Humanize Characters Using Dialogue, Thought, and Action

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Why do you remember a great read?

For many readers, characters hold the source of fiction’s power. It is through the characters that readers become immersed in worlds, go on wonderful adventures, and gaze into the far reaches. Through fictional characters, readers’ points of view are shaped, their values and beliefs tested, their emotions called forth.

Readers look for emotional connections to the stories they read, and your characters are poised to deliver those emotional connections with staying power when developed in a robust and well-rounded way using up to six facets of character development for complete immersion:

  • dialogue
  • internal thought
  • action
  • appearance
  • interpretation by another character
  • authorial interpretation.

Each of these facets of characterization has its benefits and limitations, and some may be unavailable to you depending on the point of view and perspective voice chosen for your story. This week’s advice covers the first three facets of character development and provides practice prompts to get you thinking about and using these facets effectively.

Let’s dive in.

Prompted by Fallon Clark via Adobe Firefly


Character dialogue helps translate internal thoughts and ideas into external communications, and it comes in three forms: summary speech (His mother thanked him for the gift.); indirect speech (She said she was proud of him.); and direct speech (“I can’t believe you had the money for this.”).

Summary speech is implied speech, usually of the routine kind with immense capacity to bore your readers. Small talk and filler conversations, details unimportant to the characters, tangential stories — all those bits and bobs can usually (and gracefully) be packed into summary speech to speed through the mundane and get back to the scene. Summary speech is best handled to show relationships without elaboration to fill out the readers’ understandings of characters.

Practice: A teenager has a strained relationship with his parent. Consider using summary speech for a phone conversation between the two. Balance out that summary speech by allowing the teenager to rush to another, more elaborate and detailed call. What do the two call styles say about the teenager’s character?

Indirect speech is conversation without quotation marks and provides the sound and feel of a spoken conversation. This type of communication works well to move readers quickly from information to decision or discovery. Using this method of speech allows you to skate past the high-level stuff, such as gushing or fussing, while focusing on the pertinent pieces.

Practice: A former orphan remembers a mentor he had years ago at a pivotal moment in his life. Use indirect speech to share something important his mentor said to him — and switch to direct speech to put to immediate use. How does the indirect speech of the memory inform the direct speech, action, or motivation of the present?

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Direct speech is spoken by a character and (usually) offset with quotation marks, but direct speech in fiction is never used simply to communicate information. Rather, direct speech communicates structured emotion. That is, the delivery of information and characterization, exposition, setting, advancing action, foreshadowing, or reminding. In short, fiction dialogue must do two things at once.

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Practice: A woman travels to a strange land and encounters a man who is blatantly and unapologetically racist. Use direct speech to showcase his racism at play, how engrained it is in the communication and language of the racist man. Then, switch to internal thought to showcase the woman’s emotional processing of and utter disdain for such racism, though she responds cautiously. How does her direct speech differ from her internal thought? What does it say about her character?

Use Dialogue to Build Character

Allow yourself for sit for a moment with your character in mind so you can see your character clearly. Put yourself inside the character, to feel what they feel, to hear the thoughts that may go through their mind at a particular moment in your story. Which style of dialogue may work best to convey the character’s thoughts, feelings, or message for your scene? Why? Don’t be afraid to play with a few styles to find the one that fits best.


Sometimes the thoughts your characters have say more about them and their worldviews than their actions and even (or, especially) their dialogue can. Careful application of internal thought helps bring characters to life, and it comes in three forms: summary thought (I hated the way she ate.); indirect thought (Why didn’t she close her mouth when she chewed?); and direct thought (My gosh, there was food everywhere!).

Summary thought provides a glimpse of internalization and is often paired with direct speech so the reader gets to hear the internal responses a character has during a conversation. This type of thought works well when delivering slightly tangential information that informs character but would otherwise detract from the narrative if handled more directly.

Practice: A soldier working for a man she despises remains stoic even as she takes orders from him. She’s planning a revolt against him, but she’s clever and gives little away. He believes her to be loyal and delivers her a compliment. Use summary thought to qualify the woman’s perception of his compliment. What does her summary thought relay that the spoken conversation cannot?

Indirect thought gives readers a center for the action the character takes because, more often than not, characters do a whole lot more thinking than speaking. Indirect thought bridges the gap between summary and direct thought and exists in a sort of gray middle area where the character has space and time to sort through what they’re really thinking and how they make decisions.

Practice: The narrator of your story is working up to sharing a pivotal memory that informed their future: a conversation with their dad. Use indirect thought to backfill details so readers understand the tension inherent in the coming conversation before switching to dialogue for the actual chat. Were the fears, anxieties, excitements, or ponderances of the perspective character valid and grounded in reality? Or were they blown out of proportion when weighed against the actual conversation?

