Tuesday, August 4, 2009

When My Characters Talk to Each Other...

...they sometimes don't say what they're supposed to say. And that really annoys me. It goes like this:

I'm writing a scene. This scene has a specific purpose. I need to convey to the reader that there is conflict between the two characters in the scene, and I need to show that conflict and what's behind it. I also need to set up the next scene. This scene also has to be structured so that my protagonist is active in it, making a forward move with his life. So I put my protagonist in a hallway with the other character, and tell them to talk.

They do not, however, discuss the point of contention between them. No, they chat about all sorts of stuff that's really pointless. Shut up and get on with it, I say to them, striking out all of the things they've just said.

Let's try it again, shall we, boys? Off my pen goes, skipping across the page, quotation marks and attributions left and right, and when I stop to read what I have wrought, I see that once more my two characters are chattering away about pleasant things that have nothing to do with this scene.

One basic problem, of course, is that I'm trying to have my characters speak like real people, who rarely (if ever) get to the point. Real conversations are almost never direct, and real people almost never bring up actual conflict. Why? Because they're real people, and conflict is really unpleasant.

A more clever writer than I could show the conflict in the spaces between the pleasantries (there's some very nice dialog between Charles Darnay and his uncle in "A Tale of Two Cities" that speaks volumes through what remains unsaid), but I'm stuck with my own level of cleverness and so I'd like to twist my characters' arms and just have them say the words I have planned for them.

What they keep saying is stuff like:

"Oh, that Gary isn't such a bad guy, once you get to know him. You should give him a break. I've known him for years."

"Really, well, if you can vouch for him, that's saying something."

"He likes you okay, I think. Hey, are you hungry? Wanna grab a bite?"

when what I really need them to say is more like:

"What's with you and Gary?"

"I hate that guy. I don't trust him."

"Why? He's one of my best friends."

"I don't trust you, either."

That's more like it. Though an even better (and far less "real world" realistic) way to do it would be for my protagonist to grab the other guy's arm and say, "I don't trust you or Gary." It's quicker, it's got physical action (way better than dialogue for showing character) and it gets to the heart of the conflict. It seems so obvious, too.

I have a theory that I write this kind of dialogue-that-goes-nowhere whenever I'm uncomfortable with the conflict between characters. I don't want them talking about this stuff. Which, perversely enough, means that the conflict is something I should have more of in the book.

Which brings me to the real point of this post: Are there ideas you shy away from in your stories? Do you think your stories would be better or worse if you pursued those ideas instead of avoiding them?


  1. Good questions, Scott. I love the examples you show, as well. Oftentimes I think we do avoid direct conflict between our characters because we either are uncomfortable with that conflict or because we think showing it directly might lead us out of the genre we're writing in - say, for instance, melodrama!

    I get uncomfortable with specific ideas in my books. In fact, I'm in the middle of a very uncomfortable scene right now. The idea is surrounded by the rest of the novel, so there's no way around it or any way to get out of it without killing the whole book. I've tried to write the scene by avoiding some of the direct conflict, but that didn't work either. Now that I've actually just sat down and faced my fear, this scene is becoming some of the best tension I've written in the book so far.

    I think when we allow ourselves the freedom to cut our character's binds and let them act in a FICTIONAL real way, then we start to get somewhere. Fiction isn't reality, and characters' dialogue and actions are never going to mirror reality. At least in my opinion. We are entertaining, and sometimes reality is just plain boring. So maybe your protagonist really would skirt around the issue for a minute or two, but then something would click in his head and he'd grab the antagonist's arm and say what he feels.

    In the end, writing this kind of tension is just plain tricky, and there's many ways to do it. So, good luck! I'm in the same boat. :)

  2. Sometimes I catch myself writing "around" a scene, instead of plunging into it. I usually won't notice it until later, when I read and wonder, "What's with all the hemming and hawing? Why don't my characters just get to the point?"

    I actually think your second bit of dialogue (the "I don't trust you, either" exchange) really works for me.

    It's short.

    What I like about writing dialogue is that I can make it so that my characters don't ramble.......which I have a tendency to do....if you haven't noticed.


  3. Occasionally I'll reread a scene and scoff at my prudishness. If a character's been beaten or raped, you simply can't have them smiling or dancing a jig in every scene. Darkness has a way of coming through.

