How Character Influences Dialogue

A character's character (so to speak) influences dialogue — both its content and the way the character talks. Below I compare the same two books from last week's article Dialogue, Pace, and Genre, The Seven Sisters and Phantom Prey.

We'll look at:

  • Time Period
  • Key Conflicts
  • Chatty Dialogue
  • Character's Career Or Position

Time Period, Character, And Dialogue

When a character lives influences who that person is. It also affects how that character speaks, as does the type of book.

The Seven Sisters (published in 2015) is a family drama that takes place in two different time periods: present day and the 1920s. Compared to the 1920s characters (Bel and Laurent) the present-day characters (Maia and Floriano):

  • use more contractions
  • speak in shorter sentences
  • use more casual language such as “thanks” rather than “thank you” and “okay” rather than “yes”

The crime novel Phantom Prey (published in 2008) takes place in present day.

Compared to all four characters in The Seven Sisters, in Phantom Prey characters Lucas and Weather:

  • use more contractions
  • speak in much shorter sentences on average
  • use casual phrasing more often
  • swear

The Characters' Main Conflict

The content of dialogue also changes based on the key conflict for each character.

For instance, in The Seven Sisters, the present-day plot revolves around Maia, who was adopted, finding her birth family. Bel, the protagonist of the 1920s story, faces an arranged marriage and a restricted life. She longs to be a freer spirit. The two stories connect through a sculpture significant to both their families.

In keeping with these conflicts, on pages 87-92 the present-day characters Maia and Floriano talk about:

  • the famous sculpture
  • Maia's quest to find her birth relatives
  • the history of the part of Brazil where Maia was adopted

Bel and Laurent (1920s) on pages 194-197 talk about:

  • Laurent's life as an artist who assists a sculptor in Paris
  • Bel's unhappiness with her family and life in Brazil
  • Bel's arranged marriage
  • The freer life Bel could have in Paris weighed against her obligations to her family

Phantom Prey is a crime and suspense novel. On pages 25-29, protagonist Lucas and his wife, Weather, talk about:

  • Weather's friend, whose daughter is missing, and Weather's hopes Lucas will look into the crime
  • Blood found in the friend's house
  • Details of a separate murder
  • A police investigation

Chatty Or Not?

The nature of the novel's main conflict also affects how often the book includes what I think of as chatty dialogue. Chatty dialogue sets the stage or shows daily interactions among the characters but doesn't move the plot.

Throughout The Seven Sisters characters say good morning and hello, ask how one another are, and talk about what they'll have for breakfast. This type of dialogue reflects that the novels's conflicts are primarily about relationships among the characters.

For example, on page 84, these lines of dialogue appear when Maia answers the phone:


“Señorita D'Apeliese?”


“It's Floriano here. Where are you?”

“In a taxi on my way to see the Cristo. I'm just near the train station now.”

“May I join you?”

In contrast, Phantom Prey rarely includes any dialogue of the “hello, how are you” variety.

In fact, the first line between Weather and Lucas is “I saw Alyssa today.” Alyssa is the woman whose daughter disappeared and in whose home blood was found.

While Lucas and Weather, who are husband and wife, also joke around about eating cinnamon rolls and about sex, that happens toward the end of the conversation and is part of a push and pull between them over whether Lucas will investigate the crime or not.

The Characters' Profession Or Position In Life

The position of characters in society and/or their jobs or careers also affect what they talk about.

For example, Lucas is an investigator and former police detective. Weather is surgeon.

When they discuss a murder, they talk about the force that was used, the organs damaged, the amount of blood, and other specific details. If Weather were a stay-at-home mom or an accountant, she and Lucas probably wouldn’t have such graphic discussions.

Bel’s focus on her marriage and the limits of her life arise from her position as the daughter of a wealthy man who seeks standing in society. Her marriage can help achieve that for her family.

Earning her own living in 1920s Brazil isn't much of an option for her. While Floriano suggests that she could become a model in Paris, such a profession is far outside of what her family would ever be comfortable with her doing. As a result, she and Floriano don't spend a lot of time talking over what skills Bel might develop or any other type of work she could pursue.

I hope this analysis helps as you write your own dialogue.

L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you're working on a novel and could use some help sorting out the plot, check out my free Story Structure Worksheets here.

Dialogue, Pace, and Genre

The genre of a novel affects its pace, which in turn changes the way the dialogue is written.

I saw these effects recently in how members of my book group reacted to our latest book choice. I felt impatient with the dialogue. In fact, I skimmed most of it. To me, the pace was too slow. Not enough happened (in the dialogue or in the book as a whole).

Other members of the book group loved the dialogue. And an editorial review praised the novel, Lucinda Riley's The Seven Sisters, as a page-turner.

