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?

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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.

Role Playing Games: An Unexpected Resource for Writers

My daughter’s class is doing a fantasy writing unit in school. As part of this unit, she was assigned to create two characters as homework. The assignment wasn’t coming together the way she wanted it to and she was getting more and more frustrated. I tried to help her, but that, uh, didn’t work well.

Finally, I picked up the Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook and handed it to her, suggesting she look specifically at the sections on backgrounds and personal characteristics.

And it worked! She didn’t necessarily find the answers she was looking for, but the exercise sparked ideas that led her to figuring out her own problem.

This isn’t a huge surprise that this helped with character creation since the point of games like this is to create your own character that can move through stories guided by the dungeon master or the DM (sometimes called the game master or the GM). One of the main purposes of the Player’s Handbook is to help players create interesting characters by having them think about things like the character’s alignment (are they good or evil? lawful or not? Etc.) and their background.

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One of my favorite additions to the newest Dungeons and Dragons edition is the inclusion of tables for different personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws for the different backgrounds. If you like randomness and are writing a fantasy, you can even roll a dice to determine who your character is. What I prefer, though, is to flip through it and look at the different options. Like my daughter, I usually don’t find things that perfectly fit the character idea I have in my head, but it gives me ideas that lead me to the right answers. For me, it has a similar effect to brainstorming aloud with another person.

These traits and characteristics don’t just apply to high fantasies, though, but almost all of them can be translated into a contemporary or historical context. For example, one of the personality traits for a Folk Hero is that they “misuse long words in an attempt to sound smarter” (131). Most of us have met someone like this.

Mostly, I like that the Player’s Handbook gets me thinking about my characters and my story in a different way. Plus, it’s a pretty fun game and we’ve found that, with a few adjustments, it works well on long road trips.

But what about you? What resources have you found recently that have you looking at your work in a different way?

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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.

Getting to Know Your Character Through Poetry

Last weekend I attended the Charlotte Huck Literary Festival in Redlands, California. It’s a book festival specifically for teachers, librarians, and writers, with a very strong focus on poetry.

One of the faculty members there was George Ella Lyon, author of the following poem:

Where I’m From

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Isn’t that beautiful? The author talked to us about writing our own “Where I’m From” poems, an exercise she does with kids as young as 6. She told the following story to help us hone our lines.

One day she was working with a boy who wrote the first line of his poem as, “I’m from baseball.” After Ms. Lyon asked him a few questions he changed it to, “I am from the sweat behind the catcher’s mask.” His moment of realization for what she wanted him to do came when he said, “Oh! You want me to put you there!”

That is exactly what this poem does. It doesn’t just tell you that Lyon comes from a religious background, one with respect for elders, and a childhood spent outside. She puts you there and lets you taste, see, smell, hear the things she did.

As I was going through a workshop on writing my own “Where I’m From” poem, I thought, “This would be a great way to get to know my characters better.”

character poetry

Filling out a character questionnaire is one thing. It’s important to be able to list the special events and ideas that make up your characters backstory. But having to translate that into this kind of poem gives you a much better appreciation for what that backstory actually means and the tiny details you can write about to make them fully three dimensional.

This exercise for your characters can work two ways. Maybe you already know your character’s back story inside and out. Take those items on your list of traits and events and turn them into this poem.

For example, let’s use Katniss from Hunger Games, shall we?

I’m from the growl of empty bellies
And the black dust of coal
Dug from the belly of the earth.
I’m from forbidden mornings punctuated only by
The whisper of rabbits feet
And the whoosh of an arrow.
I’m from the snap of a bow
And the snap to attention
As a name is called
And a child is marched
To their final stand.

But maybe you are trying to develop a character more because you don’t know them well enough. In this case, you’re going to work backwards. Poetry is a wonderful twist on free-writing to get to know a character. As you write the poem, images may come to you, letting you in on flashes from your character’s past. You may have to piece together words of the poem to understand what your character is trying to tell you. You might be surprised what you learn.

I did this exercise for the mother in my MG novel. I already know that she’s an accomplished pianist and played recitals as a girl. She works in PR and married and had children when she was older. She’s responsible to a T, but a little stand-offish in her feelings sometimes. She’s insightful and compassionate, driven, and very overwhelmed with responsibilities. But I didn’t know much of her backstory until I wrote this poem, and now I can use it to develop her more.

I’m from the land of green stalks,
Brushing the sky for miles on end.
From practice makes perfect, curl your hands,
Don’t look at your fingers,
And scales every day.
From a row of A’s displayed on the refrigerator,
To a diploma hanging above my desk.
From that long stretch of highway leading me
Into the land where buildings
Brush the sky for miles on end.

I’m from the place where Rainy Days and Mondays
Always Get Me Down.
I’m from a phone call
From the sheriff. The one I know
On a first name basis.
A box of tissues used
On a single plane ride home.
I come from saying goodbye
Before I’m ready
When I can only say it
To a casket.

I come from the place where
“You can do anything if you work hard enough”
Meets, “family first”
And the terror that seizes me
Lying in bed
Feeling like both can’t be true all the time.
I’m from eyes caught on a subway,
A guitar pulled out at Central Park.
A promise for a smaller,
But richer life.
And another stretch of highway
Bringing us both
Home
To each other.

Writing this poem made me nail down the love story between the mother and father, the secret heartache of the mother, her fears, her professional backstory, all of it. And for me, it was so much easier than a generic list of questions. I highly recommend it.

If you do this exercise, I’d love to see your poem in the comments!

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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

Wicked Writing Prompts for Your Characters

Today I’m sharing with you some writing prompts that you might find useful for character development. You want your readers to feel for your characters, root for them when appropriate, get angry with them when they make bad decisions, cry (or possibly cheer) if one of them dies. In other words, you want your readers to experience emotions because of your characters, and you will get the best emotional responses if your characters are real.

Here are some writing prompts to help with character development. Maybe your characters will actually experience these things in your story, or maybe these prompts will be under the surface of the iceberg and serve as a tool to let you know your characters better. I call them “wicked writing prompts” because they require that you be a little wicked to your characters. Plus, it’s Halloween today (my favorite holiday)!

1. Fear Prompt: 

What is your character most afraid of?

Imagine your character in that exact situation where he has to face that fear and have him react to this with both action and emotion.

2. Backstory Prompt:

What event in your character’s past is she most ashamed of?

Make your character briefly recount one specific event from her backstory. Have your character “emote” or go through a train of thought and emotion in which she thinks about that event in retrospect.

3. Failure Prompt:

What is the biggest thing your character is trying to accomplish in your story?

Be utterly wicked and imagine him failing. Have him respond to that failure with action and emotion.

(Incidentally, this last prompt can come in very handy when you’re writing what is often described as a character’s “All is Lost” moment. I love this description/treatment of this topic in this post from the Scribe Meets World site. It’s written from a screenwriter’s perspective but it’s applicable to fiction writing in general.)

How else can you be wicked to your characters for the sake of story or character development? Share your ideas below!

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Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read all of the books on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. Originally from upstate New York, Helen spent much of her early adult life tromping around in Buffalo, NYC, Toronto, and Las Vegas, those cities now serving as inspiration for the dark and gritty backdrops of her stories. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH.