Dialogue For Lonely Characters

I’m currently working my way through my serial novel, Razor Mountain. One of the challenges in the first part of the book is that the main character, Christopher, is trapped in the wilderness and completely alone. This idea of a character completely cut off from everyone else is not a new one. Disconnected characters can show up in different genres and styles of work, from the classic shipwrecked sailor to the lost astronaut to the post-apocalyptic horror survivor.

Humans are social creatures. Characters interact with one another, and this is a vital part of most stories. So when a character winds up completely alone, certain storytelling tools are removed from our authorial arsenals. Dialogue is a great way to externalize the internal feelings and thought processes of the character, and when they have no one to talk to, those feelings and thoughts are harder to get across.

Something I’ve been considering lately, dealing with my own disconnected character, are the ways to achieve some of the same effects of dialogue, even when the character doesn’t have anyone else to talk to. Here are a few forms of dialogue for lonely characters.

Inner Thoughts

The simplest answer is to get directly into the character’s head and view their thoughts directly. The character’s thoughts may be rendered in italics and written out in much the same way you’d write dialogue.  That style can come off as pretty heavy-handed, and it isn’t as popular as it once was. Depending on your audience, your readers may or may not have much appetite for it.

A less in-your-face version of this is free indirect speech, where the character’s thoughts are described as a part of the narration. This can work in both a first-person and close third-person point of view, and gets the character’s thoughts across while giving the reader less of the feeling that they’re being internally verbalized within the character’s head.

Journals and Logs

I recently read The Martian, which is a master class in the use of many different viewpoints and narrative strategies. The protagonist, Mark Watney, is stranded alone on Mars and spends a large portion of the book with nobody to talk to.

The Martian makes liberal use of logs as a way for Watney to narrate these parts of the story (as well as a useful dramatic pacing device). Journals or formal logs are an opportunity for a character to describe what they’ve done, what they’re planning, and how they feel about it.

The obvious downside of journals and logs is that they have to make sense for the character and the story. For Watney, an astronaut, the use of logs make sense. However, he’s not going to stop and write a log entry in the middle of a frantic action sequence. If he’s going to describe that in a log, it will probably need to be after-the-fact.

Furry Friends and Mannequins

Humans are self-centered. We see ourselves in everything. We love to anthropomorphize animals, and will even anthropomorphize inanimate objects. A lonely character will often be all too happy to socialize with a dog, cat, or monkey if no human companions are available. Even if there isn’t a pet ready at hand, a character who is desperate enough may find an object to be their friend.

In the movie version of “I am Legend,” the protagonist, Robert Neville, has a dog that serves as his friend and companion. However, I thought the most interesting scenes in the movie are the ones involving the mannequins. Neville has posed them. He talks to them, and has even assigned them simple personalities. When he eventually finds them out of place, moved by some unknown person or force, he reacts as though they have betrayed him.

Similarly, the character Chuck Noland in Castaway is stranded on a desert island, where he eventually “befriends” a volleyball with a crude face painted on it. He names it Wilson, and is distraught when it is lost in an accident.

These strategies are interesting, but harder to pull off effectively. Most people are fairly understanding of a person who talks to their pets, but will start to wonder about the character when those conversations get serious, or the human seems to expect any meaningful communication back from the animal. A person who has too many serious conversations with inanimate objects will be seen as spiraling into delusion.

Sometimes, instead of looking outward for a conversational partner, we turn inward. Most of us have probably talked to ourselves here or there. Most of us don’t make a habit of it, however.

A character who talks to themselves now and then can seem relatively reasonable. A character who talks to themselves continuously tends to be seen similarly to the character who talks to the mannequins.

The Humor of the Situation

Injecting some levity into these conversations can help, as a way for the character to wink at the reader and say “Hey, I know this looks a little crazy…”

The fact of the matter is that humans are social. We need contact with other humans. A character who is completely alone for a significant amount of time, especially in a stressful situation, is reasonably likely to see their mental health deteriorate. That can be a dark place for the character to be, and a weight on the reader as well.

If the character can crack a joke here or there, do something silly or absurd, or even just blow off some steam as a way of acknowledging their frustrating situation, it can help to reset the mood, in a way that allows both character and reader to endure yet more suffering.

In The Martian, Mark Watney faces death on an almost daily basis, but he also complains about the bad TV shows and music left behind by his crew-mates. Those little jokes humanize him as much as his suffering and his ingenuity and determination.

Dialogue is Still King

It turns out your character doesn’t need friends to make compelling dialogue, but it sure does help. The options outlined here can help to fill the holes in the story when dialogue just isn’t possible for your disconnected character, but ultimately there’s no perfect substitute for the real thing.

Having to write a character who spends an extended amount of time alone has helped me to appreciate the powers of dialogue. Hopefully my protagonist, Christopher, will find his way back to civilization soon, if only so he’ll have someone to talk to.

Mapping Dialogue

Dialogue is a cornerstone of fiction. It’s also one of the hardest things to write well. Dialogue isn’t like real life conversation. Let’s face it—real conversation is often not that interesting to someone not directly involved, and doesn’t always serve a purpose. Dialogue in fiction can’t afford to be dull and meandering. It has to be pulling its weight.

Mapping dialogue is a way to plan, analyze, or fix dialogue by looking at what it contributes to the story. It’s all about deciding what the dialogue should accomplish, and then figuring out how it can accomplish it. It won’t turn dull dialogue into snappy conversation—but it will ensure that the dialogue is at least moving the story forward.

Dialogue mapping can be used when outlining or planning, to make sure the dialogue achieves a narrative goal. It can also be used in revision to tighten up dialogue that isn’t getting the job done.

