Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Using Dialogue to Create Dimensional Characters

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 9.36.04 AM

So last time we talked about the basics in regards to dialogue and once we grasp the fundamentals—like proper punctuation—we then can focus more on elements of style. How we deliver the dialogue.

We can tell a lot about people by the way they speak. What people say or don’t say speaks volumes. As the writer, it is our job to understand our characters and to know who they are and how they think. We have to master the art of empathy. If we don’t, our dialogue will all sound like US talking. Writing, in many ways is a lot like method acting. We have to crawl inside the head and the psyche of our cast.

Not as easy as it might seem.

Dialogue done well is the stuff of legends though. Think of favorite movies. Why do we love them SO much? Very often…dialogue.

My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

Social Roles—The Broad Strokes

I live in my apron only usually no makeup and hair in a scrunch-ee

Whether we like it or not, most of us will fall into some kind of social category with the way we speak. The way we speak will tell others a lot about who we are, our job, our background, level of education and even where we exist socially.

Don’t believe me?

How many of you were once young and wild and free and swore you would never be like your parents? Then one day you heard, “Because I said so, that’s why” fly out of your mouth?

“Why can’t you just do it the first time?”

“I didn’t ask you if you wanted to do it.”

I am bee-bopping along and suddenly hear my mother….

“Well, Spawn, when the mind is stupid, the body suffers.”

Shoot. Me. Now.

No matter how much we try, we are helpless in the face of mimesis. But, that isn’t such a bad thing. This actually makes it easier to do what we do. Since we’ve been around moms, we know how they talk. We can emulate the lingo. We know how teenagers, grandparents, grouchy neighbors, picky librarians, and con-artist family members all talk.

Through these “roles” we gain the broad strokes of what a character should “sound” like. This will help our characters ring true in the mental ear of the reader. There is nothing wrong with having characters who fit into a tidy box. They can still be interesting and unique even in that role.

Yes, I am a mother and I say all the stuff I swore I would never say.

No is just a part of life. 

I also play XBox with Spawn and say things like, “Burst-fire! Conserve your ammo!” “You can’t kill a zombie like that!” 

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Thus, even though a lot of what I say would be very prototypical “Mom Talk” there are elements of how I speak that make me unique within that subset. Not all moms shoot for sport, practice Jiu Jistu and randomly quote Monty Python. Spawn’s mom, however, DOES.

But this is is when we get into the…

Character—The Fine Strokes

Moms say things many other moms say, but each mom is unique. That is the case with most characters. If we don’t take time to really think about who each character IS, we can run the risk of a character sounding like a stock character.

Recently I read a YA and only finished it because I paid full-price. But the biggest reason I had a tough time getting into the story was that all the characters were blasé.

Each character talked like a stereotype. The broad strokes were there, but there was no nuance. Thus, I was left with a cast of characters who were utterly forgettable.

How do we get fine strokes?

Can we buy some on eBay?

This is a tough one to answer. The fine strokes can take years to master. We have to learn to be excellent listeners. We have to learn how to look beyond what people are saying. We have to become masters of empathy and we must study people. Beyond this, though, what is it that transforms a plot-puppet into a 3-D person?

I believe it is in our idiosyncrasies and our contradictions.

Idiosyncrasies 

An Idiosyncrasy is a peculiarity that is specific to one person. For instance, last time I mentioned the no-no about having every character speak in full sentences. Most of us don’t speak in full sentences so it rings untrue when everyone is using full sentences. BUT, some people DO speak in full sentences. That would be an idiosyncrasy and it’s one that is used regularly to convey highly intellectual characters—Ie. Dr. Sheldon Cooper.

A character who is foreign might not use contractions. A character who has OCD might always repeat verbs. A character who is advanced in years might never answer directly, but always answer in colorful parables.

I wrote a really funny character who constantly used malapropisms.

You just don’t cheat on your wife. When you get hitched, you promise to be faithful. You know. Monotonous.

We all have sayings and filler words that are unique to each of us. But adding these subtle details, now we have characters who are far more dimensional.

So we might have a mother who is saying all kinds of mom-like things…only she is unique because she is bad about smashing words together and speaks in hyperbole.

Eat your vegetables and don’t correct me. It’s very condensending.

Condescending.

I know what I said, Mr. Smarty Pants. Hurry up before I trade you to the Jones family for a puppy. At least the puppy would have some respect.

Add Some Layers

Remember that most humans are actually a unique blending of experience and roles. Yes, we might have a mom who is talking like a mom, but what else is she? A mom who is a Japanese violinist would probably talk differently than a mom who is a cop and grew up in Brooklyn.

