revealing character

When Characters Talk To You

How alive are your characters for you? Do you have conversations with them? Do they tell you what they want to do in a story, even if it’s not something you had in mind for them?

Do you hear your characters when they talk?

I recently read an article that talked about how many authors in fact do hear their characters speak to them. According to researchers at Durham University who teamed up with the Guardian and the Edinburgh international book festival, sixty-three per cent [of respondents] said they heard their characters speak while writing, with 61% reporting characters were capable of acting independently.”181 authors were interviewed.

This finding was of great interest to me since I hear my characters voices when they talk to me. Some are quiet while others are quite loud. As my readers know, I write sexy retellings of fairy tales. Tita, my Puss In Boots in my novella “Trouble In Thigh High Boots” has a deep, sonorous voice. She purrs. Obviously, she does. She’s a cat shifter. Rapunzel in my novella “Climbing Her Tower” has a higher, wispier voice. She also speaks quicker than Tita. Both of these characters have told me when they were unhappy with the direction of a plot. They also told me what turns them on the most so I could give them the best experiences. These two are very open, honest, and straightforward – qualities I admire.

I asked writers on Facebook their experiences with their characters voices. Everyone’s experience is different, but all have a camaraderie with their characters. Some fight. Some don’t. Some take the plot in a direction the author had not originally considered. Some play the “You should be writing” card. Here are a few responses.

Christiane Knight – “Mine talk to me and occasionally have taken the plot in very different directions than I’d planned.”

Terri Bruce – “LOL – I not only hear them, but it’s kind of like they take me over at times. I’ll be in the shower or driving and realize suddenly that I’m talking OUT LOUD, saying the dialog I’m picturing in my head (the scene starts playing like a little movie in my head but it’s always in first person – I’m the characters (lol all of them) in the scene/seeing the scene from their POV – rather than third person). My husband often catches me doing this (it’s happened in a restaurant while sitting across from him a few times) and he’s like “um, honey, your lips are moving. You’re talking to yourself. What is happening?????” LOLOLOL!”

Phoenix Johnson – “Some of mine are total arseholes lol they try to fight me, can be exhausting!”

Colleen Markley – “My protagonist is sitting on my newly cleaned counter now, swinging her feet against the cabinet. Her heels bang the wood. “You need to stop playing house and get serious,” she tells me. “You can’t finish a novel if you’re not serious. You’re just shy of 90,000 words and you still need to finish act two. Your pacing is off and you need to fix it.” She pauses her feet and stops speaking for a moment as she looks at me. “You’re so close.”

Jenise Aminoff – “My characters all have distinct voices, and some of them ARGUE with me.”

Jacques Gerard – ” Yes, I do hear my character’s voices and would love to be included in your blog. I just finished an erotic short story. It has a lady DJ doing a podcast. Her voice is low and velvety. Her male lover who calls into her show has a deep baritone voice and sounds like Barry White.”

So writers, do your characters talk to you? Boss you around? Plead with you? If so, know you’re not alone.


Elizabeth Black writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica, erotic romance, horror, and dark fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and her two cats. Her LGBTQ paranormal erotic shifter romance novel “Full Moon Fever” is now available for purchase at Amazon and other book distributors. Her collection of erotic fairy tales, “Happily Ever After: Twisted Versions of Your Favorite Fairy Tales”, is also available at Amazon.

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What You Say? Using Dialogue to Strengthen Your Stories

By Lisabet Sarai

It may be a bit presumptuous for me to write a craft-focused article about dialogue. Creating engaging, lively, believable conversations has never been one of my strong points. I did a major revision of my first novel a few months ago. I found the dialogue I wrote back in 1999 to be truly cringe-worthy. All the characters speak in full sentences, rarely employing contractions. They use each other’s names far more frequently than people do in real life. There are no pauses, no hesitations, no interruptions. As a result, the dialogue feels stiff, awkward and unrealistic.

I’ve learned a great deal since then, however. Some reviewers of my most recent novel, The Gazillionaire and the Virgin, have explicitly commented on the authenticity of the interactions between my hero and heroine. I’ve become far more conscious of the entire issue of dialogue, and more aware of my own weaknesses. In addition, I’ve come to understand the important roles dialogue can play in strengthening the story as a whole.

Dialogue can reveal and develop your characters.

Your readers learn a great deal about a character from what she says, as well as how she says it. Speech reveals education level, cultural background, and mood, in addition to shining light on the relationship between the partners in a conversation. What sort of vocabulary and sentence structure does the character use? What level of formality? How long are the typical sentences? Are there profanities expletives, emotional outbursts? Endearments? What about words and phrases like “maybe”, “in my opinion”, “you might not agree but” that indicate a power differential or a lack of confidence?

