I was thinking the other day that writing is like poker. Style is important (the quality of the writing), and we strive for it to be an ace in the hand… but that is not what this series of posts is about. Setting, Character and Plot are the other three aces a writer needs to have that ultimate winning hand. True, four twos can be a powerful hand, so the analogy breaks down at that point, but in so far as possible, we strive for four aces.
The fifth card, the joker, is a post I may attack at a later date. For the present, I want to focus on these three: setting, character and plot; and this time the topic is character.
If we understand that character is a matter of internal dynamics, we understand that the insides of a character may be full of doubt and conflict. Most of us are. Plenty of writers warn against cardboard characters. Cardboard characters supposedly lack depth because they are either too good or too evil without mitigating traits (internal doubt and conflict). That certainly can be true and it is worth being careful to be sure your characters are not cardboard. Even so, sometimes (some might say too often) cardboard characters do happen, but just to go against the grain, let me also say this: Sometimes, a character may very well be single minded, without any doubt or conflict, like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings who had a only one motivation: for his “precious.” Sauron, also, had no good (conflict) in him, but then he did not exactly play an active role in the story…
Consider this note from real life: Despite our best laid plans (which oft gang agley, like, for example, our New Year’s resolutions) it is important to understand that our actions are determined by our motivations (what we truly feel, believe and think important) and our motivations are determined by who we really are on the inside. It is no different in stories. Actions will always be determined (apart from some mind control) by what a person believes, feels about things and knows to be true. It will be determined by what they are capable of doing on the inside, not what the writer or reader wants to happen on the outside.
When your character walks into the room and finds the monster, what will they do? Will they run back the way they came, cower in the corner in the hope that they will not be seen, draw their sword? Will they freeze in panic, fear or indecision, or will they have the presence of mind to try and find a way out?
People will respond differently to the same situation. They will even see it differently, such as the six different versions of what happened when the two cars met head-on. The reason for those differences is on the inside of those people. In the same way, characters in a story will not act, respond, or process their experiences in the same way, nor should they.
Likewise, we should understand that dialogue is a result of those same internal dynamics. People sometimes wonder and ask how to make their dialogue “realistic.” Suggestions range from eavesdropping to examining your own conversations to seeing how other writers do dialogue. None of these suggestions are bad (other than possibly the eavesdropping one), but I would suggest instead taking a look at the characters themselves.
Dialogue, like action, comes from the inside-out. Who we are inside will determine what we notice, what we are likely to say about events and how we are likely to say it: gruff, kind, shy, loud, etc. It will also determine whether or not we keep our mouth shut. We all use the same words, in case you never noticed, but as with action, our dialogue will vary based on what we feel, believe about things, what is important to us, and what we know to be true…even when we are mistaken.
There is no substitute for a writer knowing their characters in the depths of their…character. In fact, I believe the better we know our creations, and the more we let their internal being show itself on the outside, the more “realistic” both their actions and dialogue will be.