Are Your Characters Bantering or Bickering?

This week’s video explains the important difference between characters who are bantering and characters who are bickering—and how to write both.

Video Transcript:

I love witty banter. I mean, really, who doesn’t, right? A little playful, quick-witted dialogue can season up any scene. Tell me there’s bantering in a book or movie, and I’m going to be all over it. Banter kind of gives us the best of both worlds: we get a nice, sharp sense of conflict, but it’s seasoned with an overall geniality. These characters may be arguing with each other, but, really, we get the sense that, deep down, they still like each other.

It’s in the second half of this formula that a lot of authors seem to get it wrong. And this is where we enter into the dark side of bantering, which is bickering. The fun adventure movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow presents a great example. Somewhere deep in the movie when the two lead characters are facing down the climax, one of them groans and says, “Could we just for once die without all this bickering?” The irony here is that, although the relationship between these two characters is, in fact, meant to manifest bantering, what it actually demonstrates is bickering.

So what’s the difference? Why is bantering good and bickering bad? And how can you tell which one you’ve got going on in your story?

The difference is that bantering is, at its heart, good-natured; bickering is not. Bantering is light-hearted, fun, smart, and makes characters seem all that much more likable. Bickering is just petty sniping, born of bad attitudes that will end up making readers feel they would definitely not like to meet your characters in real life.

To tell the difference in your own story, always ask yourself the following questions:

1. Are these characters intending what they’re saying in all seriousness?

2.  Are the other characters receiving it all seriousness?

3. Is it funny—or at least amusing?

4. Is it mean-spirited?

Nothing wrong with dialogue that gets the “wrong” answer to any of these, but you can pretty much bet it’s not playful banter.

Tell me your opinion: Any witty banter in your work-in-progress?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Another nice post. 🙂 I agree it’s annoying when characters bicker all of the time, it comes off as nasty and doesn’t make them likable. There is a discernible difference between picking on each other in a playful, teasing way and arguing. That’s not to say that they should get along all of the time, but they shouldn’t fight constantly either.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      We can have conflict in banter, even seemingly aggressive conflict, such as what we basically find in Han and Leia’s dialogue throughout most of The Empire Strikes Back, in which they’re making hard jabs at each other constantly. But their dialogue doesn’t make them less likable, because viewers sense that, really, what’s going on is that they’re just trying to resist their mutual attraction to one another. It works mostly because we also get the sense that the characters admire each other all the more because of their respective abilities to dish it out verbally. Character attitude is an important factor in determining the line between bantering and bickering.

  2. 2 of my main characters are the definition, you could say, of witty banter (I hope, at least 😉 ). It would seem like they are bickering on the outside, but what I hope I convey through the writing is that they actually do like each other.
    2 other of my characters are sort of a mix between banter and bicker. I would say, especially after reading your post, that they lean more towards bickering, but hopefully in a way that wouldn’t completely annoy readers.

    Thanks for the post, I’m in the revising stage of my WIP now and am curious to go back and see if I can find differences between these two for my characters 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Whether or not the bickering comes across as annoying all comes down to intent. As long as there’s an appropriate reason for the characters’ actions (and it’s moving the plot forward), all is well!

    • You might want to read The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar, about 70% of the dialogue (well it feels like 70%) is delightful bickering between two fairies who got run out of Scotland for creating music inspired by The Clash (among other things).

  3. Mean-spirited bickering is not what I want. Loving banter is my goal.

    In my current project, the banter between the protagonist and his Dragon (or as the Dragon sees it, between the Dragon and his pet prey-animal) is in my opinion the most fun part of the story. I fear my readers will be tempted to skip everything else just to read the banter scenes.

    I am beginning the next draft of the fourth book in the series, which I refer to as the buddy journey. The protagonist and Dragon have an adventure traveling cross-country (on the ground because the Dragon is injured and cannot fly). My challenge is to maintain a balance between the fun of the banter and the need for action, suspense, and conflict. When these two characters are together, it is easy to lose control of the story.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Sounds like you’ve found that “best part” of your book I talked about in last week’s video! Always great when you know you’ve got any aspect of your book that is so good you’re worried readers will be *too* eager to get back to it.

  4. Kay Anderson says

    Nice post! I never thought of the difference between bantering and bickering. My characters get in a couple arguments too, some worse than others. I guess arguments involving people like my character Madeline Clark who be bickering. She ‘s so snobby and a spoiled brat. Lol :p. But arguments involving for example Clara-Marie and one of her sisters would be bantering because they really do like each other. Demetrius and Jessica get in a few arguments too, but their simply hilarious; and as you said about bantering, they really don’t mean what they say. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Although both bantering and bickering can fall under the “argument” header, an argument can also just be straight-up, plot-advancing conflict. We can write an argument that is neither bantering nor bickering.

  5. I think you may have accidentally mixed up the two words in this one sentence… “The irony here is that, although the relationship between these two characters is, in fact, meant to manifest bantering, what it actually demonstrates is bickering.” Because the two demonstrate bantering during the film, not bickering, right?

    Haha, sorry it just stuck out to me, I love that movie. Anyways, great article, I like the rules you’ve set up to determine the difference. :]

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Actually, that is correct. I feel like this film tried to achieve bantering, but ended up falling into bickering instead.

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