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The Making of a Novel: Developing Character Through Dialogue

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Sometimes the best way to develop a character is to bring the character on stage and let them start talking.

The stage, when you're writing a novel, is a scene: a particular time and a particular place where something particular is going to happen.

And talking? Normally, you need at least two people to make that work out well, unless you're channeling Shakespeare.

Today, I was working with a young male character who is an author on the cusp of his first big book. Before I brought him on stage, this is what I knew about him: he'd served in the Navy, his book was about war, and he was a graduate of Harvard. Beyond that, nothing.

I could have written a whole back story for this guy. I have done that for my two other main characters, and I like knowing exactly what they're about -- where they grew up and what their parents do for a living and if they had a lot of friends in high school and whether they like to go to parties or prefer to stay home and read. For this character, who I am calling T.J., I just wanted to hear him talk.

So he walks into an office and greets the secretary who will become his nemesis. She is young and attractive. How does T.J. greet her? This will say a lot about him. Is he polite? Deferential? Aggressive? Sexist? The secretary asks him if he wants coffee and he says, "No coffee thanks, but would you be interested in dinner later tonight?" So bang -- he's somewhat polite, very aggressive.

But a few lines of dialogue later, T.J. is worried about how his writing has been taken by the editor, so we see that he is vulnerable and young, too.

All of this starts to suggest a back story: maybe T.J. never thought he belonged at Harvard, maybe T.J. was the first person in his family to go to college, maybe T.J. knows a pretty girl will never say YES to him and that's why he risks asking her out the first second he meets her.

It took me quite a long time to write a page and a half of dialogue today, because with each sentence, something new is revealed. I had to stop and weight whether or not the words fit, and where it was all leading me. By the end of the day, though, I had started to hear T.J. as if he were a real person -- and that, I think, is the best result of today's work.

For some practical tips on writing dialogue, check out the great list of do's and don'ts at The Creative Penn and some solid tips at Peder Hill's post.