Game Changer: Create An Inner Dialogue Within your Hero, and Your Villain

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.

With themselves.

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.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

21 Responses to Game Changer: Create An Inner Dialogue Within your Hero, and Your Villain

  1. spinx

    Aaaahhhhhhhhhh……………..but this is where it really gets hard to just, well, let THEM be…………

    I have this problem right now that I just can´t seem to get rid off. The deeper I want to dig into a characters brain, the more I loose focus on that barrier that sepperates me from their own thoughts.
    As much as I want to prevent it, I end up being the person in that scene (partly)- and that certainly blocks me from continuing.
    Now, something else I´ve discovered- and I´m sure you´ll know about this phenomenon – is how (in contrast) easy it can be to rewrite your favourite movies/books/scenes without even trying that hard.

    The godfather- a movie I just re-watched last week, for example, was stuck in my head, and the same night I found myself WRITING totally new scenes, new dialogues, and a new ending for the whole first part.
    And there was absolutely no blockage (?) whatsoever. No dead-ends, no questioning whether I got the character right or not (which I DID!!), no wondering about scenes and purpose. Nothing. Absolutely no trouble at all. (though it only works with movies that have themes of personal interest to me)

    Whenever I did this little exerciese in the past year, I was struck by just how easy it was to focus on the details (the PP, structure, pacing, ect.) without ever loosing the fun. I had so much fun writing those different characters because I never had to think about WRITING them!
    Because they were already created by someone else, I never had to question their intentions, or flawas or emotional state of being – it is so liberating to write characters like that – it certainly allows for more creativity too.

    But it also made me wonder……maybe I really SHOULD start worrying about characters later, and get the story FIRST. And just why is it so damn hard to focus on the right plotpoints, and pace when it comes out of my own head?

    ARRRGHHHH———-it really drives me nuts!!!!

    I need to, NEED to, need to, need to use this somehow! So it really can be that easy- I know it can – it´s the same in my art, only when I have to stop and think about a line am I not going the way I should.

    Any pointers on how to keep that wall between me and the character?

  2. spinx

    “Nothing creates empathy quite like the revelation of humanity.”

    This is so very true. And the funny thing is, you only have to open the door once- reveal just that little, but even that tiny piece will be enough to make us wonder for the rest of the book/movie, to make us question the characters every action, and look for that true motivation behind it all.

    But isn´t it only when said humanity has that positive touch to it? Fear, instead of a truly violant motivation? Well- for me at least it is the first.

    I do not mind having a dislikeable character- but if there are not at least some positive aspects there behind it all (vulnerable tendencies) I find myself not as invested.
    Stories with assholes, who stay assholes all the way through—-they just don´t satisfy me.

    (Great, great post, by the way!!;O)

    (I´m just watching the Nadal/Joker match!!! Now that is some investement!!! Almost six hours—-craaaazy!!)

  3. I just read a short-story by Rebecca Emin, The Class of 1990, that uses this technique so well. I loved the story. Now I need to try it out! Awesome post 🙂

  4. Debbie Burke

    “Eavesdrop on inner dialogue” says it all. Writers get to be mind readers. The greater the gap between what characters say/do and what they really mean, the more complex the plot becomes.

    Thanks, Larry, for focusing on this indispensible writing tool.

  5. Jim Moison adds, via mobile upload: Larry, Wow, what an inspiring post! Just ordered your book on story structure. I’m writing again, and it feels better this time.

  6. I would love to reveal the antagonist’s humanity, but I’m already working hard to wash away my sin of head jumping. How can you get into the antagonist’s head when you’re writing with a limited omniscient pov?

  7. @Nancy — good question. Antagonists can be hard in this regard. Most scenes have a POV of some kind, but the “rules” of going deep depend on how the entire narrative reads in that regard.

    Remember the scene from Schindler’s List, where the evil pscyho camp commander decides to be kind to his housekeeper, finally letting her go? You can sense the inner dialogue, both before and after the moment when he does, in fact, let her walk away. Moment later, of course, he can’t stand it, grabs a rifle and goes to his balcony to shoot her dead as she wanders through the crowd of prisoners. Even then, though, you can sense the inner contradictions still playing.

    As writers, we can write that type of visual expression. We can summon it through artful words that bring nuance and layering to what a character says and does. It’s hard. It’s advanced stuff. Which is why, when it works, it’s worth pursuing. L.

  8. Deanna

    Larry, thanks for that extra bit of clarity on developing a sense of the inner dialogue when the POV doesn’t allow you to actually articulate the inner dialogue. Great example too, from Schindler’s List.

    This is a challenge, figuring out how this is done from outside the POV of the person whose inner narrative is being portrayed. Looks like this my next thing to start noticing in films and books.

    I already had a sense (probably not much more than that) of the inner dialogue dynamic as a great character pictorial and source of conflict, but had only thought about it in terms of a POV that lets you get right at that narrative. Thanks for pulling back the curtain.

  9. I’m watching one of my favorite westerns right now, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and one of the things that sets it apart from so many other films in the genre is the believability of every character. No one is completely bad, no one is completely good – everyone has realistic motivations.

    Some of the great dialogue that underscores this theme:

    Schofield Kid: “I guess he had it coming.”
    William Munny: “Kid, we all got it coming.”

