Character and Dialogue
A writer can’t actually create people. The characters are only scratches on the page. But there are three good ways through which the fiction writer can create characters—what they do, what they say, what they think. There is also character description, but this way is limited and should be used with caution. As Elmore Leonard says: “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”
In The Poetics, Aristotle mostly agrees with the previous paragraph: “There will be an element of character if what a person says or does reveals a certain moral purpose.” Ray Bradbury revised the Aristotle to this: “Give your character a compulsion.” The idea is that this gives the character something to do, say, think, etc.—and that this also creates narrative.
In line with that, Laura van den Berg likes to create narrative out of characters’ obsessions: “My characters tend to feel that if they can achieve a particular goal (become a long distance swimmer, accurately interpret a disturbed child’s drawings) or find a particular thing (a rare flower, the Loch Ness), everything will come together for them; they’re always looking for ways to make it all make sense. … Obsession is a wonderful storytelling tool … It offers an intensity, a sense of focus.”
Characters are often described as round or flat, major or minor. I’ve never found those distinctions particularly helpful, but Sarah Waters makes an interesting point about minor characters: “Respect your characters, even the minor ones. In art, as in life, everyone is the hero of their own particular story.” Kurt Vonnegut thinks writers should test their characters: “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” Said another way, plot becomes a way to create characters. The inverse can also be true: the action becomes the types of things an interesting character does.
Another way to think about character is by answering this question: What do you need to know about your characters before you can write about them? For me, the answer is nothing. I like to start with a voice and that voice tells me who the character is. Sam Lipsyte agrees: “Characters come to me as voices, different modes of speech. Who they are comes from there.”
Stanley Elkin said he had to know a character’s job before he could really begin. There are other writers who create character sketches with biographical information to use as a reference for their fiction. Andrew Porter takes this idea further. He writes “pages upon pages of raw content about the characters” that often gets cut or isn’t even incorporated into the story. I like that idea, especially if the material gets left out of the fiction, but the details still give a kind of weight to the story.
For John Gardner, though, character is central: “Character is the very life of fiction. Setting exists so that the character has someplace to stand, something that can help define him … Plot exists so the character can discover … what he, the character, is really like: plot forces the character to choice and action … theme exists only to make the character stand up and be somebody: theme is elevated critical language for what the character’s main problem is.”
Character was always a difficult fictional concept for me. It still is, but one of the most helpful things I’ve ever read on character is from the actor Constantin Stanislavski. I found his writings on acting after Harold Brodkey referenced “all that Stanislavski stuff” in an interview with The Paris Review. I still go back and read Stanislavski’s An Actor’s Handbook every once in a while (it may as well be A Writer’s Handbook; everything applies), but the best material pertaining to character comes from Stanislavski’s On Building a Character. Think method acting for the writer. Or better yet, think “method writing.” You can steal from yourself, your life, any feeling you have ever had, any situation you have ever been in, and use it in your fiction. Use yourself as material to create a distinctive character.
Most advice about dialogue is presented in the negative—things the fiction writer should not do. For instance, I had a teacher who said no verb besides said should be used in dialogue. This not only eliminated other verbs that describe communication, it also eliminated every verb tense except past tense. But that seems too strict in a bad way. The fiction writer is also safe with the other conjugations of say, tell, and ask, but conjugations such as express, convey, maintain, enjoin, utter, etc. should be avoided. That same teacher said one of the most obvious signs of a weak writer is one who uses an adverb attached to the verb said.
Fiction writers also shouldn’t use dialogue that might be heard on a sitcom. As Jessica Anya Blau says: “If you’ve heard it said before, don’t write it.” This includes buzzwords, catch phrases, any of those time-bound things people say. Also, as Robert Stone notes: “The worst purpose of dialogue is to elicit information.” The most obvious explanation for Stone’s statement is that exposition in the dialogue is an obvious manipulation and it stalls the narrative.
Here are a few other things to avoid: Dialogue where people greet each other, where questions are answered with yes or no, where statements get an obvious response, or information is being exchanged to set up the plot. Dialogue should never be redundant with the description that preceded it. In each of these instances, there is a flatness to the dialogue that makes the fiction plodding.
Also, dialogue shouldn’t be like real speech. As Jonathan Raban says, “Read almost any newspaper interview, and you’ll conclude that the dialogue of real people is more stilted and implausible than the dialogue of invented characters.” Dialogue should seem like real speech. It is an issue of verisimilitude. Fiction is made up.
I especially like the way good dialogue speeds up the narrative. It is also a nice way to give voice to other points of view. And good dialogue can be a great way to fill out a scene, becoming its own kind of detail.
Michael Kimball is the author of eight books, including Big Ray, Dear Everybody, Us, and, most recently, The One-Hour MFA. His work has been translated into a dozen languages and been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Bomb, Prairie Schooner, New York Tyrant, etc. He is also responsible for the collaborative project Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), a couple of documentaries, and the conceptual pseudonym Andy Devine.