Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bring Your Characters to Life with Character Dictionaries

by Suzanne Lieurance, the Working Writer's Coach

Before you start writing your first or next novel, take some time to create a character dictionary for each of your characters. You can add to these dictionaries as you’re writing your first draft of the story. These dictionaries will help you bring each of your characters to life.

What is a Character Dictionary?

A character dictionary is a list of words and phrases that reveals how your character uses language. These words will help you make your characters as authentic within their identities and worlds as possible. For example, let’s suppose you’re writing a book about a 10-year-old boy growing up among the surfing community in southern California. This boy’s vocabulary would probably be much different from a 10-year-old boy growing up at a prep school in New England. Here are some words that might be included in the dictionary for your surfer character:

• Dawn patrol
• Leash or Leggy
• Foamies
• Going Off
• Locked In
• A-Frame
• Getting Worked

Just imagine how these terms used in your character’s dialogue could help set him apart from other characters in your story and bring him to life for readers.

How to Find Words and Phrases for Your Character Dictionaries

So how do you find words and phrases to add to your character dictionaries if you’re creating characters who are very different from yourself?

Well, you do a little research, of course. And it can be fun!

Read books by other authors whose characters match yours in some ways.

Go online and google terms that apply. For example, when I googled “surfing terms” all sorts of online surfing dictionaries popped up.

Rent movies that include characters like yours and make notes about the words and phrases the characters use.

Visit online forums that apply and read comments in these forums and jot down specific terms and use of language you find there.

Find “meetup” groups in your area that your character would most likely join. For example, if your character is an artist, attending a local meetup group for artists will help you learn some of the terminology artists are using these days. You can find all sorts of meetup groups by visiting

Sit in the park or go to a coffee shop and listen to the way people speak. Parks are perfect if you need to get a feel for how moms today speak to their kids or how kids speak to each other. Coffee shops will help you learn what teens, young adults, and business professionals (who often do business in coffee shops) are saying these days.

Character dictionaries can be especially helpful if you wish to write in the voice of a character from a race and ethnicity different from your own. Your character dictionaries should include:

• Individual use of diction (word choice) and syntax (sentence structure)
• Vocabulary
• Metaphoric language
• Idioms, sayings, and dialogue tags

For more tips and information about creating powerful character dictionaries, read Manuscript Makeover, Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore by Elizabeth Lyon.

Try it!

Suzanne Lieurance is an author, freelance writer, certified professional life coach and writing coach, speaker and workshop presenter. She has written over two dozen published books and hundreds of articles for newspapers, magazines, and other publications. She publishes The Morning Nudge, a free e-mail for writers delivered every weekday morning.


Unknown said...

Great post with ideas that just kicked me in the butt..why haven't I done this before??

Karen Cioffi said...

Suzanne, great post. I've done the character sheets, creating a list of characteristics and history, but hadn't heard of a character dictionary. Thanks for the writing tip!

Suzanne Lieurance said...

Hey, Karen,

The character profiles and character interviews are great, too. These dictionaries are another great tool for fiction writers. Happy writing!

Suzanne Lieurance said...

Hi, Guy,

I think you'll have fun with the character dictionaries and it's amazing how much they can enhance your characters. Happy writing!

Nancy I. Sanders said...

I love this idea, Suzanne! An added benefit is it really really gets us immersed in knowing our character even better.

Suzanne Lieurance said...

Hi, Nancy,

Yes, it does help us get to know our characters even better. It's really kind of fun to create these dictionaries, too. I make them part of my project notebook for whatever book or story I'm working on. Thanks for your comment.

Melinda Brasher said...

This would really help your characters not all sound the same. Great tip.

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