Reveal Character with Dialogue

Characterization and dialogue are two storytelling techniques I sometimes think of as separated at birth. You can’t adequately portray character without dialogue: It’s essential to creating characters who come alive in ways they wouldn’t if you were telling the story in simple exposition.

I write about dialogue and characterization in November’s The Writer magazine (pick up a copy on the newsstand!). Passages from Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes show how dialogue can move the story forward while providing compelling and critical information about the characters.

Dialogue is one of the most powerful tools in your writer’s toolbox. It reveals character in ways narrative can’t. We can hear the Southern drawl or the German accent. We can see the petulance or pride, feel the reticence or ignorance, experience the fear or the frailty.

And if you can master subtext – revealing character through that which is not said – your prose will be stronger still.

One of my favorite writing teachers is novelist Davida Wills Hurwin, who teaches high school theater in Los Angeles. It was in one of Davida’s workshops where I fully grasped the concept of subtext.

She had two people act out a scene in which they were not allowed to say explicitly what the issue was between them. The set-up was they were a couple who had been married for a number of years: He wanted children; she didn’t. She became pregnant, but wanted an abortion. He fervently wanted her to have the child. In the scene, neither was allowed to directly mention the abortion. It was a very intense improvisation, which quickly got heated and almost out of control until Davida stepped in. The woman and man who were playing the parts got deeply into their characters, and let the emotion of the situation flow.

Another time, Davida had us act out scenes from a work in progress. I brought a scene from a YA novel I’d been working on about a young girl who is paralyzed in a car accident in which her mother dies. The scene is between the girl and her father. After reading the scene, Davida had two people from the workshop toss the notes aside and improvise. What happened surprised and amazed me. The young woman who was playing my protagonist put herself fully into the person of a 13-year-old in a wheelchair, in grief over her mom’s death, resentful of her own survival, agonized over her paralysis, angry at her dad for not being able to save them from their fates. I was in tears at the end, and I understood so much more about my character than when we began.

If we can bring those emotions to the surface in our writing, to make our readers feel them as acutely as we do, that’s the stuff of great literature.

Gather some friends and bring your characters alive with exercises like these. Your stories will be more compelling because of it.