Creative Writing: On Characterization through Dialogue

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What can a sitcom teach about writing a novel? About using dialogue for character development?

I’ve been watching a lot of “Cheers” lately on Netflix. Just for the heck of it really, and because I’ve always loved “Frasier.” One episode in particular from season three really got me thinking about speech, and creative writing, and dialogue.

The episode was the first I’ve ever seen with Carla Tortelli’s ex-husband, Nick. Nick doesn’t have a lot of class, even though his business is picking up, so financially he’s doing well. He works as a television repairman and has just remarried.

What really interested me about Nick was the way he talked. Throughout the episode, he consistently used object pronouns incorrectly. Some examples that might not be verbatim but are really close:

  • Carla, the thing about you and I…
  • You just can’t do that to her and I!
  • Between you and I…

This is a common grammar mistake that occurs when people are trying to speak formally but don’t realize that “I” is actually incorrect after a preposition. It sounds proper and high class, but it’s wrong. It should be:

  • Carla, the thing about you and me
  • You just can’t do that to her and me!
  • Between you and me

The first time Nick made this mistake, I wondered whether it was an error on the part of the writers. After multiple occasions of the same mistake, displayed only by Nick, I knew the pronoun mix-ups were intentionally written to help define Nick’s character.

This consistent mistake on Nick’s part said SO MUCH about him as a character. All through an engrained grammar error!

It showed he’s trying to improve himself. Or at least, he’s trying to present an image of himself that shouts success and class. Some level of respectability.

It also shows he doesn’t quite have the ability to pull it off. When all is said and done, he’s a sham. He’s all surface and glitz and pomp, but underneath, nothing substantial is there. The plot of the episode backs up this assessment of his character to a tee. The way he talks helps to drive the point home.

I watched this episode days ago, but as you can see here, the character of Nick stuck with me. I remember his name. I remember his air. I remember what a sleazeball he turned out to be. And I remember how he talked.

THE POWER OF DIALOGUE

It just goes to show what a powerful tool dialogue can be for a writer. It can do SO much heavy lifting where characterization is concerned! Not only what your characters say, but how they say those things, defines them.

How they phrase something can reveal their background and education level.

It can reveal whether or not they’re trying to impress someone, with no direct mention of that fact.

It can reveal how much they care, in general, about how they present themselves and what other people think of them.

It can reveal what level of conversational intimacy they’re comfortable with, in specific circumstances as well as in a general sense.

So, remember to get to know your characters and how they talk. It’s important. And it can save you lots of tedious exposition explaining personality, mood, and background.

After all, going back to Cheers: How much would you say it says about Diane, when she insists on using Norm’s full name, Norman, even though everyone else calls him “Norm”?

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23 responses to “Creative Writing: On Characterization through Dialogue

  1. Yep, good point. It’s one of the many reasons I love Firefly so much. they consistently changed some small grammatical features, resulting in a kind of space-cowboy-slang.
    The difference between tv shows and writing is that in tv shows you would only hear someone’s language in their dialogue. In writing it also applies to someone’s thoughts. Actually this kind of voice (you call it character, but I know it as voice) is something I’m struggling with in my current novel, because I have two character who are not above swearing. Yet I have a feeling that this is frowned upon in America. But I can hardly have them go ‘oh goodness gracious’ haha.

  2. It’s such a subtle change but it really does make a difference. Word choice and grammar tells you so much about a character.

    I also love it when a character uses a word for the first time, whether it’s because someone they know uses it often or because they’re in a pickle and they’re hoping this sudden vocabulary expansion will help them out. That word choice can tell you so much about their mental state at that point in time.

    • Jessica, that’s a fantastic point! I had not considered that but you’re exactly right. That’s amazing…. makes me think of Joey Tribbiani from “Friends.” I think there are some times he does that.

  3. Timothy Hurley

    Nice post. In humor writing class I once had an assignment to tell an entire story in dialogue only. Good exercise.

  4. As a professional actor (over 40 years), I find that experience invaluable in writing novels. Write like people talk, not like they write. I think it’s a good idea for novelists to take acting classes, as a matter of fact I highly recommend it. Every character is different. After all it’s the characters who tell the story…not the writer.

  5. Good points about dialogue. One of the best authors to use dialogue in that way was Mark Twain. His characters always talked like real people (from that era) and they varied depending on who they were talking to.

  6. Thank you for sharing that. I did a tip for Literary Rambles about the mistakes people make in saying “you and I” when it should be “me,” but I don’t think everyone believed it! I tell of a simple method that can be used to determine which is correct. (It’s also on my blog at DaleSittonRogers.wordpress.com.)

  7. Pingback: Creative Writing Tip: how to characterize secondary characters without head hopping | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  8. Great article! Always loved “Cheers” and it’s characters. I think ensemble sitcoms are a great tools of research to utilize Omniscient POV.

    • thanks! Cheers is fantastic!!! I would never have thought to consider an ensemble sitcom as a POV research tool, but they totally are. That’s an amazing observation, thanks so much! I won’t feel so guilty watching them now 🙂

  9. Pingback: Creative Writing: On Characterization through Dialogue | Collette Cameron Author

  10. In a novella I’ve been working on, I have this particular character who is older, and more cultured than the rest of my characters, who are all more or less street rats. I wanted a way to make that difference known without having to make my other characters too slangy, so I hit upon having him not use contractions.It’s sort of a subtle way to make everything he says sound a little more formal, older, or even just showy. ^-^ I actually didn’t realize he had a showy side to him until I started doing this, It fits him so well too! haha

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