Delineate Characters through Dialogue

Excerpt from "The Editor Devil's Guide to Dialogue"...

How a character speaks tells us who they are. Hence, no two characters should sound alike in your story.

Dialogue is the writer’s chance to give the character a unique voice, so it’s imperative that the characters speak uniquely. This means the tone of the words (think the temperament of the character—angry people would sound crisp while gentle people would use kind words), and the style (such as gang slang versus Wall Street uptight) and the pacing (fast or slow, choppy or elaborate) should feel one-of-a-kind.

Maybe the hero has a drawl so he cuts ‘ings’ off verbs and speaks in short sentences, often using idioms (such as “Clothes don’t make the man” or “Waste not want not”). While the antagonist speaks using British English phrases and long, proper sentences that sound stiff.

Even when there is no dialogue tag or narrative introduction of the characters, we should be able to distinguish the characters by their dialogue alone. That’s good characterization through dialogue.

Consider Context to Build Characterization

Consider these examples of how the context of a character’s life (authors should list these for each character) also affects a character’s dialogue, both in style and tone, and thus build characterization:

Career: A detective character will not choose the same words as a farmer.

Relationship: A mother doesn’t speak the same as a daughter when they are together.

Situational: A perp doesn’t speak the same as a victim, together or not.

Gender: Men do not speak the same as women, especially when together. Overall, women use more pronouns (I) and articles (it, them), while men use yes/no more often and name people, places and things directly.

Religion: Buddhists monks don’t speak the same as Christian priests. Unless it’s a bad limerick.

Race, creed, nationality, or color: An African American does not speak the same as a black African. Please avoid misspelling or abbreviating words to show ethnicity, as it often backfires or is inappropriate.

Historical: A medieval knight will not speak the same as a modern English Baron, despite being raised in the same country or even county of origin.

Medical: Grandparents with cancer do not speak the same about their disease as children with cancer.

Perspective: A depressed character will not see the same tree like a jovial character. This aspect is key to revealing the heart and mental state of a character.

Mix & Match Context According to Genre

There are so many more potential contexts, too many to be listed here. The point is to consider what makes each character unique, and apply these differences to their speech via word choice, phrasing, tempo, structure, tone and style.

For example: Especially in YA or where young characters are represented, consider hopes and dreams and expectations. Basically, think of who the character “expects” to be when they grow up as equally important to their current background. Adults look at where they’ve been to self-define. Young people self-define themselves based on how they WILL surpass their parents (or at least not repeat their parents’ mistakes). It’s this hopefulness, and often haughtiness, that elevates their sense of promise and self. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if that’s a good or bad characteristic.

The same could be used for any character experiencing dramatic shifts in personality or situation. With the shift to another creature, such as a shape-shifter, typically comes emotional resistance. The vampire hero who refuses to feed off humans. The werewolf heroine who won’t hunt. Why not mix it up? A vampire or werewolf who loves to be a predator might be a refreshing change."

So go forth and forge individuals in your story, my little author angels, not carbon copies of each other. Otherwise, you might as well say "ditto" in dialogue instead of anything interesting.

Yours truly,
The Editor Devil

Let Characters Charm Your Readers

One trick to making your characters pop off the page is to charm the reader. This doesn't mean your male hero speaks like a stereotypical Romeo. Or your heroine acts like a helpless dame looking for her prince in shining armor.

Charming the reader is more down to earth, more home-grown than this. Most of us love complicated heroes/heroines who've had a dark past, or at least been through a little pain in life. Untroubled people on the page are boring (in real life, they are just lucky! and only slightly boring). But adding pain points to your character won't necessarily charm readers either. Pity is not charming, frankly.

So, what charms you about the average Joe? For one, I love to know what makes people smile automatically and thus break through their walls. Puppies are perfect examples.

As most of you know, I have a chocolate Lab puppy named Tucker, and he's a force to be reckoned with. Whenever we approach men, especially the groups of business suits or construction workers, their air of machismo drops. Guys drop to their knees, coo over how cute the puppy is, then look uncomfortably at one another and stand up straight again. Fascinating!

Recently, I brought up this issue with the 5-man crew of State Patrolmen sitting outside my local Starbucks. I explained that watching men react to Tucker was an exercise in psychology. They laughed and agreed that they had all fallen into their 10-yr-old selves the minute Tucker headed for them with his wiggling butt routine.

Now these guys were big, with their bullet proof vests on, sitting tall and telling stories about arresting tough guys. That they could laugh at themselves, IN FRONT OF EACH OTHER, was very charming.

The point is this: when and where people break out of their straight faces, drop their veneers, and act human is usually when we find them more vulnerable and thus interesting. That's a trick you can pull on the page to make your character not only charming, but more real.

How a character responds to a puppy--or a baby or elderly person--may feel cliché to you. So change it up. How about an ugly, ratty dog, or the bratty bully, or the cranky old maid down the street. If the character can still smile/laugh in these encounters, you can bet your readers will too.
The Editor Devil

NEW Character Developement Book Now On Amazon

Please bear with me as I squirm and giggle. I'm so excited to announce that my new book "The EditorDevil's Guide to CHARACTERS" ( is finally up and available on Amazon for Kindle.

This book is geared toward fiction writers who want to create fascinating characters—characters readers want to take home for dinner. Whether you want to create the next James Bond or Ethan Frome, the next Indiana Jones or Bridget Jones... this book will help you break the mold on character development.

My goal with this book, as with my classes, is to help you create 3-dimensional characters everyone talks about. We'll examine different profiling modes, including The Hero's Journey, epic-literature archetypes, psychology models, and even spiritual archetypes. Emphasis is placed on building stand-out heroes, heroines and villains. Depending on your genre, you'll also learn the appropriate type of relationships to create between characters, both primary and secondary.

With this book you'll also learn to:

1. Answer 3 key questions about your main characters.
2. Apply the 5 “musts” for character introductions/entrances to the story.
3. Layer action effectively (internal & external, public & private) to “show, not tell”.
4. Build character development arcs (primary vs. secondary characters) more easily.
5. Leverage dialogue between characters (primary and secondary).
6. Understand how heroes/heroines/villains should interact for greater effect.
7. Know when heroes/villains should win or lose and why.
8. Make plotting easier through character-driven storytelling.
9. Choose the right POV character for the story.

Best of luck to my fellow authors and editors!
Your Editor Devil

Use Foreshadowing in Dialogue to Establish Believability

Here's an excerpt from my recent book, "The Editor Devil's Guide to DIALOGUE":

Foreshadowing is a great tool in dialogue to establish believability.

The reader sometimes needs help to swallow whatever truth is coming. By dosing information in small amounts along the way, such as through foreshadowing dialogue, the reader can “work up to” the truth.

For example: An old lady who kills her only son. Maybe’s a petty thief, but it’s still hard to swallow that she’d kill him. But easier to swallow if the reader sees the slow degradation of their relationship in dialogue.

You can move from friendly “Love you, ma” to more tense “Why are you always sweating me, ma” to threatening “Remember what happened the last time you took that tone with me, ma.” Maybe even to a conversation hinting at the abuse he experienced while she turned a blind eye.

Now we’re foreshadowing two plot elements that could come to pass: he’s going to explode, or she has to stop him before he does. That's good drama and great tension!

So think of it this way: any element of your story that would be “too large to swallow” in the opening should be foreshadowed and layered until it’s revealed. By then, the reader will expect and accept it.

But be careful: too much foreshadowing and the reader will feel they’ve already read the whole book.

Yours Truly,
The Editor Devil