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How Dialogue Reveals Aspects of a Character

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  • 0:02 Power of Dialogue
  • 2:10 Hemingway's Dialogue
  • 4:39 Hosseini's Dialogue
  • 6:10 Subtext
  • 8:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

What we choose to say when we're secretive, angry, excited, or worried helps others understand our personalities. In this lesson, we're going to analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama reveal aspects of a character.

The Power of Revealing Dialogue

Dialogue, or a conversation between two or more people, can tell the reader a lot about characters' personalities. And, as readers, we want to be able to understand the characters because we're investing our time in getting to know them, whether we're taking the time to read a short story, a novel, or a script. Powerful dialogue can reveal:

  • A character's thoughts and feelings through his or her tone of voice and the way the words are spoken
  • How a character interacts with others based on his or her responses and how much or how often he or she speaks
  • What a character's motives or desires are based on what he or she says or avoids saying
  • A character's background through his or her accent, use of slang, or mention of places or experiences

A character's thoughts and feelings and how he or she interacts with others can be shown in various ways. Let's say there's an impatient boy who hates when his sister takes a long time getting ready for school because it often leads to him being late. We can understand all of that just by having him say, 'You're seriously going to curl your hair right now?' He rolled his eyes and walked away. 'So much for making it to the bus,' he grumbled.

We're able to pick up on his impatience by what he says and by the way he says it. We can sense his annoyed tone of voice, and we can see that he grumbles as he walks away from his sister, which shows how he interacts with her. He doesn't directly tell her that he thinks they will miss the bus because she has decided to take the time to curl her hair, but he hints at it by what he says to her and then walks away to express more of what he's thinking to himself. All of this reveals his character.

There are countless qualities that characters can possess, and many of these traits can be shown by the way they speak. Some characters may shout, stutter, frequently interrupt others, or quickly change the subject. All of these ways of speaking can lead us to wonder if they have anger issues, anxiety, if they're self-centered, or keeping a secret. The more we closely analyze not only what they say, but how they say it, the better we'll understand them.

Hemingway's Use of Dialogue

Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway was a master at saying a great deal through very few words. His carefully worded dialogue made his characters come to life in just a few brief but important lines.

In his short story 'A Soldier's Home', there is a poignant scene between a mother and her son. Krebs, who is also referred to as Harold by his mother, is a young man who just returned from the Civil War, and he is feeling out of place and empty. His mother has made breakfast for him, and this is part of their conversation: 'God has some work for everyone to do,' his mother said. 'There can't be no idle hands in His Kingdom.' 'I'm not in His Kingdom,' Krebs said. 'We are all of us in His Kingdom.' Krebs felt embarrassed and resentful as always.

'I've worried about you so much, Harold,' his mother went on. 'I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know how weak men are. I know what your own dear grandfather, my own father, told us about the Civil War and I have prayed for you. I pray for you all day long, Harold.' Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on the plate.

This scene shows that Krebs and his mother have conflicting beliefs, that his mother is very adamant about her beliefs, and when she pushes that, he feels embarrassed and bitter. However, he doesn't say anything in response. He is silent rather than confrontational or argumentative. His mother is much more expressive than he is and goes on to tell him about her worries and fears. Again, Krebs responds by staying silent. But Hemingway doesn't specifically state that Krebs didn't say anything.

He conveys that by saying that Krebs 'looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.' Hemingway creates tension through what is said and through what is not said. He uses the simple act of a young man staring down at his plate to reveal a bit about who this character is. Hemingway pushes us to read carefully, paying attention to what is said and how the characters interact with each other. That's the only way we can understand what they're thinking and feeling, and it's how we can make assumptions about their background and experiences. Hemingway won't spell it all out for us. We have to take time to analyze each line.

Hosseini's Use of Dialogue

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini is a best-selling novel set in Afghanistan. Mariam is the illegitimate child of a rich man and a servant. She grows up in a tiny hut with her Nana, her very bitter mother.

Her mother won't let her go to school and says, 'What's the sense in schooling a girl like you? It's like shining a spittoon.' She goes on to say that the only lesson that an Afghan woman needs to learn is how to endure. When Mariam asks, 'Endure what?' Nana says, 'Oh, don't you fret about that. There won't be any shortage of things.'

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