CWC 2015 Lecture Notes: Michael Raleigh on Character and Dialogue

Chicago-Writers-Conference (1)

And now for something completely different! I know this isn’t really a writing blog per se, but I promised I’d share some of the lecture notes I made during the Chicago Writer’s Conference this year. Hopefully the fiction writers who visit this blog will find these notes useful. For everyone else, I promise there will be more Chicago history on here soon! In the meantime, please enjoy the following…

One of the most engaging lectures I sat through at CWC 2015 was one by Michael Raleigh, an author and teacher at Truman College in Chicago. Raleigh is the author of a number of historical mysteries, including one set in 1926 (yay!) called Blue Moon Circus.

Raleigh gave a very fun and useful lecture on how to introduce characters and strengthen dialogue in your writing. Here’s some of his advice on characters and dialogue:

Describing Characters

According to Raleigh, there are five main aspects that define each of your characters: their personality, their past, the historical events they lived through, their physical description, and their name. There are various ways these aspects can be introduced. Raleigh suggested four different ways to do this:

  • Physical description: besides describing basic things like hair, eye color, facial features and dress, physical description can also be used to allude to character traits: a general “air” or manner can tell you as much about a character as the way they dress or the way they talk. Little details often reveal who they are, too: small stuff like their choice of nail polish or the kind of jewelry they wear. Facial features can also be used to indicate character; a melancholy person might have a permanent frown etched on their face, for example.
  • Action or Physical Movement: the way a character carries themselves, or moves through a space, can tell you a lot about them.
  • By the Tone of the Description: While this is obviously easier in first person POV, even a third POV limited can use particular word choices to describe a character and indicate what kind of person they are right off the bat.
  • Through Dialogue: Every person has a very distinct way of talking, and your characters should too. Word choice, word order (especially in the case of a character for whom English is a second or third language), patterns of speech or pet phrases, and cadence are all potential clues to character. Not only can they help immediately establish things like background or social class, but they can help distinguish one character for the reader.

Better Dialogue

Raleigh stressed the importance of good dialogue throughout his lecture. According to him, bad dialogue can “kill” a book. But how do you get good dialogue? The trick with writing dialogue—and this agrees with most of the writing books I’ve read, too—is that it needs to seem natural while being wholy contrived. Naturally, many people struggle with this. Raleigh’s advice is to listen to the people around you: listen to word choice, cadence, and patterns. The words people leave out of their sentences, he says, are just as important as the words people leave in. This creates patterns in people’s speech.

Word orders are another way to create patterns, especially if your character speaks English as a second language. In fact, Raleigh says, changing a character’s word order in their speech is one of the most effective way to create an “accent” for a character, rather than resorting to confusing attempts at phonetic spelling or dialects. For example, a native Russian or Polish speaker will often drop articles like “the” when speaking English, as their language doesn’t use them as much. Filipino speakers might confuse “he” and “she” pronouns, as Filipino has only one pronoun for all genders.

One of the most important aspects of character dialogue, however—and this is particularly important if you’re writing dialogue for a character whose voice you’re not familiar with (if, for example, you’re a white middle class suburbanite writer whose exposure to the voices of inner city African American kids comes exclusively from TV shows and movies, but your narrator is a kid who grew up in Chicago’s Cabrini Green back in the 1970s)—is that you have to be consistent. Consistency with voice can make or break character dialogue for a reader. Once when Raleigh gave a talk on his book Blue Moon Circus, he read a section that had a character who was a carnival barker. After his talk, an elderly gentleman came up and congratulated him on the barker’s voice; he’d grown up in a circus around that time and had heard many barkers, and Raleigh had captured the patter and attitude perfectly. Had he known a barker? Raleigh was forced to admit that, no, sadly, he’d never interacted with one: he’d simply read as much on the setting and time as possible and extrapolated with the language—but he did it so consistently and so well that he’d fooled people who had experienced it firsthand! That’s the kind of follow-through you want. If you’re consistent, then you can write any sort of character in any sort of time or place, which is great, because who wants to just “write what you know” anyway? Where’s the fun in that? 😉

Now you try!

Raleigh ended his talk with an exercise for the room: think of an interesting person you know well—a friend, a family member, a coworker, something—and try to describe them as in about five sentences, while attempting to give a strong idea of what kind of person they are. What kinds of features of theirs stand out, and how do those features indicate their personality traits? What kind of small details stand out? Feel free to try it out in the Comments section below! 😀


About lupachi1927

My name's Megan, and I'm a writer with an interest in history. While I might not be a real historian, I'm a very thorough researcher. This blog is my place to post about all the interesting historical tidbits I find that can't use in the novel I'm working on, which takes place in Chicago in 1927. If you're looking for research help, writing feedback, or just want to say hi, feel free to drop me a line! :)
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3 Responses to CWC 2015 Lecture Notes: Michael Raleigh on Character and Dialogue

  1. jazzfeathers says:

    I love the enecdite at the end, it gives me hope that what I’m doing (writing of a time I’ve never experienced and a place I’ve likewise never experience, may be done with a certain degree of accuracy. This has worried me since the beginning, so I’m always happy when I heard this kind of episodes 🙂

    And I’ve never heard of the Blue Moon Circuse… set in the same year of my trilogy!!!
    Heading over to Amazon 🙂

    Thanks so much for sharing!


    • lupachi1927 says:

      Hah, me too! I definitely want to check out his book now. And yes, it’s refreshing to see someone encourage you to NOT write what you know. He was the only speaker I saw that weekend who actively pushed that idea, and I think it’s very liberating. If you can only write about stuff you know, then you’re limited to your own experiences, and that sucks…plus how would any of those awesome fantasy or scifi books get written? 😉


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