How Readers “See” Your Characters Through Dialogue Years ago I bought a book about writing called “Fiction is Folks”. Like many self-help books, the key advice was in the title. The rest was pretty much backing it up. What he meant, of course, was that without honest and familiar characters, fiction doesn’t work well. I start with a type. This may include a vague image of the character and some notion of his or her place in the story but I seldom introduce characters with lots of description. Instead, their personality comes through in their interaction with others. I think good writing plays to that part of our minds that used to listen to the old radio programs. We didn’t need pictures or long, wordy descriptions; we could “see” it all in our minds. A few important details or lines of dialog can tell much more than the words they contain. Here are a couple short scenes from my novel, Grants Ferry that help us understand Kenneth and Simon. Grants Ferry, Vermont is Kenneth’s hometown, although he’s been gone for 30 years and living in New York City. Simon is pure city. They’re in Paul’s Grocery. Kenneth bought every 60 and 75 watt bulb in the store. At the counter, Paul – not someone Kenneth knew – added up the charges. “What’re you doin’ there, lightin’ up a football field?” “Haunted house,” Kenneth said. “Lights keep vampires away.” Simon had found two bottles of New York State wine. “What do you think? A red and a white. Is that a challenge?” He turned to Paul. “Or maybe you could make a recommendation.” “Not much of a wine person, myself,” he said, “but the wife and I like to try’em all. That red’s pretty rugged but I find the white a little too tart. There’s a few folks in town that like it, though.” “Well that’s good enough for me,” Simon said. “We also got a couple cartons back there.” He pronounced it “caht’ns”. “Come with a little tap on’em. Quite handy.” “Next time. These will do for now.” Back in the car Kenneth couldn’t leave it alone. “You actually bought wines because they were described as ‘rugged’ and ‘tart’?”
“Well, with all the hair sticking out of that guy’s nose I wasn’t about to ask him about the bouquet.” And a little later… Back at the house Kenneth immediately set about changing light bulbs. The rooms grew steadily brighter until the house glowed in the night as if it had come to from a long, drugged sleep. “Hey, Simon.” “What?” “Come outside for a minute.” “What’s going on?” “Just come out front.” Out in the street they turned back to look at the house. “What’dya think?” “About what?” “The house – the lights.” “It’s a house with all the lights on,” Simon said. “Years ago – I was in junior high, maybe – one of the old timers here, Clayton Roberts, told me that he always liked to see a house with the windows lit up. It was a little wasteful, he said, and it cost a little more, but he just thought it looked pretty.” “Who was Clayton Roberts, a poet?” “Not that I know of. He raised chickens – thousands of them. He had a place out on the Butterfield Road.” “He raised chickens and he liked the lights on?” “That’s what he said.” “Fascinating. I’ll be in the kitchen.” Kenneth followed a couple minutes later. Every line of dialog can be a window into your characters, just like listening to the radio.
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