Dialogue + 4 Things #Authors Should Consider Regarding What Your Characters Know?

Last Updated on: July 15th, 2017

Massimo Marino head shot
Today’s Featured Friday post is a guest post from sci-fi writer Massimo Marino, an award-winning author and scientist. He’s going to talk a bit about dialogue between characters in your novel as well as how they know what they know. He’ll also offer up a few suggestions for authors to consider when creating characters’ personas.

Take it away, Massimo!

The Most Boring Dialogue Ever

Last week I took the tram from CERN to the Cornavin Train Station. It’s a ride of some twenty minutes. At one stop, two young women sat near me. The moment they started to talk I knew they were American: they sprinkled their sentences with “like” and “you know.” I started counting; in five minutes they used the two phrases over a hundred times. “Like — you know — he called and, you know, he said — like — do you want, like, to do something?” “Like what did ya say?” “Like I told him, you know, like…” and on and on and on. Besides wanting to beat the story out of them without all the “likes” and “you knows” it proved me the point that we can’t copy real dialogue. Writers cannot write the way some people talk. Dialogue needs to sound true to the ear — a dilemma at best —  and, yes, I admit I eavesdrop all the time, and watch, and have no desire to reform.

But it’s a great way to get story ideas and create personas for characters.

For example, how many times you heard the following conversation? It must be repeated millions of times each day, but it makes for boring reading.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hello,” he said.

“How are you?” she asked.

“Fine,” he replied.

(*Yawn*)

One of the reason dialogues like this fail is because they don’t serve one of a dialogue’s primary purposes: move the story plot forward.

What to Do to Create Knowledgeable Characters

Before learning the ropes, many novices make the mistake of putting in too much information, things the other speaker knows already.

“Honey, I cannot take you to your Auntie Helen’s tonight, who lives next door at 113 Embury Avenue, and is married to your Uncle Ed. The car we bought only last year broke down; the red Mustang I use to drive you to work at the same supermarket as our neighbor, Sam.”

No character would ever talk like that! However, even though I exaggerated, I’ve seen things close to that in the first efforts from writers at their first words, especially in sci-fi stories.

Information should be imparted, but it has to be based on information the other speaker doesn’t know.

The information given is then more believable and advances the story as it makes the other speaker aware. Speaking of which, another thing to keep in mind in order to write proper dialogue is how much the characters know. Not all characters are born equal, nor are they just names and physical descriptions.

You have to think in terms of “personas” to understand the “whats,” the “hows,” and the “whys” of each of them.

In a blog post I wrote several months ago, I mentioned: 

You need to ask your characters specific questions.

Their answers are unique to each of them.

To do this, some authors create character cards, and build a personality for each character with many details; some characters will never appear in the story, but serve the purpose of creating their “persona” in the writer’s mind.

The important thing to keep in mind is that characters don’t know everything, nor will they in the story.

So, what could we ask our characters to help us understand what, how, and why they will react in a certain way as they travel through the plot?

The answers will help us understand their mutual interactions. It all depends on what they know.

Dialogue can also be used to show character. People can be assigned speech mannerisms like the word “like,” and this is okay, as long as it is not overdone.

Names can be dropped, as well as good manners. A man can talk down to women by calling all of them “Sweetie.”

A character’s educational level can be shown by the vocabulary used. A high school dropout might not use six-syllable words. A pretentious college professor would. However, if we use convoluted language for the professor we’ll lose our readers.

As Authors, We Need to Consider 4 Things

1. What do our characters know?

At any point in time, before any interaction, we need to know the level of knowledge characters have of elements of the plot. And if they do, the level of accuracy of that knowledge. If this information is blurred in the writer’s mind, actions, dialogues, interactions will negate the character “persona” and result phony or artificial, gimmicky and plain wrong to the reader. There’s nothing worse than a character saying or doing things based on information s/he can’t possibly have or suspect.

From Daimones (Daimones Trilogy, Vol.1):

A cold chill slid up my spine as a pair of eyes stared at me intensely, carving holes into my back; the burning sensation of a bullseye glued to my neck. Rollerblade-girl was breathing hard behind me. “Thanks for coming,” I said, still seated and about to change position. I had the impression Rollerblade-girl jolted when I opened my mouth. “Who are you? And stay as you are, don’t turn to look at me! You didn’t trust me, I do not trust you.” She sounded determined. I didn’t move.

“Well, I do trust you now. I would not be here sitting like this otherwise. The people you saw are my wife and daughter. And they were worried for me. They still are. They…I…we wouldn’t have hurt you.” “Where are you coming from? Do you know what happened? Is everyone dead? How can that be true?” “From out of town, in the countryside, and could you stop shooting questions like darts?” “Funny you’re saying this.”

