’s ‘great work’ and why is Mr. Protagonist so distrustful of him? Will Mr. Protagonist ever get together with the slightly snobby Lady Loveinterest?

Give it a bash. I think you’ll find it helpful.

Our Daily Ray Bradbury Diet

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” –Ray Bradbury

Makes it sound simple, doesn’t it? It’s quite another thing entirely when you’ve got a headache, a family to look after, a day job which drains every iota of energy and the will to live from you and a gas engineer in your kitchen drilling and hammering so loudly that you think the whole house may collapse from the noise alone. Just finding the time, never mind the motivation, to write and to read every day can be a challenge for those of us who live in the real world. Throw in a few unavoidable distractions from external sources and you’ve got a recipe for accomplishing nothing at all. Nevertheless, Mr Bradbury was quite correct in saying that the best way to be a writer is to read with gusto and write without ceasing. In fact, I do not believe that it is possible to succeed as a writer if you do not read widely and I am convinced that it is impossible to be a writer if you do not write often.

If you’re anything like me, however, you might find that it’s easier said than done on both counts. Reading and writing both require a certain level of time and freedom to do them effectively and real life doesn’t half get in the way sometimes. I wish I could give you some magic words to try and make it easier. Unfortunately I can’t. They do not exist.

What I can do is make a few suggestions to try and help you along the way. Take or leave them as you see fit. As with most writing tips I’ve come across, what works for me may or may not work for you.

The first and most important step is to prioritise the things you have to do in life generally (reading, writing and everything besides) and organise your schedule accordingly. Think of everything you are likely to do regularly  – even trivial things like time spent watching TV – and list them all in order of importance with things you are unwilling to compromise on at all at the top and things you would be willing to sacrifice altogether at the bottom. Some people would have you believe reading and writing absolutely must be at the very top of this list. I’m not sure I agree with that personally (if, for instance, my wife goes into labour at the start of my writing time, I fully intend to get no writing done that day. Sue me), but I do think the closer you have it to the top, the easier you will find it to make the kind of time you need to read and write.

Once you’ve done this, the next step is to figure out exactly when you’re going to do each thing, affording more time to the items higher on your priority list. This means, of course, that things lower on your list may be afforded only a very small amount of your time – or may have to be sacrificed altogether. But I would argue that more important than how much time you afford to reading/writing is what time you decide to do it.

Not all hours are created equal. If you can only afford to write for a few short hours every week, you want to make sure you do it at a time where you are the most likely to produce your best work. Exactly what time this will be depends on a great deal on your personality and your circumstances. For me, it’s usually between 8-11am on Wednesdays-Saturdays. Here’s why:

  • I have a part-time office job to be at on Mondays and Tuesdays so can’t write then
  • Sunday is my weekly day off. I write only for as long as it brings me pleasure
  • Before 8am, I tend to still be a little too groggy (what can I say, I’m not a morning person) to focus on what I’m doing
  • After 11am, I am distracted by hunger and since I tend to do most of the cooking in my house, I am usually thinking about what to make for lunch.
  • For some reason (explained here) I turn into a Proctrasinationasaurus after lunch.

That’s not to say I only write at those times. But those are the best times for me write, and therefore I am particularly strict about using those times for nothing but writing, especially on weeks where I have lots of unusual distractions (like this week, I’m having a new heating system installed).

Reading, like writing, also requires a decent amount of time and concentration. You will occasionally hear people boasting that they read thirty books a week and other such nonsense, and maybe they do, but I would question how effectively they’re reading them in such a short space of time (assuming they have all the other demands on their time we normal people have). Don’t get me wrong; it certainly is possible to skim read a book, understand it and enjoy it if you’re just reading for casual entertainment, but if you’re wanting to grow as a writer, you’ll want to take a bit more time to appreciate the way the story has been crafted. That means recognising and understanding figurative language, character acts, story beats and the like so that you can see for yourself what turns a nice story into a quality work of literature. Even if you don’t know the technical jargon, you should still be able to recognise the structure, literary techniques and why they work when you see them.

Personally, I’ve got the attention span of a goldfish, so I find the best way to read is in frequent short bursts throughout the day: early in the morning, during my lunch break at work, last thing at night, during my writing breaks and whenever else I get more than five minutes to myself. It might not be the quickest way to get through a book. It won’t help you win any ‘Read 100 Books Challenge!’es but I do think that when it comes to reading, quality beats quantity every time. If you’re strapped for time, don’t waste the little time you do have trying to power your way through your whole library in less than a month.