Not only that, the series has been optioned for a television miniseries deal.

So what's going on?

Genre And Pacing

I'm a fan of mystery, suspense, and thrillers. Those are the genres I read the most, and all the fiction I write falls at least loosely under those umbrellas.

The plots in these types of books move fast.

Amazon lists The Seven Sisters under the genres of Historical Fiction (with a sub-category of 20th-Century Historical Romance) and Women's Fiction.

Historical and women's fiction both usually focus on describing and developing relationships among the characters. And historical fiction typically includes detailed descriptions of settings and extensive historical context (and sometimes real historical events).

For those reasons, such books are often called “sweeping” or “epic” — as is The Seven Sisters in reviews.

While pacing varies among books of the same genre, the quietest, most cerebral mystery or suspense novel almost always moves more quickly, and is more plot driven, then the fastest historical fiction novel.

Dialogue reflects these genre differences.

A Tale Of Two Books

The first conversations that appear in the two books I talk about below illustrate these differences in pacing and dialogue.

Phantom Prey Seven Sisters
In The Seven Sisters, Marina (“Ma”), the housekeeper who raised six daughters, calls to tell the protagonist, Maia, that her father died.

In Phantom Prey, by one of my favorite suspense authors, John Sandford, a woman named Fran goes into her house and finds blood. She calls the emergency police line to report it.

The dialogue (minus any description or other text around it) for each book is below:

The Seven Sisters

Maia: Hello, Ma, how are you?

Ma: Maia, I…

Maia: What is it?

Ma: There's no other way to tell you this, but your father had a heart attack here at home yesterday afternoon, and in the early hours of this morning, he… passed away.


Ma: You are the first of the sisters I've told, Maia, as you are the oldest. And I wanted to ask you whether you would prefer to tell the rest of your sisters yourself, or leave it to me.

Maia: I…

Ma: Maia, please, tell me you are all right. This really is the most dreadful phone call I've ever had to make, but what else could I do? God only knows how the other girls are going to take it.

Phantom Prey

Operator: Is this an emergency?

Fran: There's blood in my house.

Operator: Are you in danger?

Fran: No, I don't… I don't…

Operator: Is this Mrs. Austin?

Fran: Yes. I just came home.

Operator: Go someplace safe, close by.

Fran: I need the police.

Operator: We are already on the way. Officers will be there in about a minute. Are you safe?

Fran: I, uh…don't know. Tell them….Tell them I'm going to the garage. I'm going to lock myself in the car. The garage door is up.

Both conversations convey tragedy and a certain amount of mystery. Also, the use of ellipses, “uh,” and repetition show us that that Fran and Maia are confused and in shock.

But word usage, content, and references to physical action all reflect the differences in the genres, as I talk about below.

Back Story, Action, Language

How much back story we get and how much action is suggested vary widely.

In Phantom Prey:

  • The operator expresses concern that Fran may be in immediate physical danger.
  • The dialogue includes the actions Fran will take to be sure she's safe.
  • The conversation lacks any character back story. (There is some in the surrounding text, but not much.) We don't learn anything about the operator. We don't know if Fran has siblings or children.
  • Fran and the operator don't have a pre-existing relationship.

The main questions the dialogue raises are (1) what happened that led to the blood in the house and (2) whether Fran will be physically safe.

In The Seven Sisters:

  • There's no immediate physical danger.
  • No physical action is discussed.
  • Back story is conveyed, including that Maia is the oldest child and has multiple sisters.
  • Ma and Maia have a long relationship, as Ma raised Maia and her sisters.

The main questions the dialogue raises are (1) how Maia will deal with this loss and (2) how it will affect her sisters.

The number of syllables, words, and lines in each dialogue section also reflect pacing differences in the genres.

In Phantom Prey, each character's dialogue usually takes up a line or less on the page. The longest speech above is two sentences.

The words themselves also are short. Most are one syllable. And many sentences consist of only a few words.

The sentences in The Seven Sisters are longer and more complex. Ma often uses complete sentences, speaks in formal language, and includes back story that Maia already knows, but the reader doesn't.

Ma's dialogue also often consists of three lines (and sentences).

These differences account for why I found the dialogue in The Seven Sisters slow but my friends who read historical fiction were quite comfortable with it. They want to get that back story, and understand those complex relationships, early on.

If getting that information makes the dialogue sound less realistic and means we wait longer to find out what happens, that's okay. It's more important to delve in depth into the relationships.

I want to know what happens. Character and relationships matter, too, but I like both to be revealed through action and plot.

How Should You Write Your Dialogue?

The best way to hone your dialogue is to read widely in the genre of the type of book you plan to write.

