What They Say, is What They Are: Characterising Through the use of Dialogue.

Below is an essay I wrote during the second term of my master’s degree that received a mark of eighty. It examines how the dialogue in Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Rachel Cusk’s Outline is used to characterise. If you read the novel, or watched the show, this may shed some light on why you found Marianne so difficult to like, and why Connell is mostly the opposite. Thanks for reading. Enjoy.

Since the beginning of its history, the novel has been subject to critical examination by critics and novelists alike, in the attempt to identify its key aspects. Several aspects reoccur and are given the status as essential, including character, but seldom mentioned is the dialogue that is in itself, a key part of any character. Allot identified the importance of dialogue to character, asserting that ‘dialogue, as one of the novelist’s aids to characterisation, certainly deserves a section to itself as one of the most exacting techniques of fiction’ (1959:207). Henry James warned that ‘…dialogue organic and dramatic…is…an uncanny and abhorrent thing, not to be dealt with on any terms’ (James in Allott, 1959:208). Flaubert echoed his feelings years before when he called it ‘…a colossal task…’ (Flaubert in Allott, 1959:208). Two modern examples of novelists attempting to achieve the ‘exacting technique’ of characterising through the use of dialogue can be found in Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Rachel Cusk’s Outline.

The structure of a novel is one of the first and most important choices a novelist makes, ‘…you can’t see it, but it determines the edifice’s shape and character’ (Lodge, 1992:216). The structure of a novel is decided by the novelists’ aim, and O’Connell neatly sums up each when she says: ‘if Rachel Cusk has gut renovated the novel, Sally Rooney has stripped it for parts’ (2019:online). Normal People consists of 18 chapters, each delivered in turn from the perspective of its protagonists, Connell and Marianne, and titled according to the amount of time that has passed since the previous chapter. Further within the structure is a pattern of time-shifts, with each chapter beginning in the present, moving to a flashback, then returning to the present. The simple consistency of the structure Rooney uses creates a balance that permeates through all aspects of the novel, including in its prose and dialogue.

Raphael said ‘dialogue in a novel is like stained glass, the surrounding prose is there to frame and support it’ (2010:online). The prose of Normal People achieves what Raphael suggests as it intertwines with the dialogue to contextualise it. When Connell tells Marianne he loves her, the prose immediately takes over from the dialogue to explain, ‘she has never believed herself fit to be loved by any person…that was it, the beginning of my life’ (Rooney, 2018:44). Typically the reader would expect to see Marianne’s response in the dialogue and a sense of finality achieved in the chapter. Instead, the chapter ends with Marianne’s internal thought and several pages of the next chapter pass until Connell thinks back to the same moment: ‘it just happened, like drawing your hand back when you touch something hot… was it true?’ (Rooney, 2018:48).

Rooney’s use of a single perspective per chapter is performative, forcing the reader to align with one protagonist’s emotions and thoughts for the period of a chapter. The switch to the other protagonist’s perspective in the following chapter then fully contextualises each situation the protagonists share together and the reader gains full understanding of both characters. By consistently resetting the balance in the prose, perspective and time-shifts, the reader is given total omniscience, allowing every part of the protagonists’ characters to be ‘…understood completely by the reader…’ via the exposure of the ‘…inner as well as their outer life…’ (Forster, 1927:57).

A balanced, formulaic structure is not the only method available to a novelist when writing dialogue. As Lodge says, ‘the golden rule of fictional prose is that there are no rules – except the ones that each writer sets for him or herself’ (Lodge, 1992:94). Cusk does away with balance in Outline as she aims to achieve ‘…a bit of life…where your concept of reality fails and is dismantled’ (Beyond Borders, 2015:4min 28). She creates a dismantled world through the dissociated protagonist and narrator, Faye, and in her subsequent narrative, where ‘…facts are drawn in a kind of indeterminate narrative pencil, as if at any moment they might blur or be rubbed out’ (Myerson, 2014:online). Each of the novel’s 10 chapters are delivered from Faye’s perspective and each, excluding the third, are filled with the conversations that she partakes in.

