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Using Dialogue to Enrich Characterization
Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Saturday, July 7, 2012 11:29 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 194

One of the common purposes of dialogue is to define or enrich characterization, but how to do that baffles some writers.  Sure, you can have one character talk in choppy short phrases, and another one talk in long, elegant periods, but that's blunt--how do you convey more nuanced characters and situations?

Two ideas to get you started:  register and rhythm, or prosody.   "Register" is the way people change their speech in different social situations: someone talking to a small child usually speaks differently than in talking to another adult, and someone talking to a social inferior (in their mind) talks differently than to an equal or superior.  Rhythm or prosody includes variations in pitch and emphasis, and related to the ease and fluency of speech.

Characters with wide social experience are usually fluent in multiple registers--comfortable talking to people of different socioeconomic classes, different occupations, different backgrounds.  Characters lacking that experience are uncomfortable--and make mistakes--when faced with conversations outside their comfort zone--they may be defensive about it or scared and overly subservient.  If you have a confident, experienced, sophisticated character, their use of correct register (to the doorman, the wait staff, the policeman, the judge, the priest, etc.) conveys this to readers very subtly but effectively.  Likewise, the person who's not as experienced will show it in their misuse of register and reveal to the reader that even though she's now wealthy and famous, she's still not relaxed with people who started life wealthy.  You can set "register clues" early, without comment, so that the reader is prepared for something later in the story (possibly a revelation about that character, but also the way a character is going to react to a situation.) 

Prosody is another powerful but not overly obvious clue to a character's background, education, and linguistic fluency.   To use it to its fullest, you need to be a good, attentive listener, and seek out opportunities to hear speakers from different backgrounds, noticing the feel of their talk--the underlying rhythm of accent, stretched syllables, etc., and the pitch changes across an utterance.   Reading verse of all kinds aloud will also sharpen your ear.  Prosody is less intrusive than dialect spellings or special-group syntax.  You can force the prosody you need with both punctuation and with the text surrounding the quotation marks.   Punctuation is the easier of the two, because visible punctuation changes how the reader "hears" what is said in the dialogue. Punctuation implies tone of voice and rate of speech, and since those change meaning, it implies a change in meaning.

At any rate, learning to recognize and then use register and prosody gives a writer more tools with which to define characters through dialogue.

Herb Mallette
Posted: Sunday, July 8, 2012 2:30 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

Terrific pointers, Elizabeth. I spend a lot of time trying to get prosody right without being intrusive, but I confess I've not put much conscious effort into register, especially not as it pertains to the same character in varied social interactions. Thinking back on it I can recall a number of cases where I've made use of characters shifting register, but it was more intuitive than intentional, and this will certainly help me maintain a better awareness of it.
Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Monday, July 9, 2012 1:48 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 194

We had a discussion on that in one of the blogs I run.  Was delighted to find that nearly all readers had added something to the their conception of the characters even if they didn't notice how the info was slipped in.   It's one of the "almost invisible" tools allowing us to nuance character without being obvious.   Intuition's a good way to approach it, IMO--but in revision, checking to see if your character's consistent in the use of register--or if an inconsistency can be used for effect--can add that little bit more definition.

Prosody's more "on the surface"  and thus more obvious but still useful--and yeah, it's tricky.  Especially tricky to get past copy editors, sometimes, who tend to want "flat" American diction.  (I love good copy editors.  Abhor the ones who want to rewrite the book their way.)  There's a place for flatness...but it's not the only way to write, and I'm a strong proponent of writer freedom--if you need purple, scarlet, turquoise, sulfur-yellow, then use them. 

Right now I'm working on a scene where a very plain-spoken, linear-thinking, emotionally "dry" character has been told to work with another who is his opposite verbally, cognitively, and emotionally--except they're both fascinated by law--its history in that story, and its present status.  The prosody carries almost all the undertones of their conflict: neat cubical blocks of content v. a fluid flow complexity.  Fun to write.  Register in this scene is simple, though it shifts toward the end.

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Monday, July 9, 2012 9:23 PM
A really great introduction to prosody is the first chapter of Stephen Fry's, The Ode Less traveled. The book is about poetry, but what he says about prosody, and language, in general, has direct application to our prose, and if it's something the reader hasn't experience in, fascinating. An except is available, free, on Amazon:

Herb Mallette
Posted: Monday, July 9, 2012 10:21 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

@Elizabeth: That sounds like a great character matchup. I can imagine how enjoyable it would be to write those interactions. You're giving me a lot to think about as I contemplate some of the upcoming scenes in my present book. The characters are returning from a previously written trilogy, but this one actually jumps backwards in time to when several of them first meet. I've managed their voices and interactions mostly through intuition in the past, but I don't think I'll be able to help paying more attention to register now, especially given that they're all younger and almost all in different stages of their relationships.

@Jay: Thanks for the link! Fry is brilliant -- I don't know how he and Hugh Laurie manage to pack so much talent into their mortal frames. I may have to order that book as a birthday present to myself.

Philip Tucker
Posted: Tuesday, July 10, 2012 2:38 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 77

One way to exploit register is to make an explicit conflict of it.

In Shortfall, the emancipated homin refer to humen as "Master," while the homin themselves are "Mister."  One
character refuses to abide by this convention.

