Revealing Character Through Dialogue

Lately I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the dialogue in movies and TV shows, particularly ways that writers differentiate each character’s voice. One of my favorite moments is in The Avengers movie. (Joss Whedon is a genius at creating unique character voices.) There are lots of great moments in that movie, but this one really highlights how important a character’s background is in creating their dialogue.

When Nick Fury says he wants to know how Loki turned Hawkeye and Selvig into his flying monkeys,

Thor responds: “Monkeys? I do not understand.”

“I do!” Captain America says. “I understood that reference.”

This moment works so well because Fury references an iconic movie, one that most people are familiar with even if they haven’t seen it. Thor, though, isn’t from our world, he’s probably never heard of The Wizard of Oz (or the musical Wicked), and he has no basis for understanding Fury’s reference. (Just like Coulson has no reference for understanding when Thor compares himself to a bilge snipe.)

On the other hand, Captain America missed out on 70 years of mainstream culture, but The Wizard of Oz was released before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and before the Unites States entered WWII. So he actually got that reference, unlike so many other references in the movie.

This exchange provides some humor and lightness in the movie, yes, but more than that, it reminds the viewers of who the characters are and where they’ve been. Also, because each line of dialogue is so true to who the character is, it makes this movie with the flying ships and superpowers feel more grounded. It feels real because the dialogue is consistent with who the characters claim to be. If Thor caught pop culture references or compared himself to a hippo instead of a bilge snipe, it would make him less believable as a character.

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Knowing your character’s background, knowing what references they will catch and what they’ll miss, is an important part of creating unique character dialogue.

So who is your character? What do they know? What don’t they know? Do they know what palimpsest is? Would they they understand the joke if they heard someone say: A scarab walked into a bar and asked, “Can I have this stool?” Or would they groan and roll their eyes if someone said: “Did you hear about the chemist that got stuck in England? London forces…”

Once you know who your character is and what their frame of reference is for the world, you can use that understanding to create dialogue that is unique to them.

What are some of your favorite techniques to help with dialogue? Do you have any recommendations for TV shows or movies that have excellent dialogue?


Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.