Get to Know Your Children's Book Characters through Dialogue

Using dialogue to get to know your children's book's main character better is not the same as having your character talk and talk ad infinitum in your story. Instead, dialogue is used between characters to reveal who they are, how they feel, how they think — to flesh them out verbally.

For instance, it’s one thing for the narrator to write, “Jon was as dumb as a doornail.” It’s quite another for the reader to be privy to actual dialogue in which what Jon says (or doesn’t say) illustrates just how clueless he really is.

Also, each bit of dialogue has to have a purpose. It must either (1) develop a character (flesh him out a bit), (2) move the story forward (add to the plot), or (3) provide a moment of conflict to heighten the drama and quicken the pacing to get readers turning the pages because they simply must find out what happens next.

Purposefully using dialogue in your story to develop a character, move the story forward, or heighten the drama does not mean including every single “Hello” or “Nice to meet you.” The dialogue you write must contribute something meaningful to the story. Do not use dialogue to recap action readers have just witnessed in narration or vice versa; that’s redundant.

Don’t have characters repeat each other’s names in dialogue. Names are usually only used when one character is introducing another, when one character wants to get another character’s attention, or when someone is upset with someone else — for instance a parent with a child.

(Don’t you remember your mother using your first and middle names when you were in trouble? And if she used your last name, too, boy, then you were really going to get it.)

Some writers like to have their characters speak to one another in dialogue form just to get a better idea of who they are — to literally write out an exchange between two characters to bring them alive in the writer’s mind before the actual story writing begins.

Take two characters you’re thinking of using in your story, and write a dialogue between them. This can help you jump-start the story from the idea stage to actually writing and developing the main character. Don’t worry about how good your dialogue is right now — just let the characters talk to one another.

A good place to have your characters start chatting is to give flesh to your theme (the subject of your story) and have the characters argue about it. For example, if you’re writing about new siblings, perhaps you can have a supporting character challenge your main character on that topic. Like this:

BUNNY RABBIT: I think my mom is gonna return me for a new bunny.
MOUSE: What do ya mean? You’re broken? Sometimes my mom returns broken stuff.
BUNNY RABBIT: No, I don’t think so . . . but the other day I heard her say the new bunnies were on their way.
MOUSE: Oh. . . .
BUNNY RABBIT: And when new bunnies come, what happens to old bunnies?
MOUSE: Oh. I see what you mean. What’ll she need old bunnies for if she’s got new ones? Like shoes. When you grow out of the old ones you give ’em away.
BUNNY RABBIT: Yeah. I wonder who she’ll give me away to? You think I’ll get recycled or something?
MOUSE: No. Least I don’t think so. We better come up with a plan to show your mom you’re not really broken. And quick!

Notice the use of contractions, truncated sentences, and incomplete sentences? This is the way people speak in real life. If you have a character who doesn’t speak this way, that character will sound stilted, wooden, and just plain odd — unless the character is supposed to be a very erudite British professor.

Keep going in this manner until you get a real feeling for who these characters are. Already, you can see here that Bunny is a sweet, sensitive, and naïve little tyke. As well, with the help of his friend, he will become a take-charge sort of bunny.

Plot-wise, this dialogue shows you that Bunny has misunderstood what he overheard and is in for a big change in his life (although not the one he expects), and that Mouse is going to help him try to solve his problem.

This dialogue fleshes out Bunny, Mouse, and their problem. It helps the writer better understand the roles of both characters, their particular personalities, and how they will participate in the plot development so far.

If there are two ways to read the meaning of a bit of dialogue (an unintended double entendre), either rewrite it for clarity or show what the character is doing when he says it. Body language can be very telling. For instance, when a teenager says, “Sure, Mom,” it can be taken many different ways:

“Sure, Mom.” Her smile lit up her eyes.
versus
“Sure, Mom.” She rolled her eyes and stomped off into the living room.
versus
“Sure. Mom?” (answering a question in the affirmative and then getting Mom’s attention to ask another question)
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