If you rely on just one or two of these methods to characterize your people, you're missing chances to make your beginning snag readers into wanting to know more. Here, for example, is a brief passage from a writer who is not doing his job. By relying only on dialogue to characterize, he has conveyed only the minimal sense of what these people are really like:
"Who's there?" Louise called.
"Come on in, Allen."
He entered the room. "I came to see how you're doing.
Since the divorce."
"I said I wish I were fine."
"Things aren't going too well for you?" she asked.
"I miss you, Louise."
"I'm sorry about that, but I think you better leave."
Watch what happens when the dialogue is left intact, but is supplemented with character's thoughts, appearance, gestures, actions and reactions:
"Who's there?" Louise called. Damn, she had forgotten to latch the back door again.
"It's me, Allen," a voice called uncertainly.
"Come on in, Allen." She folded her arms across her chest and watched him pick his way across the basement, through the mounds of unwashed laundry, piles of kids' toys, a dog puddle she hadn't gotten around to cleaning up yet. He wore a T-shirt too big for his spindly body and the most ridiculous hat she'd ever seen.
"I came to see how you're doing," Allen said. His eyes darted nervously around the room. "Since the divorce."
Louise smiled nastily. "That's nice of you. I'm fine." She waved her hand at the room. As if on cue, a pile of laundry toppled over.
Allen said nothing for a long moment. Then he said, quick and low, "I wish I were."
Louise cupped her hand elaborately over one ear and leaned forward. "I'm sorry? I didn't hear you."
He swallowed hard. "I said I wish I were fine."
She grinned. "Things aren't going too well for you?"
The dog came down the basement stairs and lifted a leg against the dryer. Allen looked as if he were trying not to notice. "I miss you, Louise."
"I'm sorry about that," Louise said, her voice rich with satisfaction. "But I think you better leave."
Now we know these people much better. To really see how much characterization can be achieved by the details surrounding dialogue, consider yet a third version. Again, the dialogue has not been changed by so much as a single word:
"Who's there?" Louise called. She could feel her heart slam against her chest wall. The figure moved closer, out of the darkness of the kitchen.
There was a long pause. Louise picked up her embroidery and clutched it against her breasts. She fought to keep her voice steady. "Come on in, Allen."
He was already in. She saw that he wore his usual Saturday night outfit: jeans, boots, leather jacket. He crossed the rug to stand so close to her rocker that she could smell the whiskey, a faint blurry odor around his thighs. She bit her lip. ,,
"I came to see how you're doing," he said softly. "Since the divorce."
"That's nice of you," Louise quavered, because she couldn't think what else to say, couldn't think at all. His belt buckle glittered beside her cheek. "I'm fine."
He touched a curl at her nape. She flinched, and he smiled. "I wish I were."
"I'm sorry?" Louise whispered. "I didn't hear you." The room was unaccountably full of buzzing.
He squatted beside her chair, his face inches from hers. He was still smiling. "I said I wish I were fine."
"Things aren't . . . going too well for you?" The buzzing grew louder. His teeth looked very white, pointed and sharp.
One finger caressed the top of her shoulder. "I miss you, Louise."
"I'm sorry about that," she gasped. "But I think you better leave."
Obviously, this Louise and this Allen are entirely different characters from the previous pair. The difference comes from details of gesture, appearance, tone, thoughts and reaction that color the dialogue. The more of this you can get into your beginning scenes, the better initial sense we'll have of your characters—and the more likely we'll be to want to read more of their story.
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