Creating Characterization through Dialogue

Here's an excerpt from my Dialogue class, which starts tomorrow (Tues, Nov 30):

Characterization is the painting of a character in a story through narrative, dialogue and action. Done well, the character will come to life on the page as if they are a real person.

Done poorly, and the author has succeeded in creating cardboard. And the reader will never forget it.

As Noah Lukeman puts it in his book, The Plot Thickens, "...character is the basis for all further talk of journey, conflict, suspense—and is the cornerstone of plot..."

Characterization is achieved by the author through the careful delivery of external (descriptions of how the character looks, walks, drinks their coffee) and internal information (how they act in any given situation, who they interact with, the decisions they make, the decisions they don’t make). Note that these do not break down the same as internal and external dialogue.

Nouns and verbs chosen for dialogue directly affect the intensity of tone and the reader's perception of the character. These words can reveal whether the character is dominant or submissive, passionate or dispassionate.

Also, the choppiness of dialogue sentences and whether the character speaks complete sentences may tell the character’s attitude or even education level. Consider how terse dialogue is spoken by a character who is combative, how sensitive phrases might be used by a caretaking character. Doing the reverse can be even more interesting. Consider how jokes from a bank robber make his/her character more interesting.

Remember: In fiction, what they say IS who they are. Even and especially when the character is lying.

Dialogue Do's & Don't's

Before we jet off to Cancun for a little R&R (our first real vacation in 4 years!), here's some dialogue do's and don't's to consider from my upcoming dialogue class (see:

Don’t… use a lot of dialogue tags, such as “he/she said” or “he explained” or “she asked.” They are not as invisible when used en masse. Use them sparingly.

Do… Make it clear who is speaking by attaching dialogue to the character’s action. But don’t overdue this either. Again, moderation and variation of pattern is best to maintain reader interest.

Don’t… Use alternate dialogue tags too much, such as “he muttered” or “she prattled” or “he eviscerated.” The more unique the tag, unfortunately, the more attention it calls to itself. You don’t want to reader stumbling over something that should be invisible. These break the reader out of the story.

Do… Sprinkle a few variations in the manuscript when they are the best and/or the only way to show specific behavior, such as “he whispered” or “she growled” or “he mumbled.” When it naturally matches the action or plot events, then it will blend in better.

Don’t… Attach adverbs to dialogue tags, such as “he said wistfully” or “she asked regretfully.” This is a sure sign to agents and editors that the author is an amateur. Use action to show these emotions instead.

Do… Use verbs and nouns instead, such as “she said, her face blushing.”

Go forth and conquer, Angels.
Regards, Your Editor Devil

Sprinkle, Don’t Douse with Punctuation

Punctuate Appropriately
Let’s start with the simplest markers for drama: exclamation points. Rarely are exclamation points needed, and rarely should they be used.

Like TNT, they are alarming, even to the point they can jolt the reader out of the story. Some editors and authors say use them only once per chapter or a handful of times for the whole book. And some say, “Never!” (Don’t worry, I’m not one of those.)

The exclamation point neither makes a character louder or angrier. That’s the job of language, both in the narrative (She yelled till her voice cracked.) and dialogue (“You lousy SOB, of course I found out you were cheating on me.”)

That’s the difference between showing (words) and telling (punctuation). Punctuation doesn’t convey how the action was committed, so don’t lean on exclamation points to do the word for you.

Set Limits
Limit your em-dashes (—), which interrupt narrative sentences for a non-linear thoughts or, in dialogue, for actual interruptions to speech. Too many interruptions and you risk overextending the reader’s patience.

Likewise, the fair-weather parenthesis () and brackets [] can halt pacing. (I’m a sucker for both of these and an editor, so forgive me. You know to do as I say, not as I do, right?) The ellipses (...) is like hearing characters sigh all the time (please don’t do that either). Authors use them when characters don’t want to finish a thought, or don’t need to because the reader can fill in the blank. They’re also used to express character doubt, secrets, or lack of trust. But used too often and the ellipses becomes cliché.

Genre of course affects how often you use these. Suspense, Thriller, Mystery, and even Comedy often use this device. But moderation is key to using any punctuation in any genre. But again, your word choice, narrative and dialogue are responsible for creating these effects. Otherwise, agents and editors will consider your work lazy.

Good luck, angels!
Your humble Editor Devil

10 Traits of Successful Writers

Here is a list from a past class I taught years ago to aspiring technical writers and editors. But I've recently used it for fiction authors, because I think it applies to all writing professionals/artists. Hope this helps someone out there who needs to believe in themselves again!

Top 10 Qualities of Successful Writers:

10) Value Themselves Appropriately
• At home
• In the market
9) Have Heroic Personalities
• Graceful under fire
• Sense of purpose in life
• Deep loyalty to others & self
• Centered confidence
8) Are Always Building & Adapting
• Network
• Resources
• Skills
• Goals
7) Play the Game Strategically
• Simplify tasks
• Regular writing formulas
• Financially savvy
6) Have Immense Stamina
• Mental more than physical
• Associate with high-stamina people
5) Are Can-Do People
• Find solutions
• Find others with solutions
4) Are Not Afraid to Be Uncomfortable
• Change doesn’t intimidate them
• Know when to ask for help
• Can venture into unknown territory
3) Know Their Talents
• Area of expertise
• Editing areas & strengths
• Writing areas & strengths
2) Know Their Limits
• Money
• Time
• Energy
• Resources
1) Have an Indomitable Spirit
• Outlast and outpace
• Work despite fears
• Never give in to “no”

Your Ever-faithful Editor Devil

Back by Popular Demand...

Dialogue is my favorite subject. So I'm happy to announce that I'm bringing back my dialogue class for those who've been asking for another opportunity to take it.

And to make it more fun, here's a SPECIAL OFFER (I LOVE giveaways!!): Everyone who registers for the class before Nov 15 will receive a bonus lesson on character development and be entered into a drawing to win Donald Maass' book, "The Fire In Fiction."

Be warned! This class will challenge your socks off. Nobody gets by with plain, everyday dialogue in my class, so be ready to bend your brain and get creative. Here's the scoop (more info and registration at

Make your words pop on the page! Dialogue is one of the most important elements, of any work of fiction. It’s equal to action, because, when written well, DIALOGUE IS ACTION. So if you want readers to salivate for your character’s every word, then you must know how to:

• Make your characters radiate and your story move through speech.
• Build tension on every page using dialogue.
• Throw curve balls in conversations.
• Reveal characters' hopes/needs/fears through what they do/don’t say.

You'll learn to create interesting, compelling dialogue to reveal your characters internal and external journeys. We'll examine internal vs. external communications and primary vs. secondary character dialogue maps. Students may share a scene from their work for feedback from the instructor and/or the class.