The Fiction Writing Workshop: Let Your Characters Speak

Kristin Bair O'KeeffeBy Kristin Bair O’Keeffe



“Do characters have to talk?”

“Yes, unless, of course, your character is a true mute or her mouth is bound shut with duct tape.”

Silence. And then the sound of nails drumming on a wooden desk.




“For a lot of reasons, but three pretty important ones.”

“Such as?”

“Well, first, dialogue helps readers get to know your characters. Look how much you learn about the narrator’s dad in Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Penguin Books, 2006) when on page five he gives his opinion about people writing their life stories:

‘Unless your name is something along the lines of Mozart, Matisse, Churchill, Che Guevara or Bond-James Bond-you best spend your free time finger painting or playing shuffleboard, for no one, with the exception of your flabby-armed mother with stiff hair and a mashed-potato way of looking at you, will want to hear the particulars of your pitiable existence, which doubtlessly will end as it began-with a wheeze.’

“Ooh, that guy’s got some attitude, huh?”

“Exactly. And you know it both from what he says AND how he says it.”

“Okay, I get that. But why else should I use dialogue?”

“Ever get stalled in the forward motion of a story?”

“Oh, yeah. All the time.”

“Well, dialogue helps you figure out what happens next.”

“It does?”

“Yep, on page fifteen of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Vintage, 2003), the first-person narrator says to a girl he meets, ‘I’m looking for my cat…’ Simple sentence. Simple introduction of a problem via dialogue. And so begins a relationship and a journey that takes you places you never thought you’d go.”

“Wow, that’s pretty cool.”

“Told ya.”

“But you said there were three reasons, didn’t you?”

“I did, and the last one is the simplest. Dialogue is interesting to read. Readers love it. In fact, I had a friend in college who only read the dialogue in books. She skipped all the narrative. She said dialogue was all she needed to get a full story. A little extreme, but telling.”

“Any examples of dialogue readers love?”

“Actually that’s a great assignment for you. Grab your favorite book. Study the dialogue. Look at it for characterization, story movement, and entertainment value. Then write your own.”

“Hhhmm, me and my big mouth.”


1 Response to “The Fiction Writing Workshop: Let Your Characters Speak”

  1. 1 Drdidit April 15, 2009 at 2:12 am

    Great piece. I’m studying characters now and working on my first novel. Hope yours make it to the BIG time.
    I like the 1,2,3, approach – it helps to organize our memory and aids in recall as we apply the principles. thanks.

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