  4. This happens to me all the time. My nature in life is towards conflict avoidance. So many times when I'm writing, I catch myself being too easy on my characters. I have to force myself to hold their feet to fire and deal with the uncomfortable situations.

  5. you can still convey SO MUCH conflict using subtexting with even regular dialogue. brandilyn collins book on Getting into Character is supposed to be great for this. good post, scott.

  6. Interesting post. I think sometimes the tension can be in what is unsaid, as long as the reader has been given enough hints to know this. Then the question is raised--why is the character avoiding the issue?

  7. Michelle: More often as I revise the current book I find myself going easy on my characters because I like them. I have to remind myself that they are not real people. I made them all up! They don't exist except to illustrate ideas.

    More important is the practice of, as you say, just sitting down and facing your fear. When I read Geraldine Brooks' March, I was struck by how she showed conflict and emotion so directly. She just said it, plainly and openly and to brilliant effect.

    Shelley: I do think our writing avoids topics when we writers are avoiding topics. Though of course sometimes there are just rambly characters in our books. I have one who plays a lot of games with words. Dostoyeveski had a prolix fellow whose name escapes me in Crime and Punishment.

    Justus: Yeah, dude. I can't believe some of the things I won't let myself talk about. I'm a terrible prude (though, no, you couldn't tell that by my foul language in personal emails), so I try to use symbolism instead of direct confrontation. Results are mixed.

    FictionGroupie: Our readers won't care about our characters if we aren't hard on them. Our job is to act as the Fates and the Furies in their lives, to give readers a reason to feel something.

    Jeannie and Tricia: I have scenes in this book where characters elide around topics deliberately, but the scene in question is not That Kind of Scene. I also think readers have a limit to the amount of discursive discourse they can put up with in a single book.

  8. Sometimes I think of how I react or what I would say in a given situation, and then make a character do exactly the opposite.

    Tricia has a good point: the unspoken tension can originate in other scenes that come before the scene in question, or it can culminate in scenes that follow.

  9. Rick, I LOVE that piece of advice about making your character do the opposite of what you would. That would hold up very well for several of my characters, and this will save me some headache and time. Thanks!

  10. LOL Great post!

    Lynnette Labelle

  11. Are there ideas you shy away from in your stories?

    Heck, yeah! I'm not as bad as I once was about shying away from things. In the early days of writing I was like "gee, if Mom reads this, I'm in trouble". I've moved past that stage of my life. Still, there are some things I prefer not to include in my writing.

    Do you think your stories would be better or worse if you pursued those ideas instead of avoiding them?

    I'm not sure. I mean, I've written about a character who's been raped, however, I didn't show the actual rape in the story, but rather the aftermath through the character's eyes, and the memories of that night. For me, the impact was greater by taking this route, then showing the actual act of violence.

    I think I write what I'm comfortable writing. I normally don't write sex scenes - I lead up to those moments and have the characters think back on those moments, but never go into full detail of what happens in the bedroom. I leave that up to the reader's imagination. And no, I'm not a prude. I just have never been one to really see the point of graphic sex scenes in books and/or movies. Sometimes, the slowly closing bedroom door, and the knowledge of what will happen, is enough. : )

    Great post. Definitely food for thought as I'm going through the revision process and dealing with tension/conflict between the characters. Add one more task to my revision list. : )


  12. Michelle,

    If I didn't do that then all my characters would sit around and blog all day ;-)

    He ha! Just kidding. They would work on manuscripts and tend to their families in a very middle-American fashion, too.

  13. LOL, good point! I tend to look at it from the perspective of morals and belief systems. I have yet to write a character that's like me at all, so it's easy to try and imagine how my characters would react in opposition to what I'd do.

  14. I think I just get lazy sometimes. So, instead of being accurate, I often opt for an easy way out, a less perfect description that's usually generic. When I'm at my best, I really take the time to visualize everything so that I can pick out the best details.

    As far as topics go, I don't think there's anything I shy away from too much...although I do hide behind the idea of fiction in the first place. Saying I write fiction allows me to be more honest.

    By the way, I like it when my characters start saying their own things for awhile. I always feel like I force my characters too much, and it feels like it flows better when they refuse to cooperate. Then, I go back and cut, but it still leaves the sense of a more natural pace.


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