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.
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.