Editing Lessons #3b: Character Dialogue (Part 2)

This is part 2 of my earlier post around character dialogue (part 1).

Character dialogue should be true to the  character. The way in which our characters communicate should be a reflection of their world view, position in life and their unique personality (see post about having distinct character voices). How they talk, how much, and what they say will all be effected.

To demonstrate this, I’ll briefly give you Ben’s definition of the four personality types according to the four temperaments, and look at how a character might speak if they were part of the Fellowship of the Ring in Lord of the Rings.

  • A phlegmatic character might be happy with “whatever”. They are either easy-going or too lazy to challenge the status quo. They’ll be unflappable as steel, but could be too casual and unlikely to lead.

“I’m happy to come too, but do we have to leave immediately? Can’t we wait until after the weekend when we are well-rested?”

  • A choleric will be all about achievement. They’ll be thinking and talking about how the goals can be accomplished. They’ll want to be organized in advance, but their driven nature might rub others the wrong way. They can make great leaders or administrators but lack “soft skills”.

“OK before we leave we should work out how long the trip will take, where we can stop and resupply and what items we need to carry. We should make a list of responsibilities and delegate them out.”

  • A sanguine loves to be the centre of attention and the life of the party. They will nearly always have something to say. They are upbeat and happy.

“Shouldn’t we have a party before we leave?”

  • A melancholic will be worried about the task, their place in it and how things could go wrong. They are often emotionally intelligent, but can get lost in the vortex of their own introspection.

“Don’t you realise they call it Mount Doom for a reason? It’s not going to be butterflies and rainbows. People I love are going to die, possibly me too.”

My worldview bleeds through – so here is a better diagram showing both the strengths and the weaknesses of the personality types. Normally a person has strong traits of two of the types (diagonally opposite don’t normally go together. As the saying goes though, “opposites often attract”).

4 humors
As you should be able to guess, from hidingplaceblog.blogspot.com

A character with low self-esteem will not often challenge a dominant character’s comments. A proud character may speak a lot, because doesn’t everyone want to hear what they are thinking? An introvert is less likely to speak in a group setting.

Dialogue tags should be used sparingly; wherever possible what a character says and the layout of the text should be enough to show who is speaking. Where dialogue tags are used, find different ways instead of using the common tags (said, replied etc.) Use motion or sound. (I’m still learning how to do this well).

One ‘industry person’ on the net unloaded both barrels on writers’ for using dialogue tags like:

“No!” he hissed.

“Yes,” he exploded.

The commentator sarcastically wondered if the character had become a snake… or assumed that it was the end of the story, given the protagonist was now splattered around the room.


Certainly you wouldn’t want to overuse such terms, but I personally don’t feel the objection was entirely justified. The reason why such descriptive terms are good is because the reader understands them. In one common word we can portray much. (Perhaps my viewpoint shows inexperience, or the ability to pluck low-hanging fruit…)



Character dialogue should not happen in a vacuum (aka “white room syndrome”). This is one issue that I need to improve in. I’ve been trying to unobtrusively watch people (without being creepy). Most often when we are talking to others we are also doing things. It is very rare to have someone’s full attention: we seldom stand looking at one another talking. Our characters should be doing things, reacting to what is being said. Other things should be happening around them. Life (and the rest of the world) doesn’t pause entirely for dialogue.


How characters speak to one another should be portray their emotions toward one another. Someone in love speaks very differently to the short sharp remarks of an adversary. Constantly adding a salutation to someone’s name shows respect or subservience (“Mr Frodo”) , whereas its noticeable absence reflects hostility. (“I refuse to call him Dr… it’s only an honorary title anyway”)


Dialogue should also be situational appropriate. If the tension is at a climax a “You shall not pass!” is more appropriate than “This is as far as you go. I will not allow you to hurt my friends.”


What other factors or concepts have I missed? Don’t all speak up at once, it would be out of character. (Wince)

Editing Lessons #3: Character Dialogue (Part 1)

During the current editing process of Vengeance Will Come I have no choice but to admit that my dialogue is so wooden that it is in danger of a termite infestation. There’s significant whittling to be done.

Ben’s guide to character dialogue (and what not to do).:

Dialogue should be comprehensible Easily understood. Even if the character is from an alien race with a different language, culture or technology the readers are still human. Being a linguist or anthropologist shouldn’t be a prerequisite to enjoying the story, so don’t make it overly complex with alien terminology. Recently blogging about inventing words, a comment from reader incbiotic helped me to realise the answer: use new words for new concepts (* mostly).

As a vivacious young reader, I reveled in each and every opportunity to demonstrate my exemplary vernacular by employing sophisticated words.

(The only difficulty was I sometimes accidentally selected the wrong noun; like calling my sister a “faeces”, instead of the intended “fetus”). Sorry, sis.

Though the story is absolutely true, the first paragraph highlights the problem. You may understand what I wrote, but chances are you think I am a pompous fool. The intent of writing is to be understood; so write simply and clearly. The reader wants a story, not a casual walk through a thesaurus. Do not confuse difficult words with wisdom.

(Personally I like having to look the odd-word up in a dictionary – but that is not normal behaviour). I believe this is less of a problem for me now, but it is something I must guard against.

Dialogue should be Natural. This is one of my novel’s problems and why I described the dialogue as ‘wooden’. My characters often speak as though they are staring down the barrel of a news camera with all the accompanying formality and polish.

Even people accustomed to the scrutiny of the public (e.g. rulers, politicians) would speak more naturally when away from the cameras. Humans are lazy; we take shortcuts and use abbreviations and acronyms. Especially if we are in a rush or very comfortable with our audience or subject matter. The language should be natural. We are lazy in speaking and reading, so be kind to your readers.

