Karina Bartow ~
One of the highest compliments a writer can receive is that her characters “lived” in the reader’s mind. That means all the work and imagination the author put into these two-dimensional pages made them pop out and draw the reader into their fictitious world.
To nurture this reader/character bond, I’ve found it important in my writing to give glimpses into the character’s personalities very quickly, instead of overly focusing on physical traits. My favorite technique is crafting dialogue. After all, that’s how we get to know each other in the real world. Here are some of my top tips:
I think it’s best to let a protagonist speak early and often in opening chapters. Unless it’s a thriller, the beginning of any story can be slow and, of course, unfamiliar, making it all too easy for a reader to lose interest. Hence, allow the character himself to prove his story is worth reading.
True, writers need to provide adequate background information, and it wouldn’t come out well if all of it were put into dialogue. Still, one can work a lot into characters’ conversations. Putting specifics like age or location in that context wouldn’t be realistic in most cases, but it doesn’t take much to convey a general description based on the way a character talks.
My novels start off with seemingly unimportant exchanges that give indications of what’s to come. The main purpose, though, is to give my reader a good look at who the characters are and at what stage of life we find them. In my newest book, Forgetting My Way Back to You, one of the opening scenes follows an exchange between protagonist Charlee and a resident of the nursing home where she works, Mabel. From it, one can gather the basics of Charlee’s current circumstances and her reservations about love. The details behind that come out later, but my goal in placing it as I did was both to whet one’s curiosity and present it in an entertaining fashion.
It’s commonly said that a good way to judge somebody is by watching how they treat others. Dialogue allows one to do just that. Sure, a writer can express a character’s feelings for another through internal debates and so forth, but spoken words have power. After all, a person can have respect for someone with whom she has little interaction, and just stating her respect isn’t likely to win readers’ hearts.
Going back to what I’ve found impactful, Forgetting My Way Back to You and my debut novel, Husband in Hiding, feature multiple conversations among several characters in their first chapter. This gives the audience an early taste of the characters’ qualities, relationships, and adaptability, which will enhance their understanding of each one’s future choices.
In our early days as writers, we might get into the habit of overusing subordinating conjunctions like when, after, later, etc. While it’s necessary to scatter such throughout a plot line, leaning on them makes a story dry and rather monotonous. Anyone with a child knows the strain of hearing the words, “and then,” over and over as he/she relates a tale about their favorite movie or video game.
I was never a fan of reading mysteries because I had the idea that they just gave a mundane step-by-step account of a sleuth’s investigation, but I’ve always enjoyed watching them on television, where dialogue drives the script. Hence, I wanted to strike the right balance in my own writing, in an attempt to keep my readers—and myself—engaged.
For a mystery to keep an audience interested, there must be several twists and turns through a series of leads and setbacks. Thus, it can become easy to simply go through the motions of having a detective look into a suspect before discovering his alibi or a piece of evidence that clears him. Dialogue, however, can break up that routine and keep readers guessing. Rather than highlighting that an investigator was forced to let her suspect go because of new information, I let someone else pass on the Intel. Then, the two characters can also discuss their next move, heightening the reader’s anticipation.
A Time to Stay Quiet
All this said, adding too much dialogue can make it ineffective. Unless it’s a script, any story needs good narration throughout, or else it, too, can become mundane. Remember Charlie Brown’s teacher and how her lectures came out as gibberish?
I once read a novel comprised of nothing but dialogue expressed through notes, emails, and text messages. I thought I’d love it being that I’m such a communicator, but in the end, it disappointed me. I didn’t draw close to the characters, and while their exchanges painted a picture of what was happening, I missed being able to take in the panoramic view. Instead of the chats refreshing me, I came to skim through them and overlook the story’s true message.
To quote Mark Twain, “Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” Dialogue allows a writer to do just that. With it, you can create characters you yourself would like to get to know, and your readers will likely fall for them and adopt them as their own. Authors are their characters’ first and foremost advocate, so the better our connection is with them, the better it will be with the audience. With just the right qualities and quirks, you can mold personalities readers will think about even after closing the book.
— Karina Bartow
Karina Bartow grew up and still lives in Ohio, USA. Though born with Cerebral Palsy, she’s never allowed her disability to define her. Rather, she’s used her experiences to breathe life into characters who have physical limitations, but like her, are determined not to let them stand in the way of the life they want. Her debut novel, Husband in Hiding came out in 2015 and was well-received by readers. Her second, Forgetting My Way Back to You, was released in October 2018 by Vinspire Publishing and has been praised by reviewers. She may only be able to type with one hand, but she writes with her whole heart!