Using Dialogue to Reveal Character

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about using dialogue to reveal character when writing fiction

Last night in class we began a discussion of Goethe’s Faust. It is an amazing work, and one that makes me wish to study harder when it comes to learning German. As it is, I must read it in translation. Interestingly enough, I actually have four different copies of this work.

As I was studying for class the other day, I begin to notice how Goethe reveals Dr. Faust’s character. He uses inner monologue, actions, and even dialogue to show us the character of Dr. Faust.

In the scene outside the city gates, Wagner and Faust are walking along having an animated conversation about the meaning of life. When suddenly an old peasant comes up to Faust and offers a jug of beer. This is because of work the doctor and his father did during the plague in which hundreds of lives were saved, at great peril to their own. The old peasant credits Faust with overcoming many a hard ordeal.

Others chime in, My health attend this man of worth, long to help others on this earth! Dr. Faust appears to be somewhat embarrassed by this outpouring of adulation, and he replies, Obeisance make to Him on high, who teaches help, whose help is nigh.

So, it appears that Faust is a humble person. Wagner, who continues walking with Faust comments on how great it must be, and how proud it must make Faust to receive such praise and homage from the citizenry. But Faust replies, that it was despite their efforts that people recovered, and that no matter what they tried patients kept on dying. In fact, he confesses, that some of their treatments probably hastened the death of some of the patients.

What is presented, then is a public face that appears humble, and a private face that is full of doubts. Faust even comments on this duality in another part of the text. Even in translation, Goethe’s strong characterization shines through.

If you can find a nice modern translation (or better yet if you can read the original German) you may want to look at this poem with a fresh eye to characterization. It just may be the perfect thing to read today.

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