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Thrills, Chills, and General Silliness (with Weldon Burge)

Developing Characters Via Dialogue

Many fiction writers have difficulty developing real-to-life characters in their work. One of the ways to pull this off effectively is with dialogue—something most of us enjoy writing. But, as an editor, I often see short stories that miss the mark. How? With dialogue that doesn’t truly differentiate the characters, much less help define them.

Have you read fiction in which the dialogue has one tone, one voice? Typically this is because the author is writing in his or her own voice instead of getting into the characters’ heads and talking in the ways they would. The dialogue must fit the characters. I’m often guilty of being lazy when developing dialogue myself, and often have to go through my drafts to hone the dialogue.

Let’s consider an example.

I’m currently working on a police procedural novel. Of course, there are a number of detectives and other police officers in the story, and each has a distinct character. My main character, Matthew Marrs, is a by-the-book, straightforward detective with a heart, who is highly intuitive and superb at his job. His partner, Gordon O’Daniel, constantly looks for the humor in situations, is something of a lady’s man, and is quick-witted and street-smart. Anthony D’Oro is an older, gruff detective, something of a curmudgeon. Now, let’s hear them talk.

“Give me a break,” Marrs said.

“Gimme a break,” D’Oro said.

“C’mon!” O’Daniel said.

The detectives react to the same situation and say pretty much the same thing, but with different voices that portray their characters. Even if I didn’t add the attributions, you’d probably know who said what from my earlier descriptions of their characters.

A writer should really think through how dialogue expresses character. This takes work. It’s so easy to slip into your own voice. Go back through your dialogue and see where your characters better express themselves. Reading your work aloud can also help you determine where your characters are not really speaking in their own voices.

Think also of your beats in dialogue, those breaks that help the flow and balance of the dialogue for the reader. Beats can also show character. Let’s consider some examples using the three detectives.

Marrs tapped the pad with his pen, thinking of his next line of questioning. He looked up, directly into Elinore’s eyes. “Your mother. How can I contact her?”

D’Oro started to pick his nose, a bad habit, but thought the better of it. “I gotta talk with your Mom.”

O’Daniel tilted his head. Elinore was definitely attractive and had a pleasant voice. He wondered … nah … “Is your Mom available? I’ll need to talk to her.”

OK, not perfect. But can you see the differences in character as the scene progresses? The strategy can be subtle, almost invisible to the reader, in the context of your work.

As you write, be aware of how your characters express themselves, how their characters shine through in their speech and mannerisms. Maybe this seems like a no-brainer, but it’s not always easy for writers to maintain that focus. But, if you make this a concentrated effort, your readers will appreciate it!

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