Posted On June 26, 2009 by Print This Post

Characterization Through Dialogue


Today we welcome Cathie Linz to class.  Creating dialogue has always been my favorite part of the writing process.  I love when characters lose their cool and try to talk their way out of it.  I love when two buddies trash-talk each other and burst out laughing.  That, for me, is the good life.  Cathie is going to give us some great tips on making that dialogue jump off the page. 

Cathie is the award-winning, bestselling author of over fifty contemporary romances published worldwide in nearly twenty languages. Her previous book, Big Girls Don’t Cry, was recently chosen by Booklist as one of the Top Ten Romances of the Year.  Cathie’s newest book, Smart Girls Think Twice, is receiving wonderful reviews–Library Journal says, “With her typical sense of humor, Linz has given readers another joyful, laughter-filled story to savor.”   Booklist also gave it a highly coveted starred review.

 Here’s Cathie!

 I write a character-driven book.  I’ve often said that if I could only teach my characters how to type, I’d be in great shape.  When the writing is going well, it’s as if I’m taking dictation, trying to keep up with what my characters are saying. And they tend to talk a lot.

 So let’s look at how you as a writer can use what your characters are saying to let the reader know more about them.  That’s not to suggest that your characters give their life story in dialogue a mile long.  But the way people communicate tells you a lot about them.

The first differentiation I make is between men and women.  They communicate differently and they certainly speak differently.  I suggest reading You Just Don’t Understand by Deborah Tannen, which addresses the differences.  She’s not a writer, she’s a sociologist (I believe) who studies the way we communicate.  I highly recommend this book to all writers.

So the first thing you need to be aware of is the difference in the way your hero and your heroine converse. I’ve heard editors say that a common mistake they find are heroes who speak like women and don’t make believable characters.  Now some of you may be saying “My husband just grunts. He doesn’t talk. Is that how we’re supposed to write our dialogue?”  No, you are writing fiction so you want it to be realistic but not boring.  Listen to dialogue on some of your favorite shows or rent DVD’s like Gilmore Girls (which is very dialogue heavy and uses it to show characterization very well).  Luke on Gilmore Girls doesn’t talk much and he certainly doesn’t speak the same way the female characters do.

Note that men speak to men differently than they speak to a woman.  The same goes for women talking to their female friends.  Again, be aware of the differences.  Janet Evanovitch does a great job as a writer of using dialogue to paint her characters.  So do Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Jayne Ann Krentz.

The next group for separating characters is generational.  Each generation has it’s own touchstones. For example, the Baby Boomers have their own music (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones).  Someone who became a teenager in the 50’s instead of the 60’s has an entirely different set of touchstones.  Our 28-year-old or 30-year-old heroines have their own links – to cell phones and Blackberries, to iPods and Coldplay.  If you have her using phrases like “Jeepers” you need to explain why.  Because it wouldn’t normally be a phrase intrinsic to her age group.

Writing an 80-year-old’s dialogue is very different from writing a 60-year-old’s.  Baby boomers are in their sixties now.

When I run into a stumbling block, I’ll often have a “story conference” with my characters and ask them what’s wrong.  I’ve had the pizza delivery guy character ask what his motivation was (to deliver the pizza and leave <g>). I’ve had heroine’s complain the hero gets all the good lines and vice versa.  You can try this story conferencing and see if it works for you.

Okay, you say, but I’m not writing contemporaries.  I’m writing historicals.  Well, the same would be true regarding male and female means of verbal communication.  And story conferencing. 

Even after writing over 55 books I still am surprised by what my characters say and do.  For example, I wasn’t expecting Oliver to show up in my last book Smart Girls Think Twice (still available).  He’s a great secondary character.  I can say that without blushing because it feels like I’m complimenting Oliver not bragging as an author. He said some wonderful lines that cracked me up. And that’s one of the joys for me as an author.  To keep writing in order to find out what’s going to happen next, what’s going to be said next.

I hope you find some of these tips useful in your writing, “Now get back to work,” I hear Megan, the heroine of my new book, telling me. I’d better obey.

How about you?  Do you hear your characters’ dialogue?

Thank you to Cathie for visiting with us today.   If you do hear your characters’ dialogue, please let us know by leaving a comment.  We’d love to hear from you.  If you are anything like me, those characters start chatting away at about three in the morning when you’re trying to sleep.

To learn more about Cathie Linz, please visit  Join us on Monday when Kelsey will interview Christie Ridgway on the state of contemporary romance.

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18 Responses to “Characterization Through Dialogue”

  1. Hi Cathie!
    Thank you for joining us at RU. In your opinion, what’s the main difference in how a guy speaks versus a woman? For fun, can you give us a sample sentence spoken by a guy, then a woman?
    Thanks, Tracey

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | June 26, 2009, 5:38 am
    • I can’t think of an example, well wait maybe I can . This is sort of paraphraising what the book YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND talks about. When you tell a woman you don’t feel well they will often commiserate with you and say something like “I’m sorry you don’t feel good. I hope you’re better soon.” A man, thinking like a problem solver instead of a empath, might say something like “Go see a doctor.” To him, you’ve stated you have a problem, you’re sick. So he tries to solve the problem, get a dr.

      Listen to the men in your own lives, husbands, brothers, fathers and really listen to how they communicate. That can be an education in itself! Cathie

      Posted by Cathie Linz | June 26, 2009, 10:53 am
  2. Hi Cathie!

    Hey thanks for stopping in – great article! I get the “voices in my head” too, but mine usually talk to me when I’m driving the car..go figure!