Here’s an example from “Fortune’s Fool”, by Robert Buckley (who is an absolute master of dialogue):

“Oh, Maleek, oh, can you do me a big favor, Oh, please, please, please …?”

“Tianna, baby, I’m on my break and I’ve done all the favors I’m doing for you for one week.”

She grabbed his meaty arm and nuzzled her delicate chin in the hollow of his massive biceps. “Oh, Maleek, honey, just this one favor?”

Damn, she’s good, I thought. Poor Maleek didn’t stand a chance.

“Ain’t no such thing as one favor with you, Tianna. Okay, what you want?”

“Take this guy up to CT scan for me so I can go see Terry Hanchuck.”

Maleek made a face and whined, “Oh, what you want to bother with that chump for?”

Tianna just smiled, her green eyes gleaming. Maleek just shrugged his shoulders, took hold of the gurney and guided it and its passenger onto the elevator as Tianna bolted away like a fawn.

Now Maleek was muttering under his breath.

“You hear anything about Hanchuck?” I asked him.

“Huh? Ah, well, sir, a friend told me his arm’s broken in four places. Looks like his career might be finished.”

“I guess he shouldn’t have disrespected Mr. Bubba Washington.”

Maleek’s face broadened into the widest smile I could imagine on a human. “Damn,” he said, “I thought I was the only one who thought like that in this town.”

“Serves the prick right,” I said. “Maybe he’ll have to get a real job now, like cleaning out pay toilets.”

Maleek’s smile became even broader and brighter. When we got to CT scan he patted me on the shoulder and said, “Be cool, man.”

After reading this snippet, I’ll bet you can tell me quite a bit about Tianna’s, Maleek’s and the narrator’s ethnicity, power relations, and personality. Tianna and Maleek are minor characters, but the effective dialogue brings them to life.

Dialogue can reveal history and advance the plot.

Novice authors have a tendency to write long passages of description or back story, which interfere with the forward motion of the narrative. Dialogue provides an effective alternative. Characters can mention past events as part of a conversation, seamlessly weaving back story into the current action. They can also comment on the environment or the appearance of another character, helping readers to visualize what’s going on in a more natural and integrated way.

Furthermore, speech is action. Conversations can generate or resolve conflicts, changing relationships or exposing secrets. Here’s an example from the story “El Pimientero”, by C. Sanchez-Garcia:

I picked up the pepper grinder and ran my finger over the black signature scrawled on the bottom. I am looking, I said to myself, with knowledge, at the autograph of a man who knows what she looks like naked. A man who has had his dick in her. A man who has fucked her. And then I knew who he was—who he really was.

“Doña , tell me about your first time.”

She began dropping pieces of okra into the oil. She stirred them with a fork.

“May I know?”

“I suppose.” She glanced at me sideways. “But only because it’s you. It’s between us.”

“How old were you?”

“Younger than you.”

“How did it happen?”

She watched the okra frying for a moment, then put down the fork. “In my father’s house.”

“Tell me please. What was it like?”

“We had a guest. He had been a friend of my father’s for many years. He was working in the movies, but he wasn’t famous then, not yet. But you knew he would be. His name was Gabriel.”

“He made love to you? How?”

“In the kitchen, just like this.”

“A kitchen?”

She put down the fork and leaned a little on the stove, looking me over, that wicked twinkle in her eyes. “You don’t think people fuck each other in the kitchen? The kitchen is a good place to fuck.”

The story of Doña Soledad’s first lover helps the reader to understand who she is and why she behaves as she does. It also foreshadows her encounter with the much younger narrator.

Dialogue can hook the reader.

I really admire authors who can write “snappy” dialogue—conversations that are more than realistic, conversations that make me laugh or yearn, that make me want to read more. Janet Evanovich, author of the Stephanie Plum mystery series, has this skill. I am seriously jealous.

Recently I hosted romance author Amy Armstrong at my blog. The excerpt she provided, from her paranormal novella A Hellhound in Hollywood, was so lively and funny that I went out and bought a copy of the book. I rarely do that. But she had me hooked. Here’s an example:

“You wouldn’t shoot me,” he said smugly, briefly glancing at the gun, his mouth twisting into a smirk. “And what’s more, you couldn’t.”

Now see? That pissed me off and I forgot about the instant attraction I felt toward him.

