By Mike Klaassen
“One of the most important functions of dialogue is characterization,” states Randall Silvas in The Writer (February 1985). “Through his own words, a character comes alive. Through his own words, a character defines himself and reveals who he is . . .”
Dialogue can provide the reader with critical information about each character:
Nancy Kress, in Dynamic Characters, offers insight into characterization, especially about the relationship between dialogue and a character’s thoughts: “What your character thinks about helps to create his personality for the reader. So does how he thinks: in what words, with what sentence structure, with what level of grammatical correctness. The result of this matching of diction, sentence structure and level of sophistication to a character’s personality is twofold. First, a given character’s dialogue and thoughts will end up sounding consistent with each other. Second, the closer the distance between author and character, the more alike thoughts and dialogue sound.”
A character’s thoughts (what he thinks and how he thinks) help the reader understand the character. Likewise, a character’s spoken words (what he says and how he says them) reflect that character’s thoughts and provide insight into the character. What a character says depends, of course, on the specific needs of each story and needn’t be further addressed in this discussion. But how a character speaks also shows the reader a lot about a character, and that warrants additional attention in several aspects:
- Organic nature
Many writing coaches agree that each character should have a distinct voice. According to Gloria Kempton, in Dialogue, “Giving your character a particular manner of speech can go a long way in characterizing him and helping your reader recognize him when he appears onstage. It distinguishes him from the other characters, setting him apart.”
William G. Tapply (The Writer, October 2008) advises writers to “Give each character – – even secondary ones – – a distinctive voice.” Stanton Rabin (The Writer, March 2009) notes that “If you cover up the names and just read the dialogue, you should still be able to tell which character is talking. Your characters should be unique and speak in distinctly individual ways.”
Evan Marshall, in The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, advises writers to create distinctive voices, so characters don’t all sound the same. Janet Evanovich, in How I Write, agrees: “Nothing is more tedious than reading a story where every character uses identical speech patterns.”
Characters need to be distinct, but not just to help the reader identify the character. As observed by Gloria Kempton, the “Quirkiness of a character’s speech . . . should rise organically out of who the character is and what his purpose is in the story.”
According to Randall Silvas (The Writer, February 1985), a character’s “. . . speech pattern will identify him as erudite or obtuse, an Okie or a New Englander, a stuffed shirt or a clown.”
“The challenge for us as writers,” notes Gloria Kempton, “is to find a way to show our characters’ speech on the printed page.” This may be accomplished at various levels:
- words (word choice, contractions, trigger words, unnecessary words, spelling,)
- sentences (sentence structure, diction, phrasing, sentence fragments, grammar, elimination of words, word order)
- rhythm and pace (cadence)
- voice quality (inflection, pitch, timbre, enunciation, voice volume)
- background (accent, dialect, colloquialisms, trendiness, profanity)
- coherence (straightforward, disjointed, misdirected, or cross-purposes dialogue)
“Dialogue’s first task is to convey characters,” observes Peter Selgin, in By Cunning & Craft. Fortunately for fiction readers, there is so much to learn about characters through their own dialogue. Fortunately for fiction writers, there are numerous tools available for helping develop characters through their own words.
Mike Klaassen is an author devoted to writing novels and to helping others understand the craft of writing fiction.
“My goal as a novelist,” says Klaassen, “is to write fiction that even the most reluctant readers will enjoy. My goal as a nonfiction author is to help fiction writers achieve the cutting edge in fiction-writing technique. The objective in each of my articles is to present the most comprehensive analysis of the subject matter available anywhere.”
Mike lives in Kansas.
You can learn more about Mike and his novels at www.mikeklaassen.com