In the scene above, the two characters know nothing of each other. It is their first encounter. Rollerblade-girl can see the main character — 1st person narration — and information is exchanged. Also notice that in the whole dialogue we made use of only one “said.” You can show who’s talking by using action, and by using the information only one of the speaker can possibly know.

2. How do they know it?

Did they witness it, were they told, did they learn or research that information? This too will influence their interactions. Are they sure of what they know? If not, can they trust their source?
Knowing something is not always black and white.
Can the character be certain of how she will deal with the information she has acquired? Again, if this is blurred in the writer’s mind, or if no attention is given to this aspect of character’s knowledge, the result is always loss of credibility, inconsistency, and lack of plausibility.

This is a scene from Once Humans (Daimones Trilogy, Vol.2). Two characters meet, Dan and Marina. Only this last knows about the details of some disruptive events. Dan knows something happened and he’s enquiring and worried, Marina is evasive and pensive, but she has made already her mind up.

“Please, leave us alone.” I waited until the Council secretary left and closed the heavy wooden doors behind him.

“I was waiting for you,” Marina said.

“I know.”

She sat at the massive oak table, the centerpiece of the large Council Room and played with a sheet of paper, tearing pieces apart and making little balls that she placed in front of her. The balls formed an octagonal shape. “We cannot ignore it any longer.”

“I know,” I repeated and sat next to her. Her brown hair combed in a bun with two braids encircled the perfect oval of her face.

“The Moîrai have asked if we want them to intervene,” Marina said, and ripped another piece of paper.

“That is out of the question. We already discussed this. Did you change your mind?”

“No, not at all.” She looked straight into my eyes. My eyes held hers, captured. “I am glad your words match what I sense from you.”

“You know where I stand, Dan.” A smile rose to her face, and her hazel eyes, if possible, smiled even more than her full lips.

“How many are involved?”

Marina placed a new ball on the table. She sighed. “They don’t leave many traces behind. They’re careful, very careful.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything less. Did they leave the same sign?”

With a quick gesture, Marina gathered all the tiny balls and threw them into the garbage bin. “The same.”

Here again, notice the use of only three tag lines, twice ‘said’ and once ‘repeated.’ There’s no doubt who’s saying what.

Another thing to notice is that dialogue is not just the exchange of words.
You need to place the characters within a scenario, give them space and location, otherwise they’re just words in the fog. Also, now readers know about the existence of a sign, and realize — at this point — that the characters know more. There’s the need to turn the pages and discover what the sign is.
What can we learn from this?
You can use dialogues to give information, but don’t give everything and every time.

3. What are the restrictions on what characters can tell and/or know?

We’re not equal, and certainly aren’t our characters. A character can have a firsthand, direct acquisition of crucial information in our plots and, yet, are unable to do anything with it. A janitor can hear and witness two physicists discuss a discovery and write down the solution on the blackboard, but would that character know anything about what s/he came to know?
Be aware that even if characters know something, that knowledge is filtered by their “persona.” If you have a blurred persona or are lax on the limitations and restrictions that each character has, you will create inconsistencies. You will break the readers’ suspension belief and you will lose credibility.

The following takes place in The Rise of the Phoenix (Daimones Trilogy, Vol.3)

The Chief Scientist cleared his throat. “Well, the activated astrocytes have the ability to respond to almost all the neurotransmitters we embedded in the drug molecules and, upon activation, release a multitude of neuroactive molecules, which, in turn, will influence neuronal excitability.” He looked at his fellow scientist, who nodded with a smile. He smiled back. “Noxious signals will be followed by an action potential carried by nociceptive—or pain sensing—afferent neurons in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. At this stage, the Glioblastoma Multiforme of enhanced Grade VI will have started to spread causing cranial nerve disorder, and extensive areas of necrosis and hypoxia.” The two scientists freewheeled with scientific details and left us way behind. I watched them in awe for a few seconds. “The tumor growth,” the Chief Scientist continued, “will cause a breakdown of the blood–brain barrier, thus opening the way to the nanoparticle-mediated delivery of neoplastic enhancing molecules to further spread the tumor.”

“Hold on, hold on! We don’t follow you! What are you talking about?” Manfred erupted and slammed his fist on the table. “You’re not here to teach a lesson and impress your students.” The scientists blushed and would’ve replied, but Manfred hadn’t finished yet. “We’re risking annihilation as a race. Stop patting yourself on the shoulders—we’ll have time to honor your research if any of us gets out alive from this!”

Even if you can’t know from the above scenes who the scientists are — or Manfred — the words of the chief scientist resonate as if he’s lecturing an audience, satisfied with himself, not caring whether anyone but his fellow scientist understands: “He looked at his fellow scientist, who nodded with a smile. He smiled back.”

