Characters Quoting Literature

On the technique of characters quoting text within dialogue, either fictional or from real life.

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The characters in stories have a tool at their disposal that can immediately help define or amplify a certain feeling or atmosphere needed in a scene. This tool is characters within stories quoting literature. Whether it is a quote from a well-known text, or a fictional story, or piece of within-world lore, it can fully help drive home a desired emotional response in a reader. It can, when used correctly, effortlessly resonate a feeling within a scene, whether that feeling be one of excitement or dread, or of something unsettling and sinister.

‘I wonder if it hurts to live.’ She spoke almost under her breath. ‘And if they have to try. And whether, if they could choose between, they would not rather die.’

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

This quote, spoken by a character named Clem in The Ballroom by Anna Hope, is from Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘I Measure Every Grief I Meet.’ In these lines, Dickinson ponders whether the sufferer of great grief would consider the choice of either living in pain, or committing suicide.
Clem, an asylum patient and companion to the story’s female protagonist, loves reading and takes great comfort in getting swept away in stories and poetry. However, the doctor at the asylum believes Clem’s knowledge of literature is possibly the key to her insanity and makes the decision to confiscate all her books. In her small protest, Clem refuses to eat and barely talks. When she quotes this section of Emily Dickenson’s sombre poem, it is a powerful moment. The chosen quote encapsulates the bleak reality of Clem’s state of utter powerlessness. This horrible scene in the novel is certainly made a whole lot stronger, a whole lot more compelling, with the help of the quote, which is left to hang in the reader’s mind, with no further explanation needed.

Very early on in the novel Half-Bad by Sally Green, Jessica tells her younger brother, Nathan, a fictional story of a new born baby.

’The woman approaches the baby in the drawer and the Hunter joins her because he wants to see this strange, unwanted thing.

‘Even asleep the baby is horrible and ugly, with its puny little body, grubby looking skin and spikey black hair.

‘The woman asks, “Does he have a name yet?”


Half-Bad by Sally Green

This is only a small extract of the story Nathan is told by his older sister. At first, we don’t realise the baby kept in the drawer is Nathan, the protagonist, but as the story unravels, it not only communicates how Nathan doesn’t know the extent of its truth and how his childhood, as a half-witch, could have been extremely cruel, but it also works as a clever method of displaying how fiercely Jessica despises her half-brother. The whole scene, which starts as an older sister sitting on her younger brother’s bed telling him a story, leaves you feeling incredibly unsettled. This story within a story, this piece of fictional literature, is successful as a powerful mood-creating device, as well as a tool for providing further information about the characters.

In Nod by Adrian Barnes, each new chapter starts with a sub-heading; a quote taken from The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. The use of these consistent quotes ties in well with the main character’s interest in words and phrases that were once heavily used, but are no longer in circulation. They feel as though he has placed them at the start for us to read, since he is telling us the story. For me as a reader, this worked well to heighten my apprehension at what was to come. The quotes are not directly related to the story, which was effective because they did not become spoilers.

If you are planning on using an extract of literature in your own writing, please fully check-out that you do so in a law-abiding way without breaking copyright, and seek permission from the copyright holder in writing if any quote is not your own or public domain. There are very complicated rules to this so it is worth doing extensive research first. Of course, you can just create your own fictional quote, and then you can do what you like. Either way, certainly play with this technique. Practice does make perfect, but keep practicing, because if you execute this in just the right way, it adds some serious depth to your scene, your characters, your whole story, and therefore your readers’ enjoyment.

Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.

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