Dialogue should be Tight. No rambling allowed (* mostly). Don’t make the reader wade through twice the content to tell them something you could have in half. Keep it tight, on message.

An example, pre-edit (30 words):

Menas answered angrily with contempt in his voice,

“You’re a boy whose face has not been touched by a razor!  Look at your arms – no thickness in them at all!”

Post-edit(15 words):

Menas scoffed,

“You have never shaved… Probably never fought. You are puny in every dimension.”

(Taking a slight detour at the end of this post: all text should be tight, not just dialog. Just to show how bad I was, here’s something from June 2013…)

wordy sample

As I wrote back in June 2013,

At the end of the day the job of an author is to write something that the reader can and will read, not reach some syllable-based bonus points per sentence score.

Character Dialogue (part 2) coming as soon…



Good Reading

I’m currently reading a couple of books, and enjoying them both for completely different reasons.

The Archivist’s Story

First there is the older The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland.

It is a slow-moving story, but deep, emotional and rich in content, language and character. The story follows Pavel Ivanovich an ex-lecturer in literature who under Stalin’s socialism is forced into service at the KGB headquarters. As a lover of fine literature he detests his job which consists of cataloging and then destroying literature deemed dangerous to the State.

You can sense the tension in the book as Pavel suppresses his own thoughts, because they put him at odds with the socialism. Though the danger is immense, you feel his integrity is starting to reassert itself against the lies that he must continually repeat to stay safe in socialist Russia.

Pavel’s relatively young mother (early 50’s) also has ailing health, which Pavel is struggling to deal with. The following excerpt is where they are in the waiting room of a neurologist in an attempt to diagnose his mother’s ‘black outs’.

“In the waiting room a little boy weakly flails away on his mother’s lap, paddling the air with his hands, as if struggling to wake from some dream of falling. The boy’s eyes, beautifully blue, follow Pavel as he passes; the frank despair in them chills his heart. Is this what awaits him and his mother? Private miseries played out in public, as in the pages of a novel. Like that old woman who couldn’t remember her own daughter. Only these people aren’t characters conjured from the imagination, their stories do not end when the reader closes the book and shuts off the lamp. He is unable to prevent himself from imagining a morning years from now when his mother will no longer remember him, when she will turn to him and ask, Do I know you?

And Pavel will tell her, I am your son. (page 60)

Excellently written and highly poignant. Though I haven’t had to go through the experience of seeing a parent in such circumstances, I can imagine how difficult it must be. It is something that I have certainly thought about before, which led me to write two short stories The Captive and the follow-up Alone.

Pavel is also grieving the loss of his wife who died in a train de-railment (while he remained at home). Though he misses her terribly there is also a hint of attraction for him toward his younger neighbour.

“I sometimes wonder ,” says Pavel, surprising himself, “whether it would be better if I just put her pictures away.”

Natalya glances at him, and Pavel sees at once the question in her eyes. What is he telling her? That it is so painful to go on looking at Elena’s pictures day after day, knowing he will never see her again? That would be the simple answer, the expected answer. How then to reconcile this with the sense of uneasiness that has grown up in him since his wife’s death? Uneasiness, because Elena has slipped, ever so gradually, into abstraction. She has become these pictures. A handful of memories. Worse, she has become the imagined last moments of her life, which Pavel will never likely be able to let go. (page 101)

Though I failed to bookmark any particular quotes the description of depression, both on the economy and on people’s psyche is also excellent. It describes people going through the motions of survival; lacking joy or optimism.

The Alloy of Law

The other completely different book is Brandon Sanderson’s The Alloy of Law. As one of the author’s in the Writing Excuses podcasts I thought it was about time I read some of his work. Sadly, my local library seems entirely lacking with this being the only Sanderson book they had.

It is a light-hearted adventure/crime fantasy. It’s not the first in the series, so I did feel a little under-prepared in respect to an understanding of the magic systems, but I still found it enjoyable. I noted several things about the book, worthy of a mention:

Sanderson does a good job of designing a plot where the pieces fit together well at the end. I’m talking specifically about the final fight scene where they defeat the almost-invincible enemy. I wasn’t sure how they were going to do it, so I was impressed with the resolution.

I like the way he does dialog. There is an incredible amount of dialog in the book. In my writing, I don’t think I have as much dialog, and rely more heavily on the characters doing something, rather than what they are saying. (Which I’m not sure if it’s just different or not as good). Also I noticed that his dialog is often flourished with movement, which I think works really well. For example, this is all of the dialog on page 176 (italics added):

“Well?” she asked.

“Two Tripwires,” Waxillium said, “rigged with explosives. Nothing else dangerous we could find. Other than Wayne’s body odor.”

“That’s the smell of incredibleness,” Wayne called from inside.

“Come on,” Waxillium said, holding the door open for her.

She stepped in, then hesitated in the doorway. “It’s empty.”

“Sleeping quarters up there,” Waxillium said, pointing at the other side of the foundry. “The main chamber here is double height for half the building, but the other side has a second story. Looked like they could house some fifty men in there, men who could act like foundry workers during the day to maintain the front.”

“Aha!” Wayne said from the darkness on the left side of the chamber.

“How easily did that open?” Waxillium asked, trotting over.

From this I take two pointers – not to be used always, but frequently:

  • Where is the character when they say the dialog?
  • What is the character doing when they say the dialog?

As can be seen from the example above, the story is well-peppered with comedy. The two main characters play off each other in a very humorous way. There’s a joke or smart comment every few pages at least. The character Wayne is funny too – he’s something of a kleptomaniac who doesn’t steal, but trades without consent. For example he might take someone’s gun, but leave in its place a picture that he drew.