Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

17.30: Know Your Characters

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, Maurice Broaddus, and Howard Tayler

How well do you know your characters? Sure, you might know their age, nationality, and perhaps wardrobe, but how well do you know their internal characteristics? Do you know them well enough that you can write dialog that sounds like them? In this episode we discuss how you might approach this problem.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Daniel Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Write monologues in which your characters tell you about themselves.

Thing of the week: The Ballad of Perilous Graves, by Alex Jennings.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: How do you know your characters? Exterior, physical characteristics, versus interior, how do they think or feel, what internal forces guide them. Dialogue is an outward expression of attitudes and thoughts. Watch for the collision between character and authorial intent. What questions do you ask your characters to help you separate their speaking? Quirks, speech patterns, ways of seeing the world. Background and attitude or emotional state. Be aware of the context that you need to provide to make prose dialogue clear.

[Season 17, Episode 30]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Dialogue Masterclass Episode Two, Know Your Characters.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Maurice] Because you’re busy.


[Maurice] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re dumb.


[Maurice] Because you’re busy.

[Dan] Okay, this is about knowing your characters, not your tagline.

[Maurice] Correct.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Maurice] I’m Maurice.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Dan] And you are both busy and in a hurry, so let’s get right into this. We want to talk about knowing your characters. If you want to write good dialogue, you gotta know who’s speaking. So, how do we get to know our characters, Maurice?

[Maurice] Well, I tend to think of it in terms of sort of mining out the exterior versus mining out their interior. So, it’s like when I think of exterior, I think of like physical things about them, in terms of like their age, or… Let’s see. Oh, yeah. Just age and physical characteristics, things like that. The [garbled]… And, in fact, like nationality, origins, culture, those I consider sort of external elements to the character. As opposed to their interiority, which is how do they think, how do they feel, what are their philosophies, what are the internal forces that guide them. I’m fascinated with this whole idea of what Howard talked about earlier about the DTR. [Define The Relationship, Episode 28] So I was hoping he’d jump right in right about now.

[Howard] Well, let me say this. If you were going to define… If you were going to try to write dialogue that sounds like Howard, a couple of the character attributes that I consciously try to apply to myself are I am more inclined to make fun of myself than to make fun of other people and I never make fun of other people unless I know them and know that they can tell that I am joking. So if you were to write Howard dialogue where Howard says something really mean-spirited to someone he just met, that would sound out of character. So that’s the sort of thing… It doesn’t matter that I’m 54 years old or way 230 pounds and I’m happy with weighing… None of that matters with the dialogue. What matters is how am I going to speak to other people in a way that sounds true to who I am.

[Mary Robinette] There’s a thing in the Regency which longtime listeners will have heard me say before that manners are an outward expression of your opinion of others. One of the things about dialogue is that it is an outward expression. So when you are having two characters speaking to each other, when your character is speaking, what they are revealing is their own attitudes and thoughts. It’s not just… It’s a way of exposing how they are perceiving those around them. Not just by what they’re saying but by the way they are saying it.


[Mary Robinette] And I’ve stopped the conversation completely. Perfect.


[Maurice] I was just thinking… I’m processing all that. So it’s one of those things where it’s like all right, so. I’m trying… Start off with the Howard thing, because I’m like, “What would it be like to write Maurice as a character?” So that’s been like a weird mental exercise, because it’s like, all right. So I am black. Spoilers for anyone who didn’t know that, by the way. So that is going to affect how I operate in certain contexts. It shouldn’t, but it does in a lot of ways. Because I’m going to… I mean, even right now, there’s a light version of that going on right now, even though I’m friends with all of you. I’m also in podcast performance mode, as opposed to oh, I’m hanging out with my boys mode. Right? So there’s that aspect, which is feeding into how I’m coming across in terms of what I’m saying. But then there’s the internal stuff that’s going on too, the stuff that informs me in terms of what are my aspirations, what are my insecurities. That’s going to weigh in how I frame certain things, in how I want to come across versus how I do come across. Right? So that’s that balance of the interior and exterior that I was talking about.

[Howard] There’s the collision between that information and what Mary Robinette has described as authorial intent. In the Shafter’s Shifters cozy mysteries I’m writing, I have five mean characters. It’s an ensemble. Often, all five of them are in the room with someone else. I have to remember that authorial intent, I want to move the story forward here, intersects the fact that each one of these characters may have a question that… There’s information that they need or there’s an objective that they’re after, and they will interrupt. They will participate in the conversation, they will turn it from a dialogue into a trialogue or a quadalogue or whatever. I’m breaking the word dialogue, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t do that.


