A basic piece of advice for writers, given so often that perhaps you’re sick of hearing it, is: “Everything in a story — dialogue, action, thoughts, mannerisms, descriptions — should both advance plot and reveal character.” It’s good advice. The problem, however, is that it tens you what to do, but it doesn’t tell you how.
Since “everything in a story” is dauntingly broad, let’s narrow it to this: How does dialogue reveal character?
The obvious answer is through content. The person who says “Look at that adorable baby” is a much different character from the person who says “Anyone who hates children and dogs can’t be all bad.”
The content of your character’s dialogue is the main way you let us know who he is inside.
However, it’s not the only way. You have other tools at your disposal for making dialogue convey characterization. They am diction, sentence construction and grammar.
What Words to Choose
Diction means word choice, and it reflects your character’s education, precision, imagination and background — no matter what the content of the speech. Consider the following two passages. Both are dialogue, in which a character comments on another character’s housekeeping:
“Course she ain’t much of a hand to housekeep: slut’s wool all over the place. When yer mind is that fixated on things above, the dirt’s bound to settle below.”
“I know I can leave all household arrangements to you, Mr. de Winter said so, and you must just run things as they always have been run, I shan’t want to make any changes.”
Can you see how much the diction tells us about each of these people? Mr. Spencer and his language are uneducated (“ain’t), colorful (“slut’s wool”) and analytic (he gives a reason why his neighbor’s housekeeping is so bad). His word choice also reflects his country background through his use of regional idioms (“much of a hand to housekeep”). In contrast, the young second bride of Maxim de Winter uses entirely different diction. Her words are formal (“all household arrangements”), bland (no colorful word choices) and general (no details like “slut’s wool”). Her diction reflects an educated English background (“shan’t”). This is appropriate, because the young woman is formal, bland, educated, British and very uncertain of herself.
A subdivision of diction is language specific to a given group: slang, dialect and jargon. The rule here is to tread lightly. Often just a single word of slang, dialect or jargon is all you need. Look, for instance, at these five replies to the simple question “How was the movie?”
“Y’all really want to know?”
“My word, it was violent.”
“Domestic poison, foreign major-grosser.”
Each reply uses diction to tell us not only about the movie, but about the speaker. These speakers are, respectively, a youth, Southern, British, genteel and in the film business. Or else they wish they were those things.
What is your character like? Do her words — not only the sense of her speech, but the individual word choices — reflect her personality and background? If not, can you alter a word or a prase here and there so they do?
The Complexity of Sentences
This one is tricky, because much depends on context. For instance, each of the following uses short, curt sentences:
“Make three copies of that, please.
Send one each to Jane Denby and
Chad Lawrence. Put the third in my
“I never knowed my daddy. He left
early. I was 9. He left my dog. it was
“That’s Jemison. Candy’s lawyer. A
real son of a bitch.”
These sentences are all similar in length and simple in construction (no dependent clauses, no compounds, no participial phrases, and only the first uses simple prepositional phrases). Yet each gives much different impressions of the speakers, due to content and diction. In the first, the curtness comes across as commanding. In the second, as simple-mindedness or extreme youth. In the third, as gruff taciturnity. Such flexibility makes it difficult to issue absolute rules coordinating sentence structure with characterization.
However, here are some helpful guidelines:
* Long, complex sentences give an impression of education and intelligence. Here, again, is the second Mrs. de Winter:
“Whenever you spoke to me or
looked at me, walked with me in the
garden, sat down to dinner, I felt you
were saying to yourself, `This I did
with Rebecca, and this, and this.'”
The dependent clause, lengthiness and parallel structure (“spoke,” “looked,” “walked,” “sat,” each followed by a prepositional phrase) tell us that this person is intelligent. Stupid people simply don’t talk like this. They can’t. (Note, however that the reverse is not necessarily true. Short sentences don’t mean a character is dim-witted. There can be other reasons for curtness, as we saw in the three examples above.)
* Very long, very complex sentences may make a character seem pretentious. This is especially true if the diction is also formal. Jean Brodie, the queen of pretentiousness (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark) expresses her sense of job security in this overblown way:
As for impropriety, it could never be
imputed to me except by some gross
distortion on the part of a traitor.
She sounds like the pompous snob she is.
* Speeches that pair a heavy-duty subject with a lightweight one make a character seem ridiculous. It’s a great way to create a comic effect. Jean Brodie, who’s not only pretentious but ludicrous, demonstrates this sort of sentence construction as she describes her summer vacation:
In London my friends … took me to
visit A.A. Milne. in the hall was hung
a reproduction of Botticelli’s
Primavera which means The Birth of
Spring. I wore my silk dress with the
large red poppies which is just right
for my coloring. Mussolini is one of
the greatest men in the world, far
more so than Ramsay MacDonald,
and his fascisti….
What a mismatched jumble! Like the character.
* Sentences that run on and on indicate an emotional person, either always emotional or in the grip of temporarily upsetting circumstances. Teenage John Maples, in John Updike’s story “Separating,” uses short sentences fused into one long incoherent sob:
“It’s not just the separation, it’s the
whole crummy year, I hate that
school, you can’t make any friends,
the history teacher’s a scud.”
To create a sense of emotion out of control, try long sentences that are constructed of short ones separated by commas.
This one’s easy. A character who uses correct grammar will be perceived as brighter than one who doesn’t.
In a way, this is very unfair. In real life many intelligent people deliberately speak ungrammatically. Sometimes they want to hide their intelligence; sometimes they want to fit in with neighbors or family, sometimes they were raised to think that correct speech is stuck-up. If that’s the case with your character, you must make sure we know it. You might, for instance, have another character say something like, “Dan talks like a dockworker but don’t let that fool you — he’s as shrewd about business as they come.” Or, you might indicate intelligence with a physical detail: “Candy’s silly words tripped all over themselves, but her shrewd blue eyes never left Sean’s face. He could see the calculation there, steady and cold as precision machinery.” Or, you might structure an early scene so that we’re shown the contrast between bad grammar and intelligent action. In fact, these techniques can actually aid characterization by adding very human texture and contradictions to a character that might otherwise seem one-dimensional.
In one sense, of course, how characters talk is never a function of their personalities alone, but also of a writer’s overall style. No character in a Henry James novel, no matter what his station in life, will talk like a character in a Joseph Wambaugh novel. But within the limits of your own style, your characters should not all sound alike. If they do, you miss opportunities to deepen their characterization through their dialogue. Pay attention to each person’s diction, sentence construction and grammar. It will make your dialogue far more revealing, interesting and readable.