Wednesday, October 6, 2021

How Do the Characters We Write Speak to Us?

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Characters are really nothing more than ghosts in the imagination of the writer. We start with the bones (structure), add muscles and organs (also known as goals, motivation, and conflict, as well as character traits), and finally, put flesh on everything and start pumping blood and oxygen. Sounds so simple when we break it all down, right? 

But what actually brings characters to life? It’s how they tell their story. 

We writers have only four real ways for a character to “talk” to us:
  1. Dialog
  2. Body language
  3. Action
  4. Thoughts (POV character only)
Motivation is WHY a person talks or moves or thinks. We’ll talk about that next month. This one is about HOW the character expresses and what it tells the reader. Each one is directly linked to what’s going on with that character. It’s a window into what the character feels and thinks and believes. 

First is how characters actually speak. No two people in the world, even ones in the same family or in the same culture, speak exactly the same as anyone else. Nor do we speak only one way. We each have a “mad” voice, or an “excited” voice, or a “stern” voice. We use “baby talk” with our small children and pets, “love talk” with someone we care about, and “explanation talk” when we’re teaching someone. Each one is very personal to us, as part of our entire range of voices. How does your character talk? And why? There MUST be a reason why or it doesn’t matter what they say.

Body Language
Next is body language. There are hundreds of books and classes on body language. But I really think, as I said in my blog in September, the easiest way to learn about body language is to pay attention to the people around us. How does Suzie look when she’s happy? Does the smile on her face light up the room? And how does George react to her happiness? Does he smile with her or does he fold his arms across his chest and frown? Does his body stiffen with anger? Does she notice and lose her smile?

Action itself is also significant and an amazing way to open that window into what’s going on in the character’s head. Having a character MOVE according to the emotion she or he is feeling allows an interaction with the setting (Inside? Outside? On a mountain? In a dungeon?), and gives the reader context. So, does Suzie dance down the hallway, with George turning away and walking out of the room, slamming the door behind him? Does Suzie drop into a chair and reach for a tissue? 

Remember, the WHY isn’t important right now—although it is in the story itself. Instead, we’re looking for the REACTIONS of the characters’ emotions. 

Last but not least, thoughts allow the reader to actually crawl inside characters, to deeply understand what they feel. A major part of this, however, is that the rule of thumb says thoughts can only be thought by the point of view character. So, if you’re not in George’s POV, you can’t know why he’s upset about Suzie’s happiness. IF we’re in Suzie’s POV, we can read her thoughts on the page and see that she’s worried that George didn’t want her to get pregnant, so he must not want the baby. But, if she’s wrong and he’s worried about her dying in childbirth, the reader won’t know that until a) he tells her or b) we’re in his POV and he thinks it.

Which, of course, creates the opportunity for wonderful conflict!

Bottom line
The four ways characters are able to express don’t really limit a writer. Instead, each is an amazing tool for us to deepen POV, and to make each sentence really count.

How do you use these four ways? Share a couple of sentences!


Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres—mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction—‚she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for almost twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at WWW.MARGIELAWSON.COM. Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at or WWW.SALLYHAMER.BLOGSPOT.COM

From Sally: I wish to express gratitude to the giants upon whose shoulders I stand and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Always an outstanding teaching post.

  2. I learned so much from your blog this morning, Sally! Thank you for writing and sharing. Keep up the good work.

    1. I'm so glad! This made so much sense to me, that I wanted to share it.


  3. From a non-fiction writer crossing the line into fiction writing, I appreciate being taught by one of the best, and through you, hearing the voices of those on whose shoulders you stand. Thank you!