The two scientists are in a world apart from one another, even their smiles are directed only at each other. Manfred burst is full of frustration, evidenced by the sound of his fist slamming on the table.
Charging the dialogue with actions conjure the vision and modifies how the words will be heard in readers’ minds.

4. From what point in time, relative to the action you are describing, do the characters become involved with what they know?

Knowledge can burn inside, memory can be affected by emotion, a character who ‘knows’ something for a long time will react in a different way than another who learns of the same thing when the action takes place.
There could be other crucial questions you might ask characters, either consciously or unconsciously, but one thing is certain, if characters know more than you, the writer, do, your story is in jeopardy. 

YOUR TURN:

How do you decide what your characters know? What strategies do you use to create personas for your characters? Do you make character cards? Let’s discuss these issues in the comments!

About Massimo Marino

Massimo Marino head shot
Massimo Marino is both a novelist and a scientist envisioning hard science fiction. He has done work in fundamental research since 1988, at CERN first, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory from 1997. In 2005 he moved to work with Apple Inc., and then with the World Economic Forum. He is also an entrepreneur and co-founder of a Big Data Analytics service company, Squares on Blue, incorporated in France.

His last work is a post-apocalyptic trilogy, the “Daimones Trilogy”. The human race is culled by one of the dominant races in the galaxy with plans for a transgenic new human race. Find out more about Massimo Marino on his website, connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+, and buy his award-winning books from Amazon.

Massimo Marino’s Awards

The “Daimones Trilogy”:
2012 PRG Reviewer’s Choice Award Winner in Science Fiction 2013 Hall of Fame – Best in Science Fiction, Quality Reads UK Book Club
2013 PRG Reviewer’s Choice Award Winner in Science Fiction Series
2014 Finalist – Science Fiction – Indie Excellence Awards L.A.

32 thoughts on “Dialogue + 4 Things #Authors Should Consider Regarding What Your Characters Know?

  1. And one ISBN per kind (one for all ebooks, one for paperback, one for hardcover). You need a different ISBN when the cover and/or the content change, otherwise, you need only one ISBN per the same ebook on Amazon, Apple, NOOK, etc.

  2. I meant that the various ebook formats Smashwords generates cannot be used to be uploaded into another ebook store.

    The dashboard from Amazon is available only if you publish directly to them via KDP (thus, not using Smashwords). For the other stores, mostly because they will carry much less sales than Amazon, I use Smashwords instead.

    • says

      I figured I’d have to use Amazon separately than SW, thus tracking from both places, but I wanted to know if I can use the same ISBN. I guess I can – for all ebooks? Right?

        • says

          Okay!

          Now that I’ve hijacked the comments on this post with this discussion, I wonder how our good buddy Google is going to rate it. On the one hand, the engagement is totally awesome, even if it is only between us for the most part. LOL But on the other hand, because we didn’t talk about the characters in a book and instead veered off and had a whole conversation that originally was related to a writing program, I don’t think there should be too much of a problem.

          I considered deleting all of our comments once we ironed things out, but I don’t think it’s fair to you or to others following this conversation for me to do that, so I’m going to let them stay. For now. 🙂

          Plus, I might use these comments in a future blog post. 😉

          Thanks so much for being patient with me, and for setting me straight, Massimo. I appreciate all you’ve done for me and my readers, including sharing this post on Twitter, etc.

          I truly hope someone out there wants to read sci-fi, for your sake! But if not, I hope you had fun connecting with some new people over here. Including me. 😀

          I’ve taken up enough of your time today – and on a Friday, too! Have a good weekend, my new indie friend. 😀 And let me know if you’d like a copy of my short story ebook. I’ll give you one for free.

  3. says

    I use Scrivener and one of the features I love the most is the their character section. I can have it on screen while I write a scene. I keep pretty good notes on how they look, how they act, what they see and know and say. I have a lot of characters in my book. I couldn’t manage them without a special section for each one. So yes, in a way, Scrivener’s character section is like using character cards for me.

    • True, Linda. Scrivener’s cork-board character section allows to do exactly that. I think every software product aiming at creating a complete and closed environment for creative writing has a character management set of features. It’s a must.

        • No, Lorraine, I don’t. But that is in no way a lack of support for it. I keep a journal for my novels where I put down ideas, unfinished scenes, and write the novel as if I had an old typewriter, really. I also keep a running, live, plot with key milestones. Some end up in the story, some don’t.

          Depending on the day, I tend to shift toward being a plotter for some parts or toward the planter for other areas of the story. More often this last side of the ‘writer-type distribution’.

          While writing the story, some information is on a digital form in my computer, other as a manually written brain dump.

          • says

            So have you used Scrivener at all? If so, have you ever used it to create .epub or .mobi files?
            I ask because this issue came up recently in one of my Indie Author Facebook groups… because I’m in the process of formatting my book of short stories for self-publication and am having a bit of a tough time trying to figure out how to do this all on my own. Someone suggested I download Scrivener to help me do this.

