On Character

My friend (and literary agent) Eric Simonoff once told me this story about one of his clients: this writer was on an extended book tour, enjoying the readings and persevering through the time spent trudging through airports and alone in hotel rooms. Writers know that on such a tour you must always travel with a fat novel or two. So in one anonymous hotel room, this writer settled in for a bout of reading with a deliciously thick novel by Anthony Trollope, the 19th century British author famous for his deft handling of characters through multi-book sagas. The protagonist of our story turned to the first page of this book, which is a late instalment in one of these series (I’m being purposefully vague here). He read the first line, in which Trollope bluntly informs the reader that one of the most prominent characters—until now developed in fine detail over several books—has died. The writer threw the book across the room. He couldn’t bring himself to read on for weeks afterwards.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://blog.granthika.co/on-character/

Vikram, your webinar on character development was very informative. Thanks. I have a question regarding dialog. I struggle with writing dialog. Do you have suggestions to how to learn how to write authentic dialog?


Hi, Prabhakar,

Apologies for the late reply. It’s been a crazy couple of weeks. Hope you’re well and safe, wherever you are.

Here are some things I think about and remind my students about often:

  • Dialogue works best when it’s action, when characters are trying to do something to each other through dialogue. Having one character say “Hello” to another one doesn’t do much for the reader, unless saying “Hello” is a way for the first character to annoy the second one, or something like that. So dialogue should be used in a way that’s similar to the character’s other behaviour, which acts on somebody else.

  • Often people don’t say what they really mean. Which is to say that there’s text and then there’s subtext. This works really well in fiction, when the reader has the pleasure of interpreting what a character is saying. Implication rather than outright showing tends to be more effective.

  • Dialogue in fiction is always stylized. If you tape some people talking, and then do a faithful transcription of what is said, you’ll notice that there are a lot of “Um” and “Ah” filter words, pauses, etc., that don’t work at all on the printed page. So you shape the dialogue you write to be effective in your own context. Hemingway is famous for his dialogue, but what he puts on the page is very different than actual speech. Think also about rhythm and cadence; you’ll notice this also in Hemingway.

  • You can use accent and regional diction to shape a specific character’s speech. Although you have to be careful about this. You don’t want to create caricatures, so this is best done with a light hand. I’ve had great fun in my own writing with local dialects, etc.

There’s a lot more to think about, but these are the things that immediately come to mind. In her book Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway has a very good section on dialogue in the chapter titled “Characterization, Part I.”

Hope this helps. Glad you enjoyed the character development webinar.



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