“Oh, I could,” I assured him. “And each time you open your mouth, it gets more and more likely that I will.”

He chuckled again, and this time, able to see the movement on his lips as well as hear the sound, produced an even stronger reaction in me. Arousal flooded my system. The masculinity that oozed out of him caused my pulse to accelerate and I was pretty sure my heart was trying

to beat its way out of my chest.

“You couldn’t,” he repeated. “You want to know why?”

I gritted my teeth. “Humor me.”

“Because the safety is on, and even if you did somehow get it off before I managed to get the gun out of your hand, you wouldn’t risk losing your job by shooting a fellow hunter.”

“A fellow…what?” I cocked my head to one side and lowered the gun a little. “You’re kidding me.”

I was usually great at sniffing out a lie, but I didn’t detect one.

That was a relief. For some strange reason, I didn’t want this beautiful man to turn out to be a liar. Arrogant jerk was bad enough.

A grin was his only reply—a really sexy grin—but I pretended not to notice it and continued to scowl at him.

“How do you know I’m a hunter?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Only hunters hang around in alleyways in the dead of night.”


“Or hookers,” he mused.

I was so furious that my glare, already frosty, must have turned glacial.

“Drug addicts or…”

“Okay, I get it. I get it. Good call.”

“Besides, you’re carrying a stake.”

I really wish I could write dialogue that could sell books with a single excerpt!

How can you write effective dialogue?

So here I am, five pages into this essay, and finally getting to the meat of my topic! I wish I could say I knew the secret to writing great conversations, like the ones I’ve quoted. However, all I can offer are some general recommendations, based on my own experience.

Listen to the way people really talk. Listen to people on the street, people on the radio, on TV and in the movies. Eavesdrop in coffee shops. Pay attention to the rhythm of real speech. Try to internalize it. I’ve found that my best dialogue comes when I “hear” my characters in my head and transcribe their conversations.

Allow your characters to pause and to interrupt one another. Real conversations are messy things. You don’t want to transcribe every “uh” and “um”, but used judiciously, this sort of expression can make your dialogue more realistic.

Avoid dialect, especially if it requires non-standard spellings or excessive contractions. To capture ethnicity, use word choice or word order. For instance, Bob Buckley’s excerpt suggests that Maleek is probably a black man without a lot of formal education, without using a single bit of dialect.

Use speech tags sparingly. The question of speech tags (“he said”, “she said”) is to some extent a matter of style. There are some cases where they’re essential, in order to clarify the identify of the speaker. A conversation where every utterance is attributed, though, starts to feel unnatural.

Use other actions to break up speech. All the examples I’ve cited do this, to a greater or lesser extent. Remember that people don’t usually just sit there talking. They do other things as they’re conversing, and frequently what they do, or the manner in which they do it, reveals additional details about the character’s state of mind.

On the other hand, composing dialogue-only flashers can be a great way to hone your skills in writing speech. Can you create a two-hundred word story that includes no speech tags, no action, nothing but quotations?

Personally, I’ve learned a lot from this type of exercise. Here’s a recent example—not exactly realistic, perhaps, but I think it clearly distinguishes between the characters, as well as explicating the plot!


By Lisabet Sarai

“Miss Meriweather. Increase the gain by another order of magnitude. Ah—oh, by Newton’s apples!—”

“Is that too much, Professor? Shall I dial it back?”

“No, no, we must continue. Another notch, please.”

“But your face is scarlet, sir. And your member—Oh, God, are those sparks?”

“To be expected when experimenting with electrical forces, Miss Meriweather. Adjust the rheostat as I’ve instructed. Argh—that’s good, excellent…Oh! More. More…!”

“Sir, the boiler will blow. The needle’s halfway into the red zone already.”

“We need more power—more steam—oh, incredible! Amazing! We shall be the first to chronicle the detailed response of the male organ to various levels of electrical stimulation—oh, by Aristotle, turn it up, girl! Don’t stop now!”

“I smell burning. And you’re drenched with sweat.”

“All—all the better—ah! Enhances conductivity—what? What are you doing?“

“Protecting you from excessive scientific curiosity. I don’t want you hurt.”

“But—I was so close to a breakthrough… Unstrap me immediately, Miss Meriweather. If you won’t assist me, I’ll have to man the controls myself.”

“Sorry, Professor. I can’t do that.”

“You disobedient little hussy! And where—oh, by Pythagoras, you’re not wearing knickers!”

“Before you research artificial sexual stimulation, sir, shouldn’t you investigate the real thing?”

 Until next month…!

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