            And, Massimo, I want you to know I appreciate that you took the time to respond to everyone who has left comments here (including me). Thank you for that! 🙂

            • I played with it during a trial period and it is a complete environment. If I remember correctly, the ePub and mobi creation were also supported by the help of a visual editor allowing you to fine tune the end product.

              Another tool I used is Calibre (free tool – donation based) and that has good support for mobi and ePub creation.

              If you publish yourself to Amazon, you can receive the generated mobi file before it goes live and keep on generating it until you get the results you want. When you get to the point where you think it can be presented and sold to readers, you have the final mobi file Amazon sells and that you can distribute to reviewers and bloggers via email (no need to gift it or buying: you can download it any time).

              Alternatively, you may use Smashwords. The conversion engine produces a long list of formats, ePub and mobi included.

              PS
              My pleasure

              • says

                I’ve heard of Calibre, too, and do plan on using Smashwords as well.

                Where should I begin? With Amazon? (I think I’ve formatted my ms correctly for them.) I’ve yet to do it for Smashwords, but have the guide.

                If I format with Smashwords, does it give me a file I can upload to Amazon?

                Or do you know?

                • I use Smashwords for all ebook stores distribution, but do a separate publishing with Amazon directly.

                  If your MS is ready, you can try Amazon as a first step and check the conversion from them. If the results is as you wish go ahead and publish directly on Amazon.

                  On Smashwords, you need to have a first copyright page that cannot appear on the version for Amazon, so you will need two versions of the MS file to send to Amazon and Smashwords.

                  Smashwords agreement is that you cannot use their generated ebook files as main source in other stores (independently). Smashwords distributes to Amazon as well but doing this you will miss all the information (dashboard) to track your sales, change price, edit all editorial information that go in an Amazon ebook page, so you give up a lot.

                  • says

                    Massimo, I am not sure I understand the last paragraph you wrote. I also need to know how many ISBNs to get. I have one already, which I’ll use for Amazon. I just finished formatting my ms for Amazon and checked it out in the Kindle Previewer and so am ready to go!

                    I’m not sure what you mean about Smashwords, though. I know they distribute to the other stores, too, like Barnes & Noble, etc.

                    How can I best track sales? Use Smashwords only, because they distribute to Amazon? I’m confused. 🙁

                    (And thanks for taking the time to help me with this.)

  4. Even thought much of what I write is non fiction and normally is about real persons, I can take away some helpful suggestions in regard to editing a post. With actual characters there are a great number of details but care must be taken on what should be included. It’s quite the fight to keep each post filled with relative information.

    • Thank you, Tuhin. On my blog I also have a series on culling your darlings and all unnecessary words. In writing, economy is gold, and less is more. But those are lessons that are learned little by little. The first book written by an author at the beginning of the career does not read as his latest. I’m no exception 🙂

  5. William Butler says

    Hi Massimo,
    Nice to meet you here on Lorraine’s site. Thanks for sharing your insights. I like the reasoning you used to develop the characters, especially what do your characters know and why do they know it. It builds back story and lends strength to the characters. Good job!

    Kind Regards,
    Bill

    • Thanks, Bill, for your words.

      My pleasure. After some time, the process makes the characters alive and they are able to dictate actions, words, and behavior. Writing becomes a form of madness with “ghosts” shouting in your mind: “No, I’d never do this. That’s not me!”

  6. says

    Not being a writer I never gave it much thought about writing dialogue being challenging for many writers. Some have to be masters at writing dialogue or we as readers would not be buying their books. I think having character cards could spell over into any business.

    • True, Arleen. I also worked in IT for many years and UX engineers (User eXperience) work with customer “persona” cards all the time. It helps them to understand who to address their development and what a user could expect.
      Knowing who you’re addressing your efforts makes for a better aim.

  7. Donald Swan says

    I do make files for each major character, where they are from, motivations, history etc. Especially important for series I think. In fact I need to go do a little more work on those files before the start of book 3. :0

    • says

      Donald, having character cards (files) is important, as Massimo says. It’s hard to remember every detail otherwise! Perhaps Massimo can give you a few pointers on what you can do to improve your process with this…

    • Hello, Donald. As you already hinted with the need to refresh the file for the major character, one thing that some neglect is the impact the past events have on characters. Often, we find in series well developed characters, true, but who do not change/evolve at all as if what they’ve witnessed and endured had no effect on their personality.

      Add to your characters the events they’ve gone through, the interactions they had, and what they learned from the past, and you will have a great evolution of the main characters in a series.

    • says

      No kidding! Writing dialogue is challenging for many writers.

      Thank you, Massimo, for contributing this article to Wording Well and giving others food for thought. 🙂

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