Midway through the novel, Faye meets the characters Paniotis and Angeliki for dinner. Angeliki first tells the story of Olga, who she ‘…found it difficult to believe was a woman at all’ (Cusk, 2014:106-107) and of the stylish Berlin women who ‘…ran their families like successful corporations…’ (p.111). Angeliki then returns to her story about Olga after Paniotis tells the story about ‘…the first time he had taken his children anywhere on his own’ (Cusk, 2014:115) in the middle of her story. Angeliki delivers each story in three installations since the waiter interrupts each time, eventually leaving the restaurant having ‘…lost track of the time’ (Cusk, 2014:129) after the waiter looms near the table for the last time.

Cusk employs a dialogue-heavy method with little narrative or prose intervention, the result of which is near-monologues and flashbacks from the secondary characters as they talk about their lives. By eschewing narrative interruption, both Paniotis and Angeliki bombard the reader with information regarding their history, opinions and thoughts which makes them vivid for the single chapter they appear for. Cusk also draws attention to the length of the characters’ speech through the waiter’s interruption. Faye’s lack of contribution as protagonist and narrator, and the excess of dialogue from Paniotis and Angeliki contributes to Cusk’s characterising of her as a dissociated character since she makes no impact on the dialogue or prose.

The style in which a character’s speech is delivered is another technique the novelist can use in characterising through dialogue. One effective way of achieving a style of speech in a character is by using speech tags. As DBC Pierre notes: ‘across the length of a story readers come to know a character by the style of their speech, by idiosyncrasies’ (2011:online).

Marianne’s dialogue has few speech tags making her appear ‘…harsh…’ (Rooney, 2018:6) in school, but blasé amongst her middle-class university friends. During the scenes in her familial home, her brother, Alan, exercises an abusive control over her. He asks her ‘where are you going?…’ (Rooney, 2018:9), ‘where’s out?’ (pg.9) and ‘…you don’t have any friends, do you?’ (pg.9) to which she responds ‘out’ (pg.9), ‘just out for a walk…’ (pg.9), and ‘no, I don’t’ (pg.9). Alan’s excess of interrogatives depicts his need for control over his younger sister, whilst Marianne’s sharp, monosyllabic sentences that contain no speech tags are indicative of her use of emotional detachment as a defence mechanism. Her emotional detachment is an essential aspect of her character and the reflection of it in her style of speech draws attention to the importance of the relationship between the two protagonists for Marianne, since she only has open, long dialogues with Connell.

Connell provides a contrast to Marianne since his dialogue is littered with filler speech tags. During the April 2012 chapter, their relationship develops into what Connell later calls ‘…a perfect time…’ (Rooney, 2018:233) and they have ‘…gratifying…’ (p.97) conversations. The chapter is foregrounded by Connell’s fumbling response to Peggy’s suggestion of a threesome: ‘…we can what?…he laughs at his own stupidity. Right, he says. Right, sorry…I missed that…’ (Rooney, 2018:100). His stuttering response emphasises how fluently he reassures Marianne about her family 4 pages later, when he says: ‘….they’re your family, they love you’ (Rooney, 2018:104). The narrator later says that ‘it was in Connell’s power to make her happy…with other people she seemed so independent and remote, but with Connell she was different, a different person’ (Rooney, 2018:105). Marianne’s limited speech tags and Connell’s excess are indicative of their characters, but the variation in the number of tags also reflects their character growth and the growth of their relationship, which is vital to who they both are.

The style in which the dialogue is delivered in Outline also plays a part in the characterising of Faye and the secondary characters. Faye switches between reported and direct speech throughout the novel. When the reader first meets Ryan, Faye tells the vast majority of his life story through reported speech, with the inclusion of snippets of direct speech from him. These snippets include him awkwardly asking a non-English speaking waitress: ‘are any of these beers… non-alcoholic?’ (Cusk, 2014:36) and saying ‘…It’s a shame she didn’t have the beer, though. You can get that everywhere at home’ (p.37). He also says to the waitress, ‘oh, run away with me…’ (Cusk, 2014:42) and attempts to justify his behaviour by explaining: ‘my wife eyeballs the fellas, when she’s out…I’d be disappointed if she didn’t’ (p.45).

