Is it OK if I have a grumpy character who shows grumpiness in his dialogue and his other traits through his thoughts?
Published: January 19, 2012
Q: A character in my novel is grumpy. Yes, he has other traits and he’s not one-dimensional, but when you get right down to it, he’s not pleasant to be around. I’m worried about his dialogue. He’s always shouting at someone or saying something unkind. His other traits come through his thoughts, mostly. Is that OK?
A: A character who is outwardly grumpy, but inwardly mild, forlorn or remorseful (or something else entirely) sounds compelling. There’s a disconnect between his inner experience and his outer appearance and that makes me wonder: What’s happening for this character? What’s getting lost, modified or missed in translation?
That being said, you write that he’s always shouting or saying something unkind. And that makes me wonder about the development of this character. Without having seen your manuscript, I can’t say for sure whether this is warranted or not, but let me give you some points to consider.
Has this character’s dialogue gone over the top? In other words, is his dialogue creating a character or a caricature? If you stripped away the narrative, does he sound like a red-faced cartoon mouse or a human being? Even the grumpiest of grumps should be capable of a civil, if abrupt, routine exchange at the check-out counter. You might not have such an exchange in your novel, but the reader should understand he’s capable of one.
Are you ignoring the use and grace of subtlety? If your character has a raised voice or nasty comment every time he opens his mouth, I wonder if you’re missing some opportunities to reveal the more subtle aspects of his nature. He might not be pleasant in an exchange, but he might be curt to someone’s warmth, or dismissive of another character’s vulnerability. Sometimes, these behaviors can do more damage than a lot of bluster.
Lastly, challenge yourself to write a scene in which this character goes against his grain. What would happen if he had, for a change, a kind word for someone? Or if he whispered instead of yelled? Do this in a moment where it’s least expected. This kind of experimentation can be revealing. You may find that these scenes just don’t work with your character as you’ve created him. But you may, in fact, find that they add depth or take the scene to an unexpected—but apt—place.
Don’t let your preconceived notions about your character get in the way of fully developing him. That may not be happening in your novel, but it’s a good idea to take a closer look to be sure.
• • •
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
Send your questions on the craft of creative writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. All of Brandi's other Ask The Writer columns are available to registered users.