[Howard] But it gets very confusing because when you have that many voices, if they’re not distinct, you have to start using dialogue tags. Now the page gets cluttered. Now it starts to slow down. And now I flip back to authorial intent and ask myself, “Do I get to override what I know those characters want in order to make this scene function the way I want it to function?” It’s challenging.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Maurice] So I think… Oh, go ahead, Mary.

[Mary Robinette] No, no, no, you go ahead.

[Maurice] Well, so one of the things I… So along those lines then, so I think there’s one part where we’re figuring out… Each individual character, what they want, in terms of what they want to accomplish in the story, what they’re trying to figure out, that sort of thing. But there’s also that… That kind… You have to sort of like figure out what is their relationship to each other character, also. It’s almost like a separate column. 


[Maurice] Right?

[Mary Robinette] There’s a kitty.

[Maurice] There is one. She can always sense when I’m on a podcast.


[Mary Robinette] It’s purrfect. So, this is another great example of dialogue, and how when you’re trying to get to know a character, sometimes having them interrupted by something unexpected is a way to expose stuff about a character. Dialogue is rarely totally linear. So sometimes having something happen like a random cat walking through, having a waiter interrupt a conversation, can help shift the conversation. It can also help you understand more about that character. The… Going back to something that…

[Howard] Maurice?

[Beep… Beep… Beep]

[Mary Robinette] So, for instance, Maurice, when confronted by a cat, reaches down and pets the cat. Howard, when confronted with a beeping alarm, has walked away from his microphone and into another room. Both of these things expose different things not only about the interruption, but about the way the character reacts to that. So…

[Dan] Now I am going to interrupt all of you.

[Mary Robinette] Fine. Fine. I mean… Oh, of course, Dan. Please do what you must.

[Dan] Maurice, what’s our book of the week?

[Maurice] Our book of the week is… What is it? Oh, shoot. The Ballad of…uhm… Let me think. I’m sorry.

[Dan] The Ballad of Perilous Graves.

[Maurice] Thank you. This cat is all over the place right now.


[Maurice] It’s by Alex Jennings, and I just started this book, but I’m falling in love with this book. It’s New Orleans, it’s music, it’s magic. Alex really put his foot in it. Which… Oh, yeah, which is a good thing. Trust me on that. But it’s just… You have this world of magic that’s going on and… Uh. I’m sorry, this cat is killing me right now. But I’ve just started this book. I’m falling in love with what Alex has done in terms of creating the magic and tying it in with music in this world.

[Howard] That’s The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings.

[Maurice] Yes.

[Dan] Fantastic.

[Howard] And what’s the name of the cat?

[Maurice] Ferb.

[Mary Robinette] Ferb. Oh, that’s great.

[Maurice] As in Phineas and Ferb.

[Mary Robinette] Yup. Yes. At some point during this, we will be visited by Elsie as well.

[Mary Robinette] So I want to tie us back into some concrete tools based on something that Maurice talked about in the first episode, which is thinking about questions to ask about your character. I talked about the interiority of the character, the… What the… Their manner exposing what they think about other people. But the way they express themselves is not just that attitude. It is also about their culture, their nationality, their class, their age, what their home language is… Language or languages. So if you think about these things when you are sitting down to approach that dialogue… Patrick Stewart is going to say things in a very, very different way than Woody Harrelson. Well, did I just get the actor’s name right?

[Dan] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, good. Good job, me.

[Dan] You did, assuming you were talking about Woody Harrelson.

[Mary Robinette] Yes, I was.

[Dan] Okay.

[Mary Robinette] But they have enormously different approaches to the way they would say something. Dan, one of the things that I love about the way you handle dialogue and characterization in the John Cleaver books is with Marcy and the way we can tell who is kind of present at any given moment. Do you want to talk about some of the tools you use for doing that?

[Dan] Oh, boy. First of all, thank you. Yeah, so I assume you’re referring most specifically to books four and five?