    How do you feel about using sound effects – ie, when we say men grunt instead of actual dialog, sometimes a simple “ayuh” is all you need for their part of the conversation. Sometimes it makes it even funnier.In Janet Evanovich’s dialogs, she’ll use simple grunts like that or Ranger’s classic “Babe” which we know covers a lot of ground. Do you use that type of “sound effect” in your writing as well?



    Posted by carrie | June 26, 2009, 8:30 am
    • Carrie, I would just say “He grunted” instead of sound effects but that’s just me. In SMART GIRLS THINK TWICE the hero Jake just uses the word “Dude” when speaking to geeky Oliver sometimes Men do use fewer words in a day than women do, they’ve done studies on it. Cathie

      Posted by Cathie Linz | June 26, 2009, 10:55 am
  3. Cathie –

    Welcome! After reading your post, I can’t wait to get my hands on a couple of your books! I adore great dialogue and great contemporary romances. (We’d love you have you stop by and comment on Monday’s post BTW).

    Do you have any thoughts on how a pre-pubbed author should take contest feedback when she’s told on one hand that her “dialogue rocks” and on the other that it needs work?

    Thanks for being with us today!

    PS – I do hear dialogue in my head and I often type it out fast, with no tags. In fact, dialogue (or–don’t laugh Adrienne!–a love scene) is the first thing that pops into my mind for a new story.

    Posted by KelseyBrowning | June 26, 2009, 8:50 am
    • Same here, Kelsey, that dialogue is often the first thing I hear/know about a scene. I never participated in contests or critique groups – that just wasn’t my thing. Every writer is different and there is no one way or one path. You just have to trust your gut. And the best way to improve your writer’s voice is to keep writing. There is no replacement, no workshop, no book that can take the place of experience – the actual writing itself. Cathie ps typing out the dialogue fast is what I do as well, like I’m taking dication. Sounds like you’re on the right track so continued success with that!

      Posted by Cathie Linz | June 26, 2009, 11:00 am
    • Too late! I laughed.

      Posted by Adrienne Giordano | June 26, 2009, 11:17 am
  4. Hi Cathie and thanks for being here. Last week one of my critique partners received a comment from an editor that the humor in her dialogue sounded forced. This completely baffled me because, when I read her work, I don’t feel that way. That being said, we do share a twisted sense of humor, so maybe I understood it better. How can you tell if the humor sounds forced? Or is it just a matter of opinion?

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | June 26, 2009, 8:51 am
  5. Adrienne, Humor is almost always a matter of opinion. Sometimes an editor can feel it’s forced if it’s not organic to the character – that is if it isn’t something that feels natural for them. If it’s used to instert a laugh instead of showing characterization then that might be a problem. Think of how drs and cops often use dark humor to cope with the terrible stress of what they have to deal with daily. Or how male humor and female humor is different – men often laugh AT someone and women often WITH someone. There are entire books on that issue alone, the gender difference in humor. But maybe rethink it as far as how that partcular person deals with humor – what gave them a twisted sense of humor? Cathie

    Posted by Cathie Linz | June 26, 2009, 11:03 am
  6. Hi Cathie,

    I came to class looking for you on Monday. As always I enjoyed the class. I like the taking dictation line. I always say the same thing. I love finding out things about the characters that I didn’t know through dialogue. You do a fantastic job of humor.


    Posted by Dyanne | June 26, 2009, 11:24 am
  7. Hi Cathie,

    I loved your post. like Kelsey I can’t wait to pick up some of your contemporaries (historical person that I am 🙂

    My characters talk to me in spurts–as you all mentioned earlier, sometimes I write nothing but dialogue because that’s what’s coming. Then I’ll go back to layer in the rest.

    I’d love for them to talk to me more. That means I’d better try some of the technqiues you mentioned so I will know the characters better.


    Posted by Barbara Huddleston | June 26, 2009, 11:41 am
  8. Sometimes I have to have a story conference with my characters if they hit a speed bump or aren’t talking. I sit them down (g) and ask them what the problem is. cathie

    Posted by Cathie Linz | June 26, 2009, 4:59 pm
  9. My characters are always talking even when I don’t want them to. I can go to a movie and I don’t go that often anymore. They start talking, entire scenes, I want to say can’t this wait but I’ve learned not to interrupt. I listen.

    Whenever I’m having problems I soak in the tub, sometimes putting my head under the water. I’ve even received answers to plot points for my friends books.


    Posted by Dyanne | June 27, 2009, 7:34 am
  10. Hi, Cathie,
    For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of reading Cathie’s books, you’ve got such a treat in store! They are so much fun that you might not notice there is meat behind the snappy dialogue, deeper issues addressed in a light touch.
    This is quite a feat, believe me! I’ve tried to write humorous scenes and it does not come easily to me.
    I agree that some of my best times writing are when the characters start talking and I must rush to get it all down, wish it came more often!
    Now if only you could write faster, Cathie!! Seems too long to wait until your next books come out!

    Posted by Sherry Weddle | June 27, 2009, 5:05 pm
  11. Hi Cathie,

    I’m definitely getting a copy of You Just Don’t Understand. I’ve always known there’s a big difference between the thought patterns & dialogue of men and women, but getting behind the psychology of it sounds like an opportunity to take our dialogue to a whole new level. Thanks for the great resource & insight.


    Posted by Samantha Visco | July 31, 2009, 7:29 pm
  12. I find several of my charters perplexing because I feel they live in a word where it is unacceptable for they to interact emotionally in large groups. Because of this most of the people have become in drawn. It is hard for me to understand what goes through their minds and most of the time I find that I am writing things I know they would do but don’t know why.

    Posted by Sue | June 1, 2012, 3:39 pm

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