Direct thought eavesdrops on the character’s mind. It’s as if readers can see right into the characters’ heads and is close to stream-of-consciousness, especially in first-person and third-person narratives. When writing in these two perspectives, readers will center themselves behind your characters more fully if they’re able to hear their thoughts. But use this thought style sparingly, as authentic direct thought includes all the tangents and hemming our own thoughts include.

Practice: A character has returned from a long journey and is sharing the details of one stop along the way. He tells a friend he arrived in a city. Use direct thought to review the original intention of the city stop. Then, switch back to indirect thought or direct speech to pick up the action and describe what happened instead.

Use Thought to Build Character

Find a spot in your manuscript where a conversation is taking place. Consider your viewpoint character and what they may notice, consider, or otherwise mull over during the conversation. Write an observation your character would reasonably make. Then, write that observation in summary, indirect thought, and direct thought. Which thought style works best for the observation made? Why?


Action is the method through which the central conflict becomes a story. After all, what is conflict without resolution? Cause without consequence? Character without movement? The actions your characters take advance the story, but they also tell the reader something about the character without specifically naming that something.

Telling your reader of a character trait is less impactful than showing the reader the trait in action. Calling someone a coward is different than putting that character in a position to demonstrate cowardice. But it is in the showing that memorable stories are born. In this way, action speaks louder than words, in fiction as it does in life.

Practice: A young boy and his best friend are plagued by bullies. One day on his walk home, the boy passes by a darkened alley and spots his friend being brutalized by the bullies, though the bullies don’t spot the boy. Use whatever style of thought you want to build up to the decision the boy will make: intervene or run away. What was his decision? How did his thoughts get him to that decision?

Behind the major conflicts in your story lie all the little choices a character must make so readers understand who they are, understand their mission. And these small choices are often part of our persons, ingrained in the very fabrics of our natures, automatic, and may hide plainly in the text for reader discovery.

Practice: A woman thrust into a dystopian society is assigned the role of Incubator and must go through a monthly procreation ritual monthly and follow-up obstetrician visit. At one visit, the obstetrician offers to impregnate the woman directly outside of ritual and against the rules. If the woman becomes pregnant, she gets to stop the rituals and other forced work for the duration of the gestation period. Does the woman accept or decline the offer of pregnancy from the obstetrician? What thought process did she go through to reach that decision? And what action will be taken once the decision is made?

Sometimes, the choices people make don’t feel like choices at all. Rather, some choices feel like requirements of circumstance, like taking a low-paying job far below your worth just to collect a desperately needed paycheck. These actions of circumstance lead to a character’s spiraling, often downward, until they reach a rock-bottom state, or a promise of something to come, or a promise of something left behind.

Practice: A writer struggling to pay her living expenses faces eviction and financial ruin. She is hired under a nondisclosure agreement to complete a bestselling series by a well-known writer who has suffered a health tragedy and is unable to write for the foreseeable future. However, this job comes with strings attached, including temporary relocation to a less-than-desirable spot. How do the writer’s external financial factors affect her choice to accept the stringy, less-than-ideal NDA contract? Does she feel like she has a choice at all? What action does she ultimately take, and how does that action clue readers into a specific aspect of her personality or self-worth?

Use Action to Build Character

Think about your hero and the major flaw they have during a tough moment in the story when the hero must choose whether and how to act in a situation at hand. What factors weigh on your hero’s mind? What personality trait are you highlighting when you present the choice to your character? What action must the hero ultimately take to embody that personality trait and show your readers that fundamental side of themselves? Does the hero feel they actually have a choice?

TL;DR: Dialogue, Thought, and Action Help Readers Build Connections to Characters.

When revising your story, examine the conversations, internalizations, and externalizations present to determine whether and how well they show your readers specific parts of your characters’ personalities. Choose specific things your reader should know about your characters and ask yourself:

  • Can I show the reader these traits without telling them directly? How?
  • How will the characters’ actions differ from their internalizations?
  • What factors must my characters consider during an exchange?

Character development lies at the intersection of these aspects of characterization and more, so join me next week for discussion about appearance, interpretation by another character, and authorial interpretation.

So, do your characters always act in alignment with their speech and thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.

Happy writing.

<3 Fal

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Fallon Clark is the book pal who helps you tell your story in your words and voice using editorial, coaching, writing, and project management expertise for revision assistance, one-on-one guidance, and ghostwriting for development. Her writing has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine. Check out her website,, or connect with her on LinkedIn or Substack.

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