Stephen Leigh, on Seven Strategies for Characterization, part II


Steve Leigh headshotIn the first installment, I covered the first two strategies:  1) the Physical Details, and 2) Show vs. Tell.  We’ll pick up from there…

Strategy 3: Dialogue

I think, for me, that this may be the Big One — the strategy with the most impact on characterization for both good or ill.  If you fail at getting the dialogue right, the character will also fail, but if you get it right… well, then the character will stir and come to vivid life on the page.

With dialogue, we add an entirely new sense to the character, because as soon as you enclose words inside those quotation marks, the readers begins to not only see the character, but to hear her or him.  We give the character a voice — and each character should have her or his unique voice.  Everyone who grew up before the time of your phone telling you who was on the other end of a call has had this experience:  your landline rings, you pick up the phone and say “Hello?”, and the person on the other end just starts talking.  Yet even though they haven’t given you their name, within a few seconds you know who’s on the line:  because of the sound of their voice, the timbre of their speech, their use of vocabulary, the speed at which they talk.  

We know them strictly by their voice.  It should be that way with your character, ideally.  To some extent, the reader should be able to tell who’s talking even if you leave off the speech tags… because every character should have their own voice.

The way we each talk stems from several different factors, among them: physical differences (the length of your vocal chords, the size of your chest cavity); gender (though one has to be careful about making assumptions, as there are women with low voices and men with high ones); education level (often affects vocabulary and structure); culture and/or age (affects slang usage and idioms); nationality and / or the first language spoken (in some circumstances, your character might have an accent); a person’s comfort in the situation, and who we’re talking to and why (let’s face it, most of us speak differently among friends than we do when we’re talking to our boss).  

As a writer, you need to know your character well enough to know how they would talk in any given situation.

On the other hand, dialogue should sound real, but it shouldn’t be real. Record some genuine conversation, and you’ll hear lots of “umms” and pauses and shattered sentences which, if recorded accurately, would be terrifically difficult for a reader.  Here’s an example I use in class (you’ll have to imagine me saying this aloud) — me reacting to my then-young son breaking a window:

REAL: “WHAT the… I… (huff) You… you’d better get the… the broom and… and…. DAMN IT!…. clean up this… this… mess. You hear me, D… Devon? I… (big sigh) and this is y’know comin’ outa your… umm… umm… You… (shakes head, sputters wordlessly for a few seconds) Just… just… uh, you got me?”

That’s a close approximation of what I might have actually said.  But in a piece of fiction, that’s not particularly readable.  But cleaning up what I intended to say and making it perfect isn’t a good approximation of ‘my’ voice either.

PERFECT: “You will find a broom and you will sweep up the shards of broken glass. I trust that you comprehend what I am saying, sir. You should also be aware that the cost for replacing the pane will be deducted from your weekly stipend. Is that perfectly clear to you?”  

This would be fine were I an English lord on Downton Abbey, but, alas, I’m not…

IM CoverHere’s what could be in the book:Damn it!” Steve shook his head and exhaled audibly, his exasperation apparent in the way his hands waved aimlessly. “You get the broom and clean up that mess, you hear me, Devon? And this comes out of your allowance. You got that?”

What you’re after in dialogue is “verisimilitude” — something that sounds real, that gives the reader the quality of the character’s voice, but also doesn’t impede the reader.

4: The Revealing Action

Your plot will force your characters to respond in some manner.  How they respond to the stimulus of the plot is characterization.  They must respond as a person of their background, their abilities, and their personality would believably respond — which is not necessarily (or even usually) the way you-the-writer would respond.  

Let’s say you have Julia, who has just been told by her husband of five years, that he’s leaving her for someone else.  This statement has come out of nowhere for Julia, who had no suspicion that there was any issue in their marriage at all.  What will she do?  How will she respond?  There are almost infinite possibilities here:  she could slap him or hit him; she could cry; she could flee from the room; she could stalk off to the bedroom and start throwing his clothing out the window; she could shove him out the door; she could scream; she could try to convince him to stay; she could… she could…

There are too many possibilities to count.  The thing is that each of those actions require a different version of Julia.  For the Julia you have in your story, there’s one action that’s consistent with the character you’ve built, and you need to know your Julia well enough to pick out that one, and not one that is inconsistent with her.  

