Using Dialogue to Build Characters

On the current crime novel project, I’ve been writing a lot of dialogue lately. A lot of clients working on memoir (or novels based on true stories) actually end up coming to me after trying to write their own book. This is specifically because they have finally realized they can’t write dialogue.

I thought here I’d try to talk a little bit about how I do it. The answer of course, is I just DO it. The characters come alive as they talk. But if I were to break it down into the various components of what goes on, subconsciously, when I bring them alive like that, I’d say the following.

Step-by-Step Dialogue

First, my characters, because of the nature of my ghostwriting work, are almost always based upon real people. I get to interview those people and hear how they talk and what kinds of things they talk about. That helps a lot.

When working with real people as characters you have an advantage and a disadvantage. Advantage: real people are complex and interesting and deep. Disadvantage: on the page, in a novel of limited length, you usually can’t bring out every facet of someone’s personality. When you try, it gets muddy, and the person, instead of appearing unique, actually appears very ordinary.

Simplifying the Character

When you’re very close to the person in question (or if you yourself are the person in question), its hard to simplify the character enough to make him or her work in a book. So what I do to start with is focus on two or three really defining characteristics of a person and make sure they come out in the dialogue, first.

One character in my current ghostwriting project, for instance, does lots of crime, but doesn’t curse. It’s an interesting contrast in the person’s character, so I bring that out occasionally. Other characters say “damn” or “shit” where he says “darn” or “rats.” It shows one way that he is unique.

Use Dialogue to Emphasize One Feature

Of course, he is a lot more complex than just having that one set of traits, but it’s somewhere to start. Once that aspect of his personality has been established, readers can picture him better. They have a handle on him. He is tall, good looking, and doesn’t curse. That’s a start.  As I continue to add traits to his character, the reader adds those to the initial, very simple, idea of him, and thus he becomes more complex.

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