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Revealing Characters Through Dialogue

This is a follow up blog to Using Dialogue to Show. Not Tell. If you haven’t read that blog yet, you might want to before reading this post. 

The story I shared in my last post primarily used dialogue to reveal my characters. There’s a little bit of narrative too, like body language and setting of course. I’m going to go through the choices I made in the dialogue as a case study, but first it’s important to know a little bit more about the different kinds of dialogue.   

Types of dialogue 

It shouldn’t be surprising that you can reveal characters with multiple types of dialogue. In fact, there are two basic types: Direct and Indirect. They are defined pretty much as you might expect, but let’s look at some examples of each.  

Direct Dialogue 

“Such a thing does not exist,” OreSeur said firmly. (135) 

That’s an example of direct dialogue from Brandon Sanderson’s Well of Ascension. Here’s another: 

Is it me, or has he become stranger since we last met?(76) 

Both are direct in the sense that we see the character say, or think, them. We’re hearing the words right out of their mouth – or mind. Normally, the dialogue is set off somehow, either with quotes or italics for thoughts. While quotes for words being said is standardized formatting, how thoughts are formatted isn’t. Most genre fiction these days use italics and some tagging like “he thought” to let you know the words aren’t said but are directly from the character. If you see it formatted differently, just go with the flow.  

Thoughts can be referred to as “internal” dialogue too. 

Indirect Dialogue 

As you may have guessed, indirect dialogue is when the words said are NOT coming directly from a character. Here’s an example from Well of Ascension again: 

He had spent quite a bit of effort explaining to the elders why writing was so important. (72) 

Here, the narrator tells us about a conversation that happened rather than having the reader see that conversation. This technique is used to inform the reader of a conversation when the fact a conversation took place is more important than what was said. In the example above, it’s easy to imagine the character repeating himself over and over based on the “quite a bit of effort” he needed to make. Summarizing what happened keeps the pace of the story moving along and spares the reader from shoveling through dialogue that ends up being irrelevant to the story.

Which type should you use? 

Revealing Characters through dialogue

Short answer is: both. The caveat is: when appropriate. Both types can be used to reveal characters.  

In the indirect example above we see the character is likely patient and certainly dedicated to take so much time to explain things. And the reader learned this fact quickly, without having to read through a bunch of direct dialogue to learn it.  

Direct dialogue, in contrast, is used when the content and how it was said matters. We’ll use my short story “Quiet” from the last blog as an example to analyze. Again, if you haven’t read it yet, go check it out here.  

Choosing to reveal characters through direct dialogue 

In “Quiet”, the two characters are arguing. I chose to use direct dialogue, in part, because they are stuck in the car together. Mary is somewhat content to sit in the silence with her thoughts, but Morris can’t help himself and Mary can’t escape. Plus, the scene wouldn’t be intense or strained if the narrator relayed their conversation in indirect dialogue. In Creative Writing and Stylistics, Jeremy Scott describes indirect speech as where the narrator “reports these words second-hand” (105). Later, he says that in indirect speech, the “colloquial features and emotional force of the actual speech are lost” (107). In this story, the emotional force was key to the tension and understanding the underlying argument, which is why I chose direct dialogue as my narrative technique over indirect dialogue. 

Revealing Morris 

In Morris’ dialog he qualifies his statements with phrases like “You know”, “I know”, and “Don’t worry”. These are not confident phrases but rather fillers or feel good word choices. It’s as if he doesn’t want to say anything firmly so he couches his words with these small phrases. Over the conversation, it makes him seem a little shifty and that maybe Mary has a reason for being suspicious.  

Revealing Mary 

Mary’s dialogue is firm and direct. She’s questioning everything, asking him to confirm details and to take action.  There are also peeks into Mary’s thoughts using internal direct dialogue. These small glimpses let us know she’s confused, disbelieving and requires proof from him. These clues help the reader know that the argument is about more than just this one thing that happened. The underlying issue is the lack of trust in their relationship, and the exchange of direct dialogue shows this and reveals each character in the process. 

To Learn More 

Much of what I wrote in this blog I learned in one of my classes, but I’ve also found some other resources that I find helpful in learning how to use dialogue well. Here’s a short list: 

Do Your Characters Talk Too Much? This blog is a funny take on the process of learning about indirect dialogue and offers solutions to nine common dialogue problems. 

What is indirect dialogue? This is from the Writer’s Toolbox on Gotham Writers. It’s worth a look as there are many questions and answers about writing in general.  

Inner Dialogue-Writing Character Thoughts Here you’ll find a good explanation for when and how to use internal dialogue. 

Featured image source: Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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