 

5 Different Kinds of Writing Prompt

Sometimes when you’re stuck trying to come up with a story, it helps to have a little nudge to spark off your creativity. The internet is, of course, bursting at the seams with all kinds of writing prompts and other creative stimuli and it can be difficult to know where to begin. So, today I’ve listed a selection of prompts for fiction writers (please, use them and abuse them; maybe even show us your efforts in the comments section below) but what I really want to do is explain how I like to use these kinds of prompts and what I feel their relative strengths and weaknesses are. So, without further ado…

Opening lines

The idea behind opening line prompts is simple. You can write any story you like, as long as you use the prompt as your opening line. These can be great if you’re writing a short story or are just wanting to let your imagination run wild for a bit. Opening lines are good for this because the whole point of an opening line in any story is to grab the reader’s attention and flood them with curiosity about what happens next in a single sentence. Well, as the writer, you get to decide what happens next; thus, you have your prompt. I would generally shy away from using opening line prompts for a novel or other large and complicated project, because they usually require a lot more planning. You can rest assured Dickens did not come up with A Tale of Two Cities because someone asked him to write a story which opened with the words ‘It was the best of times’.

Anyway, why not try one of these?

  • David was not what he appeared to be. By day he was a humble civil servant but by night… 
  • Pat was the first human to set foot in [your place here] for more than thousand years.
  • We’d never had any trouble from the family next door until… 

Writing by Theme

This is my preferred kind of writing prompt for writing lengthier or more involved stories such as novels. You are given a single theme to work with but apart from that, your story can be just about anything. This gives you wide scope and still requires quite a bit of imagination on your part, but I sometimes find that more useful than the restriction you get with other kinds of prompts. Try a few of these:

  • Write a story about experiencing new things
  • Write a story about obsession
  • Write a story about ageing
  • Write a story about fathers and sons
  • Write a story about war

Characters

Another common writing prompt is to be given a rough description of a character you can work with. As I’ve probably mentioned before, all the best stories are character driven rather than plot driven, and from that point of view, having a character as your stimulus – before you’ve even thought of a plot – can prove very rewarding indeed. The main difficulty with this approach is quite simply knowing what to do with your character. S/he has to be brought out of her comfort zone to make a story happen so this certainly doesn’t let you off the hook when it comes to making up a plot. It just gives you somewhere to begin that you might not have thought of yourself. Have a bash at writing a story about…

  • An intellectual 34 year old bus driver who dislikes enclosed spaces.
  • A hot-tempered 17 year old female singer who tends to talk too much.
  • A bigoted 84 year old man who works as a gas engineer and absolutely refuses to retire for anything. 
  • A kind-hearted 49 year old woman police officer whose worst nightmare is about to come true.
  • A talkative 5 year old girl who dreams of becoming a vet.

Titles

These work in a similar way to opening lines. You are given the story title; you have to write the story. This can be very helpful or very unhelpful, depending on the title. Something more obscure gives greater freedom but if you’re struggling with writers’ block, you might benefit more from something a little bit more specific. There are plenty of random title generators out there, some of which are nothing more than random adjective and noun generators. Others are a little bit more sophisticated than that. On the plus side, you can use titles as prompts for almost any kind of story. I’ve made up a few of both kinds for you to play with:

  • Jude, Patron of Hopeless Causes
  • The Broken Sky
  • The Midnight Oil
  • The Wandering Cobbler
  • Rest for the Wicked
  • Jimmy Jones, Space Cadet!
  • The Madness Method
  • A Girl Named Grace

Pictures

Sometimes being told what to write isn’t what you need at all. You need to visualise something new to help you create new ideas, and for that, a picture might just be the answer. I don’t really find pictures much use for stimulating plot ideas particularly (though I have occasionally used them; for instance, my regular readers will testify to the fact I use the pictures on Story Dice to help me write my six word stories) but I do find them very useful indeed for coming up with new characters or settings. Photographs of people you don’t know or places you’ve never been instantly spark the imagination by forcing you to wonder, ‘who is this person?’; ‘what happens in that building?’; ‘what does that uniform s/he’s wearing represent?’ and so forth. A huge number of the characters and settings I’ve written have been based on making up things about random people and places I don’t know.

Not being much of a photographer, I haven’t got any pictures for you to use as writing prompts but I can highly recommend visiting websites like Pixabay for free images that you can use. Alternatively, try using some purpose built tools like Story Dice.

This is, of course, all just a taster. There are about a squillion other kinds of stimuli out there, from the ridiculously obscure (Oblique Strategies…) to others which aim to spoon-feed the author by almost writing the story for you. What matters is that if you use a stimulus, that you choose the right kind of stimulus for your project. This can be the difference between getting something out of it and not getting anything out of it so choose carefully. Writing with prompts can be a great way to train the writers’ imagination and it’s a healthy habit to get into – just as long as the prompt you choose doesn’t leave you more stuck than when you began!