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Out of Character Dialogue (Top 10 Dialogue Writing Mistakes) by Janalyn Voigt | Live Write Breathe

Out-of-Character Dialogue (Top Ten Dialogue Writing Mistakes)

#3 Out of Character Dialogue

I just can’t help myself. An interesting individual who crosses my path is going to get the once-over. I try not to intrude as I study the mannerisms, expressions, and speech rhythms of complete strangers. Any idiosyncrasy makes its way into my mental filing cabinet labeled ‘creating characters.’

Sound familiar?

If you are like me, you do a lot of people-watching. Given this, you’d think creating believable characters should come easily. In moments of glory, it does, but the rest of the time our characters baffle us. They ambush us with scenes we never planned to write, fall in love where they shouldn’t, say and do things that take a plot astray, and generally keep us on our toes.

Who are these people, anyway?

Here’s the truth: if we don’t know, no one else will either. Yes, writing is a voyage of discovery, and part of our joy in the process is learning about characters as we create them. I won’t argue plotting versus pantsing here, because this is true whatever writing method you choose. It’s important for characters to stay in, well, character.  For that to happen, at some point we’re going to have to understand them.

Without a thorough knowledge of the personalities involved, fictional conversations that take place on several levels can be tricky to navigate, resulting in out of character dialogue. That’s a shame, because dialogue is one of the best places in a manuscript to reveal characters.

Readers glean from what is said, but also from what isn’t said. Leaving out a comment your character should have made is as much a mistake as adding words your character wouldn’t have spoken. They are two sides of the same coin.

Revise out-of-character dialogue while editing. By this time you should have a better grasp on all aspects of your story, including the characterizations.  Editing consistently, rather than in fits and starts, helps you see what needs fixing. Reading your manuscript out loud is another good way to identify dialogue that doesn’t ring true.

You can fill in character charts, answer pertinent questions about your characters,  and even interview them. These are useful tools. However, there’s no substitute for fully imagining a scene, entering into your character’s skin and living in the story world.

But that’s the fun of writing.

Sometimes we get busy and stop letting ourselves daydream. Or burnout sets in. Your creativity is a delicate resource linked to your mental, emotional, and physical health. Nurture it and reap rewards.  I’d be an unusual school teacher, I guess, cheering for the kid looking out the window during class.

I was that kid.

Were you?

Go to dialogue writing mistake #4: writing accents.

Go to dialogue writing mistake #2: overuse of beats.

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Stepping Out of Character Top 10 Dialogue Writing Mistakes by Janalyn Voigt | Live Write Breathe


Written by Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt

© Janalyn Voigt
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I’m Janalyn Voigt, an author, speaker, and former social media mentor. DawnSinger and Wayfarer, the first two books in my epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven, released with Pelican Book Group and will be followed by at least two more installments. I’m also working on a romantic suspense novel set in an Irish castle, but then historical fiction has a grip on me too. Being unabashedly multi-genre makes me into what some might term a reluctant rebel, but I prefer to think of myself as a storyteller.

2 thoughts on “Out-of-Character Dialogue (Top Ten Dialogue Writing Mistakes)”

  1. Interesting view and I agree generally, but can a character in a novel make an out of character comment once in a while? I know I do that occasionally. For example not feeling 100% and at these time mistakes can be made, so perhaps don’t be too harsh with the odd out of character comment and perhaps build on it. Any views, Janalyn?

    1. Hi, David. It’s nice to hear from you again. Thanks for an intriguing question.

      A character could make an out-of-character remark if either the character or someone else points it out, saying things like “It’s not like you to be so smug” or “I’m not myself today.” There does need to be a rationale for the remark that is clear to the reader or it is just confusing. This makes for believable characters. In real life there’s usually some sort of reason we speak out of character. We’re tired, stressed, sick, or unhappy, and so we lose our normal perspective. Accolades or a sudden increase in wealth stroke the ego, tempting us to think more highly of ourselves than we should. We fall in love and see the world differently. Sooner or later, we notice such shifts and have opinions about them.

      What are your thoughts on these ideas?

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