Culture

Culture impacts a lot more than we might realize. I was born in Texas, but reared by a Yankee mom who is very direct and no-nonsense. I have run into all kinds of trouble with Southern women who feel I am rude. Conversely, I get short with Southern women because I am aging and don’t have time for all the niceties.

My roommate in college was from Georgia and we went round and round and round. She’d say:

Roommate: Kristen, do you think the trash needs to go out?

Me: Nah, looks good to me *keeps going*

Because her culture dictated it was more polite to hint and suggest? I missed most of what she wanted because I was always direct. If I wanted someone to take out the trash, I simply asked.

But here is an extra lesson in dialogue. Just from this example, can you see how conflict can arise simply from expectations? She believed she was asking me to take out the trash and believed that I was ignoring her. Conversely, I couldn’t figure out why she wanted an opinion on the state of our garbage so often. Why didn’t she just ask me to take it out? I would have happily obliged.

Self-Image

How does your character feel about him/herself? A low self-image might make a person a people pleaser. Maybe she is always agreeing with everyone and terrified to have her own opinion. Maybe the character talks too much, tries too hard, never asks about others.

If a character is selfish, he might brag all the time, or have to outdo everyone else in the conversation.

That’s great you caught a fish, but you were on a lake. Now go deep sea fishing. That’s real fishing. I once struggled with a fifteen foot shark for three hours….

Maybe the character is always interrupting others. Maybe the character uses profanity or quotes bible verses all the time. Or both.

Contrast

Sometimes we can use dialogue to make contrasts. Contrasts are very interesting and say a lot about our character. A great example would be Elmore Leonard’s character Boyd Crowder (refer to television series Justified). Now, Boyd fits into a broad-stroke category of a hillbilly. He has a deep southern accent, works with his hands, drives a ratty truck, wears boots, and drinks like a fish.

But what makes Boyd a fascinating character study, especially for dialogue, is he is unexpected. He is a fascinating contrast. Though he is a redneck (and plays this up for his own ends) he uses a twenty-dollar word when a ten cent one would do. He speaks very colorfully. If you ask him the time, he will tell you how to build a watch.

Not only is his speech idiosyncratic, but it is a very unique contrast. One usually doesn’t expect a hillbilly to use words most of us would have to look up in a thesaurus.

Show Don’t Tell

Dialogue is HUGE, HUGE, HUGE for Show Don’t Tell.

Instead of telling us a character is a certain way, SHOW us by how she talks and what she says.

A gossip.

“Now, for the record, I’ve never seen her drink, but she always looks so tired. My brother-in-law always looked that way because he was throwing them back in secret.”

A self-involved jerk.

“Sure, Babe. After I meet with my client, how about I meet you for that cute little college thing you’re doing. What was it again? Art history?”

Y’all get the gist. Now go have fun with it!

All of this is to say that dialogue is one of the most powerful tools for showing who a character is, who they are hiding and maybe even who they could be with a little help from us (Writer-God). Next time, we will dig a bit deeper into dialogue. Who knew there was so much to this? What are your thoughts? What other suggestions do you have for authentic-sounding dialogue?

I LOVE hearing from you!

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August’s WINNER is lonestarjake88. Please send your 20 pages (2500 words) to kristen at wana intl dot com in a WORD document. Double-spaced and one-inch margins and CONGRATULATIONS!

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52 thoughts on “Using Dialogue to Create Dimensional Characters”

  1. areeceareece

    Reblogged this on Amy Reece and commented:
    Great thoughts about effectively using dialogue! Give this a read!

    Reply
    September 14, 2015
  2. areeceareece

    Love your posts! Thanks so much!

    Reply
    September 14, 2015
  3. kdrose1kdrose1

    Reblogged this on authorkdrose and commented:
    Great info for a foundation for dialogue

    Reply
    September 14, 2015
  4. Rose FRose F

    I have run into SO MANY problems with southern friends because of the difference in social expectations. To the point that it’s blown up into arguments. “If you wanted me to do that, why didn’t you SAY SO a month ago instead of getting mad at me now…? I’m not gonna stand around GUESSING WHAT YOU WANT all the time.” And apparently in some places, it’s horribly rude to tell someone they’re frustrating you…so that makes it worse.

    Reply
    September 14, 2015
    • Author Kristen LambAuthor Kristen Lamb

      Yep and…yep. STOP HINTING! Yeah. I love being a Texan, but I have to admit I really, really love New York. It is so nice to just say what I want and get to the point without worrying about offending anyone.