You don't need to mimic the style of your favorite author (though sometimes that can be helpful as an exercise). But reading and studying the dialogue of your genre will help you understand what readers expect.

That way, you'll be aware if you're departing significantly from your genre.

You'll be prepared if some readers turn away because of it. Other readers, however, may love the way you shake up genre conventions.

That's all for today. Until next Friday, when I'll talk about how character influences dialogue (using examples from the same two books) —

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For tips on writing realistic-sounding dialogue, check out 3 Things To Leave Out Of Your Dialogue.

Royalties After Your Book Sale

Offering your book at a sale price for a limited time can be a great way to raise its visibility and draw in new readers. Even better if it's the first in a series. But to avoid losing money, watch out for the issue below involving royatlies.

I've said “issue,” but what I mean is mistake. That I've made.

This mistake seems obvious, and maybe you'd never make it whether or not you read this article.

But just in case….

Royalties And Sales

On all the ebook sales platforms I use the royalty percentage the author/publisher gets is much higher if the book is priced at $2.99 or more.

For example, if the price is $3.99, the royalty is 65% or 70%. At $.99, it's 30% or 35%.

That royalty difference means not only are you starting with a lower price, you're getting smaller piece of it.

Typically, as soon as you input a lower price, the royalty rate automatically changes. That makes sense. If I were allowing people to sell through a website I owned and maintained, I'd be sure that I didn't get a lower percentage than I'd been promised.

But it doesn't always work the other way around.

Back To The Original Price But…

I discovered the hard way that the automatic shift doesn't always happen when I put my price back at $2.99 or over.  Because I didn't make that change, for weeks after a sale on one of my non-fiction writing books I was still earning only 30% on the $3.99 price.

Because I have over ten books for sale on that platform, it might easily have taken me much longer to notice. Fortunately, I caught it because every week or so I check to see how each specific book is doing.

When I filtered my sales listings for The One-Year Novelist for the week and compared the number of units sold to the dollar amount of sales, I saw the mismatch.

Sure enough, when I looked at the publishing dashboard, I found I'd left the lower royalty percentage checked.

Mind Your Royalties

To avoid losing out after you run a sale you can adopt these habits:

  • After any sale, double-check on the sales platform to see that the regular price is back in place
  • Check the percentage inside the publishing platform to be sure the royalty percentage increased, too
  • At least once a week, look at per book unit sales for the week compared to dollars and be sure the math works

That's all for today. Until next Friday, when I'll talk about Dialogue, Pace, and Genre

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For another mistake I've made that I hope you can learn from see A Major Mistake Using Amazon Ads To Sell Paperbacks.

One-Year Novelist Goes Wide

This summer I decided make my guide for those who want to a write a novel in a year available on multiple ebook platforms.

In other words, I'm opting for wide digital distribution rather than keeping the book in the Kindle Unlimited program.

(Until now, it's only been available for Kindle or in a workbook edition.)

A Novel In A Year

Some writers pen and publish multiple novels per year. If you're where I was for most of my career, though, you're fitting writing in around other significant responsibilities or work.

With that kind of schedule, finishing a novel in a year is a big achievement.

But it's a doable one. The One-Year Novelist aims to help you write a novel in a year without shortchanging other important parts of life.

Customize To Fit Your Writing Style Or Schedule

The book breaks down the steps from idea to a finished draft on a week-by-week basis. But it's not one-size-fits-all.

Instead, it's adjustable so it works for your life or way of writing.

For example, if you've already plotted your novel, or you'd rather start writing without planning first, you can skip right to the sections on writing the draft. (Though I suggest at least skimming the plotting section as it may help you figure out where you want to go.)

You can also go through the weeks more quickly or slowly if you want to finish faster or you feel you need more time.

Finally, breaks are built in: Times to catch your breath, catch up on other things, or reward yourself for a job well done.

 The workbook edition is available on Amazon. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases made through this site, but that doesn’t add any cost to the buyer.

A Boost When You Need It

On the subject of rewards, The One-Year Novelist includes more than a plot framework or step-by-step writing process.

It also includes quick exercises to help you stay motivated and meet your goals. And it encourages you to reward yourself when you reach a milestone.

All are designed to help you stay on track and feel good about your writing.

In short, the One-Year Novelist is for you if:

  • You have a great idea for a novel and aren't sure you have time to write it
  • You've started a novel and want help getting to the finish line
  • You've written novels before but are looking for a way to streamline your process

Get started by ordering the workbook edition today or downloading the ebook edition:

Google Play

That's all for today. Until next Friday when we'll talk about things to beware of when you change the prices of your books–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more on offering your books wide or exclusive to Amazon, you may want to check out Marketing Your Novel: Wide vs. Exclusive.