The occasion offers a chance to illuminate both character and society in my fictional world.

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Tuesday, July 17, 2012 1:12 AM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 194

That sounds like a great choice. 

Philip Tucker
Posted: Friday, July 27, 2012 10:00 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 77

I'm reading The Truelove, by Patrick O'Brian, that past master.  Padeen is fleeing from horrific conditions in New South Wales.  He speaks only Irish, and only to Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon.  He

bent to whisper in Stephen's ear, "For the Mother of God, your honour will never forget me, I beg and beseech." "I will not, Padeen, upon my soul, I have the Captain's word itself," said Stephen, and partly by way of reassuring him he went on in an ordinary tone
[and in English] to Martin, "How did the service go?  Well, I hope?"

Just one little insight into the workings of the mind of my very favorite intelligence agent, Stephen Maturin.

Dr. D.
Posted: Wednesday, July 31, 2013 5:19 AM
Joined: 7/30/2013
Posts: 2

My book Families are Forever: Communication, the first of a trilogy, will be out 1 September. It is about extended families communication; that is families that have grown children connected to them. This covers most of us, about 90 million people. It contains five characters who interact and talk about the point at hand or demonstrate a point.


I have taken a lot of grief from my local writing group who think it should be just straight narrative. I think quite differently and will not change. I have two questions: (1) Is anyone writing doing the same thing; combining traditional narrative with dialogue? (2) what ways are there to show dialogue other than using " " marks?


Lucy Silag
Posted: Wednesday, July 31, 2013 7:04 PM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1356

Hi Dr. D.: We are so glad to have you here with the community on Book Country! Welcome! Please let me know if you have any questions about the site. I am very happy to help you as you navigate the different features.


Your book sounds really interesting! I am curious to hear more about it. Is it fiction or non-fiction?


As for denoting dialogue, I usually go the traditional route and stick with standard punctuation. What about the rest of the community? What are more creative ways people are trying?


Lucy Silag

Book Country Community and Engagement Manager

Chris Sharp
Posted: Sunday, April 6, 2014 1:16 PM
Joined: 7/30/2013
Posts: 1

       I'm new to these discussions but I regularly read the interesting (and very helpful) comments of other members.However, this is the first time I've thought about putting my two cents worth into the pot, so here goes...!

       Most of my work centres on characters that are British (I'm an ex-pat, hence the British spelling!) and, as the dialects in that Island are so diverse, there is plenty of scope to play around and have fun with the dialogues when these characters of different accents meet each other! This also applies to characters who are bilingual (in this case, Welsh and English)! 

       In my mind, I think the dialects of the characters lend strength and substance to the dialogue and enhances the pace, but the only problem I have is whether my 'dialogue of dialect' may confuse the reader - especially those not familiar with it!

     "They were 'aving a reet do!" 

may sound complete rubbish unless it's put into the context of someone referring to two people having a row (or in American parlance - a fight)!

     "Wotcher doin'?"

doesn't need any 'interpretation' when the reader's mind takes on the phonetics; indeed, if the author has done his/her work, the reader should become so accustomed to the way the character speaks, s/he would come to expect it.

     On the other side of the coin, my present work is based on a fictional small town in the Cascades (WA) and I'm really having a problem with American dialogue! Transcribing 'mate' or 'chum' to 'pal' or 'buddy', 'post' for 'mail', etc may seem small potatoes, but in the overall picture, little things like this could get up a readers nose! I know it does for me when I sometimes read the attempts of Americans either in print or hear on the screen their version of British dialects!

      I hope I haven't taken up too much time on this, my first input, but I'd really appreciate any comment. Keep on writin'!

      Silurian Chris.

Posted: Saturday, July 19, 2014 2:56 PM
Joined: 7/18/2014
Posts: 121

I'll use a dialect initially. One of the characters in the series I do is a Black prostitute that provides info to my main character. She speaks a dialect. I'll begin with her speaking her normal way but as a conversation progresses, I'll back off on the dialect, leaving just a few hints here and there. The reader knows she's Black and how she speaks, so just a hint now and then after several lines is enough to remind them.
Posted: Wednesday, May 18, 2016 12:45 PM
Joined: 1/19/2016
Posts: 12

Aside from using dialogue to enrich characterization, I believe dialogue can help tell the story in a different way. Some books rely on s story's narrative while some, use dialogue to help give the story clarity and even create a plot twist. 


ChatEbooks recently posted

David Russell
Posted: Friday, May 20, 2016 9:54 AM
Joined: 8/6/2014
Posts: 6

Hello Chatebooks and others,

I am new to the forums, but glad to see this topic on dialogue. The thread is interesting.
A while back, someone elsewhere suggested to make dialogue more free-flowing, listen to some dialogue in movies or situation comedies, or hour-long dramas and notice tone of voice, what is said and how it is said. For those of us who have limited social contacts, this may be a good out.
David Russel


Posted: Friday, May 20, 2016 10:03 AM

For beginners interested in improving their dialogue, I often suggest a Billy Wilder
Film Festival at home: since the movies are easy to get, and it's effortless and fun.


Listening to real people - how they talk - is essential. But fictional dialogue is not "real" in the sense that it needs to be "better than real". So it's essential to study past masters and see how they "improve" conversations between characters.


- Nate (SLC)


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