      Reply
      September 14, 2015
      • Rose FRose F

        LOL. I’m a transplanted New Yorker!

        Reply
        September 14, 2015
  5. Maggi FoxMaggi Fox

    From: Kristen Lamb’s Blog Reply-To: Kristen Lamb’s Blog Date: Monday, 14 September 2015 18:26 To: Maggi Fox Subject: [New post] Using Dialogue to Create Dimensional Characters

    WordPress.com Author Kristen Lamb posted: ” So last time we talked about the basics in regards to dialogue and once we grasp the fundamentals—like proper punctuation—we then can focus more on elements of style. How we deliver the dialogue. We can tell a lot about people by the way they s”

    Reply
    September 14, 2015
  6. Joy PixleyJoy Pixley

    I would like to order some fine strokes for my characters on Amazon, but I probably couldn’t afford the good stuff anyway. 😉

    All of these points seem so obvious and spot-on when you say them. Culture, of course. Self-image, obviously. Idiosyncrasies, let’s hope so. So why is it so hard to put this into practice I’m actually writing? I’m bookmarking this post in my “writing” folder to be sure I go back to it next time I’m stuck on dialogue.

    Recently I realized that although I was doing okay (not great, not even good, but okay) with the actual spoken dialogue in my novel, I wasn’t applying the same personality aspects you talk about to the internal thoughts in the close POV. So my characters speak with their own voices, but apparently all think with mine! Great. Something else to watch for.

    Thanks for the great post!

    Reply
    September 14, 2015
    • Eugenie BlackEugenie Black

      Great point Joy! I must go back and make sure my current characters think like themselves. Not only when their POV is being written, but when they are utterly silent too.

      Reply
      September 15, 2015
  7. stephaniebergetstephanieberget

    Thanks for posting this. I’m doing revisions now and this advice will help.

    Reply
    September 14, 2015
  8. Southpaw, HR SinclairSouthpaw, HR Sinclair

    Wonderful and great examples too. I could clearly see you and your roommate. Those tidbit traits of dialog would help separate our characters nicely.

    Reply
    September 14, 2015
  9. Carol CaldwellCarol Caldwell

    Thanks Kristin, good advice. I had a character that I wanted to give a Texas accent to, but the problem was in spelling. I know how to spell y’all, so I used it a lot. But what about the word I? Is it typed I or eye, as it’s pronounced? I finally gave up trying to translate Texan to the keyboard and have it come out sensible.

    Reply
    September 14, 2015
    • Author Kristen LambAuthor Kristen Lamb

      Not sure what you are trying to say. Can you write it out in a line of dialogue so I can understand context?

      Reply
      September 14, 2015
  10. katkent2014katkent2014

    If you have more than one POV, dialogue separtes their differences in personality and this is where writers can have so much fun doing it. I also love to use body-language intermittenly in place of dialogue to uniquely express the character’s emotions. Instead of “Yes.” use: She nodded. Instead of “No” for someone who is extreme in their dipleasure, use: He emphatically shook his head so hard it was bound to fall off. Someone who is proud or dominant: His chin was up, chest out and shoulders back. If you have a character who is lying, you weave in the body language for lying(scatching nose, ear, neck, shifty eye contact, lots of blinking, ill-timed smile or laughter, etc.) that contradicts dialogue and you get loads of drama. So fun in showing your characters different personality traits that eventually builds to your character’s unique arc. Awesome post, Kristen. Thank you.

    Reply
    September 14, 2015
  11. katkent2014katkent2014

    Reblogged this on writersback and commented:
    Awesome post by Kristen Lamb about Using Dialogue to Create Dimensional Characters. Powerful story themes and your characters’ arc are driven through dialogue and the conflict that you the writer, show.

    Reply
    September 14, 2015
  12. UnfurlingUnfurling

    Thanks for this useful post Kristen. I see a cultural difference in dialogue as well, but nuanced according to the individual. Australians are renowned for being blunt but differ from city to outback, and from individual to individual, say jackeroo to country doctor, for example

    Reply
    September 14, 2015
  13. Lauren CraigLauren Craig

    The example you use about the roommate is hilarious because I’m actually from Georgia too and have the blunt problem too. I was waiting for my friend in the dining hall at my college and was talking to one of my friends. He was able to swipe me in and the lady working said, “You aren’t from around here are you?”

    Reply
    September 14, 2015
  14. scribblingscribesscribblingscribes

    Great article thanks. I’m a stranger in a strange land and the language barriers are huge …and we all speak English!