Subject is the most transparent way a novelist can characterise through dialogue. The protagonists’ conversations in Normal People centre on their attempt to understand and communicate their feelings to one another, which has led Rooney to joke that: ‘”…critics have noticed that my novels are just nineteenth-century novels dressed up in contemporary clothing”’ (Collins, 2018:online). The focus of the dialogue on their relationship places an emphasis on its importance to the characters, but there are subtler subjects in the novel that characterise Connell and Marianne as individuals.

Delistraty says ‘the politics of Rooney’s worlds define her characters’ personalities and interactions…’ (2019:online) and this is relevant for Connell who shows an interest in political ideologies throughout the novel. During school he tells Marianne to read ‘…The communist manifesto…’ (Rooney, 2018:13) and questions why they do not ‘…give away…’ (p.34) an empty house ‘…three times the size…’ (p.34) of his own. In university, he calls a poetry reading ‘…culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys…’ (Rooney, 2018:221). Marianne shows an interest in philosophy, particularly leaning toward existentialism. Connell points out that Marianne reads ‘…Swann’s Way…’ (Rooney, 2018:25) in school. Later, Marianne ‘….asks Joanna if she finds it strange… to exchange…blocks of her extremely limited time on this earth for the human invention known as money’ (Rooney, 2018:108).

The intellectual subjects the characters talk about rarely delve into any serious discussion because each is a manifestation of their insecurities. Connell’s interest in political ideology relates to his insecurity regarding his social class, which emanates from his family. His mother tells him Marianne’s mother ‘…might consider us a little bit beneath her station’ (Rooney, 2018:51), mockingly calls him ‘…comrade…’ (p.47) when he votes for ‘the communist Declan Bree’ (p.46) in the Irish election, whilst his grandmother scoffs and says ‘…good enough for you…’ (p.47) after he has applied to Trinity University. Marianne’s interest in existentialism relates directly to her passivity which stems from her familial abuse. The mention of her reading ‘…Swann’s Way…’ (Rooney, 2018:25) in school purposefully draws comparisons to its narrator, who feels lost in time, craves praise from his mother, but ultimately feels like a nuisance. Marianne’s discussion of time as a concept whilst idly shopping makes the conversation appear as commonplace, but she quickly closes down when Joanna says: ‘I like you the way you are’ (Rooney, 2018:109).

The brief dialogues on their intellectual interests are indicative of the characters desire to talk about the issues that are affecting them, but their self-consciousness prevents them from having meaningful dialogues. The subjects subtly characterise them as individuals whilst the main narrative and dialogues focus on their relationship, characterising them in relation to one another. Marianne’s decision to ‘…depend on people for everything…’ (Rooney, 2018:262) and get a job in the ‘…real world…’ (p.143) draws attention to her character growing out of her existential dread to exist in society. Connell’s unmentioned application and subsequent acceptance onto a MFA in New York is indicative of the diminishing self-consciousness about his social class that has plagued him throughout the novel. The characters grow as individuals and they grow together.

The subject matter of each conversation in Outline relates back to the issues concerning Faye, namely that of domestic structures since the characters discuss their histories through marriage, divorce and family. As is the style of Outline, Cusk employs indirect methods of characterising Faye through the subject matter. During the first seminar Faye teaches, it is foregrounded that of each of the 10 seminar characters, ‘…no two of them shared any characteristic of age, dress, or social type’ (Cusk, 2014:133). Faye asks each character to then talk about ‘…something they had noticed on the way here’ (Cusk, 2014:134) and by the end of the chapter, 9 separate stories have been discussed, ranging from dancing to rioting to affairs. Throughout the stories the characters interrupt to interpret and question each other’s stories. When Georgeou says ‘…a story might merely be a series of events we believe ourselves to be involved in, but on which we have absolutely no influence at all’ (Cusk, 2014:137), Clio argues ‘it is surely not true…’ and says that each day ‘…has its own themes and events and cast of characters’ (p.137-138).

