Things we’ve talked about before:
- your hero’s inner demon, something that likely is explained by backstory and is an obstacle to what your hero seeks to accomplish in your story. The exposure (to the reader) of this inner demon reveals a second dimension of character depth beneath the exterior one dimensional façade seen by the world;
- the arena, or cultural landscape, within which the hero operates (and comes from), which exerts influence over who they were, who they are, and what they will become;
- dialogue as a window into character. Nothing says it better than the characters themselves. Even if they’re saying it to themselves.
Which is the point of today’s post.
Allow me to make characterization even more complicated than it already is.
If you can grasp this tricky inner dialogue concept, if you can turn the concept into a technique, then you’ll have the chops to make your characters more vivid and visceral than you thought possible, except perhaps in a Lehane novel or a David Fincher film.
Inner dialogue is precisely what they, and storytellers at their level, do so well.
To identify this, let’s rip a page out of reality. Just look around your life, you’ll see it – if not hear it – going on everywhere.
People are constantly engaged in an inner dialogue.
It’s not a verbal thing, per se. People usually aren’t muttering quietly to themselves, nor should your characters, unless that’s part of their deal.
But there is a very clear, often palpable gap between one’s inner thoughts and their exterior behavior and attitude. That gap is something most people are dealing with right beneath the surface, sometimes 24-7.
The shy person who must contrive a air of confidence and warmth in a crowd.
The insecure person who walks through the world with a cloak of bluster.
The need to fit in, even when one realizes this isn’t who they are.
Faking it in a marriage. At work. In church.
Sitting with friends at dinner in a nice restaurant, uttering not a single word, totally checked out.
Hiding hate, resentment, bitterness and fear behind a mask of calm.
Bad moods… that’s an inner dialogue. Good moods… same thing. But sometimes all that inner noise isn’t all that obvious.
And in fiction – if not at that dinner table – that’s where the fun is.
This is a common human state of being.
In life, and in fiction.
The extent to which someone – including your hero and your villain – recognizes the gap between their true thoughts, beliefs, preferences and comfort zones, and the way they choose to behave or appear in spite of them…
… that is an inner dialogue. A constant tug of war within the psyche. A devil on one shoulder, a angel on the other. Or at least, the voice of reason.
If they have no idea how conflicted they are, well, that’s a dialogue of another sort. Don’t kid yourself, though, most of us not in therapy usually know. The façade, or the vacancy, is a choice.
So what to do with this?
Before you square off with this dramatic can of worms, think about it. Go through a roster of people you know, and suddenly you’ll realize how transparent the wall behind which this inner dialogue ensues can be. The better you know the person, the more aware you are of what’s going on inside them.
They think they’re fooling everybody… but not so much.
Scary, isn’t it.
Chances are, too, because you are human, you are among these inner conversationalists. All the better to put this to use in your fiction.
Now imagine you’re casting this person – or you — in your story.
Imagine the possibilities of revealing that inner tension, the inherent contradiction as narrated by an inner dialogue, in a dramatic moment.
Walking into a crowded room. Lying about what you did last night. Asking a girl out for the first time. Feigning joy while considering suicide. Whatever.
Recognizing this, you now have another arrow in your quiver of character building weapons. Go as deep as you like, picking your moments to maximize revelation, tension and complexity.
First person narrative invites this. But you can pull it off in third person, too. Start to look for it in the work of names like Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Jonathan Franzen, John Irving, and probably your favorite writer.
Not a coincidence… this ability to expose inner dialogue is part, a big part, of what got them to where they are today.
Heroes are obvious candidates for this.
But if you can bring this complexity to your antagonists, as well – who may or may not be human, so write accordingly – you’ll have achieved a new level of depth there, too. A depth can will immediately set your story apart.
Nothing creates empathy quite like the revelation of humanity. Eavesdrop on those inner dialogues and you’ll bring a level of humanity to your main characters that will separate you from a largely one-dimensional pack of stories already in the mail.
Need more character? My book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” goes deep and wide into all three dimensions of character.
The first issue of the new Storyfix newsletter, “Writers on the Brink,” is three days out. Expect the unexpected. Epiphanies encouraged. You can opt-in — it’s FREE, too — to the right at the top, just above the little monkey head. That’s me, by the way. Really.