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.

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