Finding Purpose

Dialogue, like anything included in a story, should have a purpose. If it has no purpose, it can be safely left out, the way you’d leave out a character’s irrelevant breakfast, or that bathroom break they took between scenes.

To understand the purpose of a given conversation, you need to look at the state of the story before and after. What does the conversation change? In what way does it move the story forward? You can think of this in terms of how the dialogue contributes to the MICE quotient thread that contains it. The conversation itself may also be a small thread of its own. Either way, it needs to contribute to the bigger picture in some way, or the story is just treading water.

Since a conversation consists of two or more characters, this before-and-after effect can be broken down for each person. Each character has their own goals, and each character may change, or change their goals as a result of the conversation.

  1. What is the state of each character at the start of the conversation?
  2. What does each character want at the start of the conversation (in the story, and in this particular interaction)?
  3. What is the state of each character after the conversation?
  4. How has each character’s goals changed after the conversation?

These individual character differences add up to form the total change in the story from a given piece of dialogue.

Dialogue is Conflict

Dialogue has two main story purposes: information sharing, and conflict. However, information sharing isn’t terribly interesting without some sort of associated conflict. It can become interesting if the information is incomplete, incorrect, or not given freely.

As an example, consider a detective trying to solve a murder. If they ask the witness, and the witness explains exactly who the killer was, how they did it, and why, then the story isn’t interesting. However, if the witness only saw a fraction of what happened, the detective has to make inferences and combine information from other sources to solve the crime. If the witness doesn’t want to help, the detective needs to find a way to change their mind or trick them. If they lie, the detective needs to discover the lie. These “twists” on basic information sharing are all forms of conflict between the characters.

This conflict is caused by interactions between the characters’ goals:

  • Characters with similar or identical goals may try to work together toward a common cause. In this case, the conflict is something external that they team up to fight.
  • Characters with opposing goals will try to succeed at the expense of each other. One or the other may end up “winning” the conversation, or it may end in more of a tie, with the tension remaining or ramping up. They may get something useful from the conversation, or it may just increase their animosity for one another.
  • Characters with different, but not opposing goals may make a trade where both try to gain something from the conversation.

Action in Dialogue

Sometimes characters just talk, and sometimes they act without speaking, but often the two go hand-in-hand. When mapping out dialogue, it’s important to consider the actions that the characters will be taking while they talk. Are they just sitting in a room, or are they in the middle of a heist, trading quips between the safe-cracking and zipping down elevator cables?

Scenes can really start to pop when the characters’ actions in a scene drive one thread of the plot, while the characters’ dialogue in that same scene drives a different thread. The two characters may be stealing the diamond so they can pay off their debts to the deadly villain, but they can also be flirting in a way that ramps up the sexual tension, or trying to work out which of their fellow criminals ratted them both out.

Of course, sometimes the action and the dialogue go hand-in-hand, both advancing the same story thread. But beware scenes where only the action or dialogue is doing work. Meaningless dialogue during important action, or vice-versa, is a missed opportunity.

Charting a Course

Here’s a simple example with some of our heist dialogue in a table with a column for each character, and actions (in parentheses).

NatashaFrank
(slides down elevator shaft first)(slides down elevator shaft second)
Comments about the view from below. 
 Asks about Boris’s suspicious behavior recently. Is he the traitor?
She trusts Boris—he saved her in Amsterdam. 
(Works on the vault lock until it opens)(keeps watch)
Asks about Rocky—he knew things about her dad that he shouldn’t. 
 Agrees that Rocky is suspicious. He seemed to be snooping when they were planning the job.

The important thing is to list out the segments in order. Dialogue is give and take. In a typical conversation, each segment will lead logically into the next. When mapping dialogue, it typically looks like a series of actions and reactions.

Sometimes the characters will exhaust a topic and move on to something else, but even that requires planning. If one of the characters has more to say, they may not want to shift topics. If there is a break, one of the characters will usually start a new topic that pertains to their goals at that point in the conversation.

Mapping in Revision

Dialogue maps can be useful for editing, by providing a tool to analyze dialogue that’s already written. If a piece of dialogue doesn’t feel right, a dialogue map can reveal structural problems. Does the conversation flow naturally from the characters’ starting points and goals? Is there conflict? Does the flow of the segments back and forth make sense? Do the characters leave the conversation with new goals or knowledge? What changed?

Because dialogue maps are a structural tool, they won’t help with voice. A piece of dialogue can be perfectly functional in pushing the story forward, but still come across as stilted and artificial. Dialogue maps describe the content of the conversation, but not the exact wording.

The other important function of dialogue maps in revision is in making sure that changes to dialogue don’t break the structure. I often find that I want to change something that a character says in the middle of a conversation. Maybe I come up with a single line that I really want to include. Because of the nature of dialogue as back-and-forth, one change can result in another character’s response no longer making sense. Sometimes a change to one segment requires that the next segment change, and the next segment, and so on.

With a dialogue map in hand, it’s much easier to embark on this kind of reworking with an understanding of what that conversation has to accomplish. Even completely replacing the entire conversation is possible, so long as it starts and ends with the same character states and goals, and the appropriate action still happens.

To Map or Not to Map?

Depending on how you write, you may want to do some dialogue mapping before writing, as a guide through the conversation. It can be especially useful when more than two characters are involved or there’s a lot going on in a given scene.

If you’re less inclined to plan, you can always write first and ask questions later. Mapping dialogue after the fact is a great troubleshooting tool for a scene that feels “off,” or even as a way to decide exactly what a meandering conversation should be about.

Mapping every single conversation may be overkill. It can be a lot of work. But it’s a useful tool in the writer’s toolbox for addressing one of the biggest challenges of writing great stories.