What Cusk is drawing attention to, as exemplified by Clio’s disagreement with Georgeou and in the variety of characters and stories, are the two social structures that Faye is caught between. There is the familial social structure she has escaped, where she must be in control of her and her children’s lives. There is also the unstructured existence she leads in Greece, where she refuses to make decisions or be depended upon. Indirectly, under the guise of what the secondary characters had seen, Faye is examining each structure, which is the main issue and cornerstone of her character. Faye’s inevitable return home to her children and a new familial structure without her husband is highlighted when her son calls, interrupting the seminar to tell her he is lost. Cusk also uses the last character to speak during the seminar to humorously address her indirect delivery of Faye’s character, when she says ‘she didn’t know what I thought had been achieved here, and she wasn’t at all that interested in finding out’ (Cusk, 2014:158).

Dialogue is still ‘…one of the most exacting techniques of fiction…’ (Allot, 1959:207) today because character is still one of the most important aspects of the novel. As with any aspect of the novel, it has to cohere with the whole. As Smith says: ‘what is universal and timeless in literature is need – we continue to need novelists who seem to know and feel, and who move between these two modes of operation with wondrous fluidity’ (2009:39-40). Cusk may ‘…gut-renovate…’ (Thurman, 2017:online) her novel via experiment and Rooney may ‘…strip…’ (O’Connell, 2019:online) her novel back through simplicity, but each is a novelist that ensured the structure, style and subject all aligned in the dialogue to achieve the type of characters they wanted.


Allott, M. (1959, reprinted 2014) Novelists on the Novel, edited by C. George Sandulescu and Lidia Vianu. Bucharest: Contemporary Press.

Beyond Borders. (2015) Beyond Borders – Rachel Cusk Outline – BBIF 2015. [Online video] [Accessed on 6th May 2020] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yyU4ZPTur0

Collins, L. (2018) Sally Rooney Gets In Your Head. The New Yorker. [Online] 31st December. [Accessed on 6th May 2020] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/01/07/sally-rooney-gets-in-your-head

Cusk, R. (2014) Outline. London: Faber & Faber.

Delistraty, C. (2019) ‘Sally Rooney’s Politics of Millennial Resignation’. Vulture. [Online] April 11th. [Accessed on 06th May 2020] https://www.vulture.com/2019/04/sally-rooneys-normal-people-is-politically-complacent.html

Forster, E.M. (1927, reprinted 1990) Aspects of The Novel. London: Penguin Books.

Lodge, D. (1992) The Art of Fiction. London: Penguin Books.

Myerson, J. (2014) ‘Outline review – Rachel Cusk’s Greek chorus enthrals and appals’. The Guardian. [Online] 7th September. [Accessed on 28th April 2020] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/07/outline-review-rachel-cusk-daring-greek-chorus

O’Connell, M. (2019) ‘Sally Rooney Strips the Novel for parts’. The Cut. [Online] April 12th. [Accessed on 28th April 2020] https://www.thecut.com/2019/04/review-sally-rooney-second-novel-normal-people.html

Pierre, DBC. (2011) ‘How to write fiction: DBC Pierre on convincing dialogue’. The Guardian. [Online] 19th October. [Accessed on 6th May 2020] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/oct/19/how-to-write-fiction-dbc-pierre

Raphael, F. (2010) ‘Frederic Raphael’s top 10 talkative novels’. The Guardian. [Online] 10th March. [Accessed on 28th April 2020] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/mar/09/frederic-raphael-talkative-novels

Rooney, S. (2018) Normal People. London: Faber & Faber.

Smith, Z. (2009, reprinted 2011) Changing my Mind. London: Penguin Books.

Thurman, J. (2017) ‘Rachel Cusk gut-renovates the novel’. The New Yorker. [Online] July 31st. [Accessed on 28th May 2020] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/08/07/rachel-cusk-gut-renovates-the-novel

Wood, J. (2008, reprinted 2019) How Fiction Works. London: Vintage.

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