Dialogue: The Driving Force Behind Characterization

Dialogue: The Driving Force Behind Characterization
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Dialogue, like conflict, is the heartbeat of fiction.

Written by Mr. Tony G. Cox. Source - professional essay writing help desk.

Steven Schoen, in his Truth about Fiction, posits that dialogue functions not to capture real speech, but to capture the illusion of real speech. He categorizes dialogue into four: direct, indirect, summarized, and interior monologue, claiming that characters speak to each other and not to the reader. By the same token, they wouldn’t say what they know simply because the reader doesn’t know it. While they talk, they talk about their wants, and they position themselves and frame their words in order to get it. Yet their talk is not talk. In fiction, people never talk. They argue, seduce, wheedle, plead, rage, plot, and maneuver.

Subtexting and Illusion of Real Speech

Dialogue, like conflict, is the heartbeat of fiction. It gives color and life to characters; it creates a tool to show the pattern of speech of a character, his peculiarities, emotions, and prejudices. As a general function, it serves to describe and propel the narrative. Moreover, it has two basic features: (a) subtexting and (b) the illusion of real speech.


In Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald exploits dialogue to create both character and plot conflicts. In a scene of Rosemary Hoyt and Tony Barban, the dialogue reveals several important elements:

“Going home?” [Rosemary asked].
“Home? I have no home. I am going to war.” [Tony Barban replied].
“What war?”
“What war? Any war. I haven’t seen the paper lately but I suppose there’s a war—there’s always a war.”
“Don’t you care what you fight for?”
“Not at all—so long as I am well treated. When I’m in rut I come to see the Divers, because then I know that in a few weeks I’ll want to go.” (1995, 30)

Fitzgerald uses no tags here; so in terms of syntax, it is difficult to distinguish between Rosemary’s and Tony’s speech. But the tone of voice of both is pronounced; the emotions and desperation behind Tony’s words can be felt; the mingling of irony and pity in Rosemary’s words palpitates. One can feel the states of mind of each character: Rosemary is quiet and soft-spoken, but in her softness lies character conflict; Tony is bitter, impulsive, angry, frustrated, hopeless, yet determined.

These emotions and conflicts behind dialogue imply subtexting. Subtexting occurs when characters say something contrary to what they feel or believe.


Hemingway soars as one of the masters of subtexting. In The Sun Also Rises, in a scene of Lady Brett Ashley and Jakes Barnes, he demonstrates subtexting effectively to show Lady Brett Ashley speaking contrarily to her passions:

“Don’t touch me,” she said [Lady Brett Ashley]. “Please don’t touch me.”
“What’s the matter?” [Jakes Barnes said].
“I can’t stand it.”
“Oh, Brett.”
“You mustn't. You must know. I can’t stand it, that’s all. Oh, darling, please understand.”
“Don’t you love me?”
“Love you? I simply turn all to jelly when you touch me.” (1995b, 333–4)

First, this would seem as if Brett is repulsed by Jakes; but as the dialogue advances, it reveals that she loves him to the point of obsession, her earlier words not true to her intention. Her lips say one thing, her heart another.

Fitzgerald and Hemingway

Here, it is evident that both Fitzgerald and Hemingway, in their bid to capture the illusion of real speech, haven’t inserted all the gasps and pauses characteristic of real speech, haven’t shortened or lengthened vowels or included profanities, repetitions, and superfluous words. Instead, they construct their dialogue in a clear, simple, and brief representation of their characters’ speech, including elements only to strengthen the characters and conflicts of the story.


Faulkner does this effectively in his The Sound and the Fury. He modifies the vernacular of the characters for clarity yet maintains syntactic and phonetic profligacy to reflect a specific regional dialect of the South, as in the following passage:

“He said to mind me,” Caddy said.
“I’m not going to mind you.” Jason said.
“You have to.” Caddy said. “Come on, now. You have to do like I say.”
“Make them quiet, Versh,” Dilsey said. “You all going to be quiet ain’t you.”
“What we have to be so quiet for, tonight,” Caddy said.
“You mommy ain’t feeling well,” Dilsey said. “You all gon with Versh, now.” (1990, 98)

Here, Faulkner demonstrates that what the novelist can’t do, the film does. In the film, the speech of a character can be easily conveyed by sound, gestures, and facial emotions. With the pen, the writer has to rely on style and technique and on tailoring and compromising.


Hence, dialogue, with its two components—subtexting and illusion of real speech--is the heartbeat of fiction, giving color and life to characters and creating a tool to show the pattern of speech of a character, his/her peculiarities, emotions, and prejudices. Moreover, it serves to describe and propel the narrative.

Prepared by Mr. Tony G. Cox with the support of talented research writer James Quinn of the online essay writing service. Leave your messages in a special contact form.