I once had a student write a story where the main character (a young man) opened the refrigerator in his apartment to be confronted by moldy food.  In the story, the young man is disgusted and appalled,  so horrified and nauseated by the sight that he’s unable to even touch the stuff.  But… a couple scenes later, his fiance has arrived, and she happens to lose her engagement ring in the kitchen garbage.  So our intrepid young man immediately plunges his hand into garbage can to rescue the ring.  

That action absolutely didn’t work:  the person who can’t bear to handle moldy food containers in the fridge isn’t going to stick his hand into a garbage can filled with all sorts of icky things.  It’s inconsistent behavior unless you’ve shown us scenes where that character has changed for some good reason (and in this case, the writer hadn’t),

The actions your character take reveal their character to the reader, and that character has to be consistent with the fictional person you’ve built, as well as with a character of that time, that place, that background, that social status, and so on.

In the next (and last) installment, we’ll look at the final three strategies.  In the meantime, let’s discuss the above two in the comments!


Stephen Leigh, who also writes under the name S.L. Farrell, is a Cincinnati author who has published twenty-seven novels and many short stories, including several for the WILD CARDS series, edited by George RR Martin.  His newest novel is IMMORTAL MUSE (by Stephen Leigh), DAW Books, March 2014.  PW Weekly gave it a starred review, saying “Leigh seamlessly inserts his two immortals into history, playing with actual people and events to deliver beautifully-rendered glimpses of different eras. Leigh strikes the perfect balance between past and present, real and imagined.”

Twitter: @sleighwriter
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11 comments to Stephen Leigh, on Seven Strategies for Characterization, part II

  • Once again, I am struck by how similar our approaches are. I LOVE using dialog as a tool for character development; it really is the key to my work. Not just the spoken words, but also gesture, facial expression, tone — stuff that comes through in description and can also be used to vary and enhance dialog attribution. Great post, Steve. Can’t wait to see installment number 3.

  • I really do feel that dialogue might do more than anything to flesh out a character. And (darn it) I forgot to mention that reading your dialogue aloud can really help the verisimilitude. If it doesn’t sound right coming out of your mouth, it probably won’t sound right to the reader, either.

  • One of my pet peeves when reading is having all the characters sound the same when they talk, so this is something I’m trying hard to avoid in my writing. These detailed looks at characterization have been great! Like David, I’m looking forward to the next one.

  • @SiSi — Thanks! I’m trying to avoid that myself! 🙂

  • … whereas my Julia would calmly reach in the vanity beside the bed, withdraw the loaded .38, smile, point, and say, “‘Til death us do part, remember?”

    Sorry, couldn’t resist! 😉

    I love playing with combinations of dialog and action to define characters’ attributes and make them recognizable and unique. I don’t really care if the character is only going to get three lines of type-space. Even the guy behind the counter at the deli should be unique and distinct from the one at the cash-register.

    Great posts, so far – can’t wait for the next one.

    And for the admins – can we keep ’em all, huh? Please???

  • Thanks, Lyn (and glad I’m not married to Julia!). Next one? What next one? The final strategy for characterization is to leave the reader hanging. 🙂

  • Stephen S.P.

    I like your points on dialogue. How can you tell when there’s too much dialogue? I’ve read pieces where there’s very little action and a lot of talking. Sometimes, it works; sometimes, it doesn’t.

  • And (darn it) I forgot to mention that reading your dialogue aloud can really help the verisimilitude. If it doesn’t sound right coming out of your mouth, it probably won’t sound right to the reader, either.

    I’m giving this one two thumbs up. I do this and you can tell when reading aloud where it doesn’t sound quite right (though it probably makes me seem like a lunatic to those around me at times, reading to myself…of course, so does my pacing and talking to myself, but I digress). If you trip over it then your readers probably will too.

    I’ve been told by others that I write characters and dialogue well and I think it’s because I get in their head and am writing from their perspective, so the “voice” changes. People talk about having a specific or unique writing “voice,” but I just write from each character’s head, so I don’t think I have a specific voice. I have the character’s voice that I’m writing about at that time. Even my third person narrative sort of comes from their head.

  • @ Daniel — I’ve also been the insane person pacing in his office and reading aloud. 🙂 And as to “writing from each character’s head”, well, that’ll be covered in the next installment!

    Keep writing those characters well — believe me, I think that might be the most important aspect of the craft of fiction!

  • Stephen writes: “… well, that’ll be covered in the next installment!”

    Lyn writes: “TEASE!”