    Reply
    September 14, 2015
  15. Cassandra PiatCassandra Piat

    Great post Kristen. I am fascinated by anything to do with dialogue because I love writing dialogue and have so much to learn. Thanks for your guidance. Reblogged on cassandrapiat.wordpress.com

    Reply
    September 15, 2015
  16. Cassandra PiatCassandra Piat

    No idea why my link doesn’t show up in blue like the others! Am so hopeless with all this stuff 🙁

    Reply
    September 15, 2015
  17. Heather S.Heather S.

    Absolutely awesome! You had me at Monty.

    Reply
    September 15, 2015
  18. James M. CopelandJames M. Copeland

    You may be a funny talker, but…I love listening to you. I thank you for the secrets you have devolged. (Probably spelled wrong.) I have been writing since the 80’s but am just now begining to learn how to write. I have 6 books published, but I wonder if they are correct? Thanks again for spending the time tellxxx Showing us how to write.
    Sincerely,
    James M. Copeland

    Reply
    September 15, 2015
  19. jgiambronejgiambrone

    I find authentic dialogue comes from not forcing it, not shoehorning it, letting it come over time. It takes as long as it takes. It’s a bottom-up process, not top-down.

    I am constantly repulsed by bad TV and movie dialogue that is obviously inserted to highlight points a, b and c. This is insulting and I guess lame, douchey, contrived, pathetic, manipulative…

    Reply
    September 15, 2015
  20. kimwrtrkimwrtr

    Guess I need to listen more to those around me. So, how does an introvert do that? 😉

    Reply
    September 15, 2015
  21. Alex HurstAlex Hurst

    I love the idea of malapropisms! I’d seen it before in cartoons, but never thought about using it in fiction. Sometimes I just want to read a ton of screenplays, just to see how the dialogue drives the story and mood. It’s really fascinating.

    Great post, as always!

    Reply
    September 15, 2015
  22. Lilith DarvilleLilith Darville

    Good one, Kristen. Off to tweet about it. Enjoy a great day! 🙂

    Reply
    September 16, 2015
  23. HeatherHeather

    Thank you for the tips and reminders!

    The hardest part for me is making them sound different when they all come from the same place. My last book took place in a tiny–fictional–town in Kansas where most people were raised by people who grew up there and they were raised by people who grew up there as well…so finding ways to differentiate them through dialogue was challenging (especially since I’ve lived most of my life in Portland, Oregon.)

    My first book was both easier and harder as my two main characters were from different countries; the female protagonist was from my home town and the male was from Birmingham, England and lived in London. I know nothing about speaking like a working class bloke from England, so I had to rely a lot on BBC America and other such sources. And then I had to make his British friends sound different from him….Argh!

    Reply
    September 16, 2015
  24. bigwall1296bigwall1296

    This is some great info. I have to check my progress so far and go back and see if I should adjust anything. I have tried to picture my character as realistic as possible in a fantasy world. So I try to have my dialogue as natural as possible but I am sure there is always room for improvement. Thanx for a great article!

    Reply
    September 18, 2015
  25. aurorajeanalexanderaurorajeanalexander

    Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
    This is a fantastic blog post about creating dimensional characters and effectively using dialogue, written by author Kristen Lamb. Well worth a read.

    Reply
    September 21, 2015
  26. aurorajeanalexanderaurorajeanalexander

    This is another great blog post, Kristen. I love it and have re-blogged it. There’s so much to learn.

    Reply
    September 21, 2015
  27. Marti JohnsonMarti Johnson

    Some of this I have done consciously and/or unconsciously. Other tips I will definitely use in the future. Thanks for the thought provoking commentary.

    Reply
    September 22, 2015
  28. authorswilliamsauthorswilliams

    This was awesome. I actually think I’m going to go back and read the rest of the posts on dialogue. It took a long time for me to even come close to writing good dialogue. A whole unpublished suppar manuscript to be exact LOL.
    2 things that I tend to do now, to help create more dimensional characters.
    1. In the rough rough draft, I write out JUST the dialogue scenes. In my head I can think about what kind of blocking there should be, but instead of getting lost in writing out a bunch of stuff like what’s going on around them, I just crank out their speech first. Later, I can go back and add in things.
    2. I tend to use body language to show what a character looks like and thinks and who they are etc, along with the dialogue.
    Great post. Thank you!

  29. Rianne MossRianne Moss

    Could Read… Following your blog and look forward to see your other exciting posts.

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