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[Dan] In which Brooke is essentially possessed not by an actual spirit or person, but by a vast backlog of memories that have been downloaded and different ones will take over her personality at different times. I gave her, first of all, a set number of people who would be in charge. Typically we will get Brooke, we will get Nobody who is a demon, we will get… I can’t remember the name, but there was a medieval woman who appears a few times, and then eventually Marcy shows up. So, knowing first of all, knowing your characters, knowing who the main personalities were going to be, me to give them specific quirks. Different speech patterns. We have the two modern girls, Brooke and Marcy, who I had already written several books about and I knew them well and they were very different people. Then we had the medieval one, who of course spoke in a different way. She had a child, she had very different life experiences than the others, that allowed her to speak in… Use different words, notice different things about the world, ask questions about the world because she came from a different time, things like that. Then, of course, the demon, Nobody, who is again someone that I had known fairly well. She is very acerbic, very biting, very aggressive, but also incredibly and deeply broken, and kind of flawed as a person. She hates yourself, and that’s kind of the root of the whole problem that drives the book for about… Or drives the whole series for about three books in a row. So making sure that they all had these very distinctly different ways of viewing the world meant that as soon as one of them popped up, they had a different relationship with John, so that they would refer to him by different names or they would use different tags, different vocabulary, when they were talking to him, when they were talking about him. They would ask different kinds of questions. That made it relatively easy, after the giant amount of work that you’ve put in.


[Dan] Then it’s relatively easy to use those tools once you’ve built them and put them on the wall. To say, “Oh, well, this is clearly Marcy who’s talking right now.”

[Mary Robinette] So, just to recap, what we’re talking about there is knowing the background of your character and also generally speaking their attitude or I guess emotional state at any given moment.

[Dan] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] Which is why when I’m building characters, I’m always trying to focus in on… Well, not always, but there’s like a series of questions I tend ask each of my characters. Like, what is your dream, what’s a traumatic experience, what is… What’s your greatest fear. These sort of questions. So I can just get a feel for who they are. Then, in essence, writing dialogue boils down to knowing your characters so well that you can drop them into any situation and you’re just going to know how they’re going to respond. You know how they’re going to speak in that given situation.

[Dan] Yeah. I have found lately, and there’s actually… We could talk about this for an hour, so I will give you the truncated version. Most of what I have written over the past several years, and everything that I have published over the last several years, has been audio drama scripts rather than prose novels. That has caused me to think about dialogue differently. Not that I have learned new things that are… That make my novels different or better. In fact, it often is more difficult. When you’re writing an audio drama, there are no dialogue tags. You are relying on different voice actors to convey the idea that this is a different person. So there’s no tags, there’s no narrative… No editorializing, he said, suspiciously. Things like that. Some of the little tricks that we use when we’re writing prose I absolutely can’t do when I’m writing scripts. So, being forced to strip the dialogue down, removing all context from it, removing all commentary from it, so it is just words and voices and nothing else actually made it hard to come back to novels because I’d forgotten how to do some of that stuff. But also really forced me to get into their heads and make sure that when you heard somebody speak, it was different words. I had to find other identifiers aside from dialogue tags and adverbs and so on and so on.

[Mary Robinette] This is a really great thing to underline here. Prose dialogue and scripted dialogue, anything with an actor, are not the same thing. It’s two different toolsets. It’s not just that you can’t use the things in prose to go into scripts, it’s that when you are writing for an actor, they’re going to do some of the lifting for you. You can give them a line that is… Would be ambiguous on the page and trust that they will have done their character homework and come to it and give it a spin. Like, you can just say, “What?” And they can find five different ways to say it, one of which is going to be completely appropriate for the character. But if you just put the word what on the page, there’s so much ambiguity there that it’s not… It’s the kind of thing that you maybe due deeper into a novel when the reader is doing that lifting for you. But it’s not something that you can get away with in a short story or the beginning of a book where the reader doesn’t yet know that character. So learning… I’ve seen a number of things that I’ve gotten from an early career writer where it’s clear that they have learned their dialogue from watching media. Because of all of the ambiguity that’s inherent in it. Because it doesn’t… Because it’s dialogue that would work great for an actor because you left space for the actor to do their job, but it doesn’t work on the page. Because there’s no one there to provide that context for you.

[Dan] With that, we’re going to go into our homework. Our homework is me today. This is something that I have talked about before, but it is something that I still do all the time. When you’re trying to figure out who a character is, write a monologue. Pick one of the characters that you’re working on in a work in progress or something like that, and write something. I have done job interviews, I have done just straight let me tell you who I am. Let that character talk for a page or two and just tell you about themselves. This doesn’t have to be part of the story. It can just be the character speaking, breaking the fourth wall, telling you what kind of character they are. Whatever it is, write a monologue in which a character talks about themselves. Let that kind of… Use that to discover the character and get to know them better. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.