    Little Billy: “I don’t deserve this.”
    William Munny: “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

    Every character is a mass of contradictions including W. Munny’s deceased wife. The closing epilogue scrolls down the screen with Munny’s mother-in-law wondering over her daughter’s grave why such a beautiful young woman with so many other prospects should have married a man like William Munny.

    Thanks again, Larry, for another thought-provoking column.

  10. Larry, I’ve never seen a better explanation of “showing” inner dialogue than the one you gave Nancy. Not many others have your talent for clarifying methods by using pertinent examples that continually expand our learning. Great comment.

  11. A thought, triggered by Deanna’s question… inner dialogue is often an issue of subtext. The undercurrent that is just below the surface. An undercover cop has it in tight situations. An underling has it while getting chewed by a superior. A lawyer has it when getting dressed down by an asshole judge. A politician has it while playing nice with constituents he cares nothing about.

    Subtext is established earlier than when it appears, it’s the underpinnings of the unspoken tension that infuses later scenes with, well, inner dialogue.

    Thanks to all for chipping in to this conversation. L.

  12. This really is one of the trickiest parts of writing–getting that inner dialogue right. Whenever I read a new writer’s manuscript, this interiority is almost always the one thing most lacking. Thanks for these great tips.

  13. Terry Pratchett is a genius with this technique. One of the best examples in his work is Sam Vimes, a character who’s risen through the ranks on stage from captain of the night watch to Commander of the Watch and duke of the city without losing his grungy Columbo-like distrust of the upper class. His subtext at any and all “nob” functions is hilarious.

    What makes him the perfect master of it is that he’s writing in a fantasy world where magical beings can literally get into and affect a character’s head. The character Tiffany Aching hears a goddess speaking in her own voice in her head – and it turns out to be the goddess’s thoughts. The reader’s left with the same uneasy confusion the character has – was that my inner thoughts or is someone outside me putting things into my head?

    You don’t need magic for that to happen. Other people put things into your head in a thousand ways by media, by reading them, by shouting at you, by playing mind games. Subtext is also where we notice the contradictions in our beliefs and our actions. Anyone who’s ever rejected a belief that his or her parents espoused will run into this one.

    At some unexpected time, in some random circumstance you never thought of, you’ll find yourself gut-reacting the way your parents would even though you disagree completely with it and think that reaction is dead wrong.

    That’s inevitable because society changes. It’s not the voice of your parents’ current opinions. They may have changed with the times too. It’s the voice of the past, things you overheard at eight or ten or five and took for granted as part of The Way Things Are with the sense of timelessness that childhood has. Something you think of as dead wrong will come up as an opinion in yourself and it’s terrifying when that happens, to have that fight all over again within yourself.

    Those moments come thick and fast if you ever came out of denial about something. For me it was about having disabilities at all. I struggled through life till I was forty thinking I was just lazy and preferred a sedentary lifestyle, had a bad back and avoided sports because I hated them. Did not notice obvious things like my walking speed – a brisk walk will still not reach the speed of a person my height. I’ll fall behind unless I run to keep up. If they’re running, forget it, anyone will get ahead of me unless that’s a 90 year old on a walker. I use a rollator now, it’s a walker with wheels. It helps me walk farther. But go back to when I was forty, when it would have helped me as much as it does today, and I would have been in total shock at the thought of using it.

    I got embarrassed about using a cane because I “didn’t really need it” because no Doctor had ever told me “You need to use the cane. If you don’t, you’re going to hurt your bad leg.” Instead I lived with countless sprains and tendonitis, knee, hip and ankle problems, thinking everyone had these troubles all the time.

    My parents, when I was young, looked down on people with birth defects and thought they should be locked up out of sight. I remember discussions where one of them considered euthanasia for people with birth defects because they were a burden on society if they couldn’t take care of themselves. I thought they were wrong. Even at the time, I thought they were wrong, I read other points of view.

    Yet when I came out of denial, I wound up looking at myself from that perspective even though I’d long since stamped it out in relation to any elderly or disabled person I met. I had successfully quit staring at any cripples and made friends with enough legless veterans to start taking legless veterans for granted as among normal people. Or blind or hearing impaired or any other disability. I made a conscious effort and had come round.

    When “them” was “me” it was different and took five years to even start clearing that junk out of my head.

    Write a story where Romeo’s black and Juliet’s white, from middle class families. Watch that explode in controversy. It’s the same story. On top of that, those are teenagers having underage sex even if it’s after underage marriage. Set it in a state where they can get married at fifteen or sixteen without parental consent and watch the fireworks.

    Spinx, it sounds like you block and get self conscious at exactly the point you start to identify with your character. The thing to remember is that your character isn’t you. Even if your character is an I-Guy or an I-Gal, that’s “who I would have been if I’d been born there and then to that family and grew up in those circumstances in that place and time and then was in that situation.”

    I write I-Guys all the time. Most of mine are undisabled. I only put some of my disabilities into the self portrait on one of them, a Pleistocene tribal shaman, because that’s what different kids who sit still and pay attention to stories grow up to be in tribal cultures. They get medical school combined with priesthood and historian and they don’t go hunting, they play to their strengths – being forced to sit still by physical limits will develop skill at all the Sit Still things a kid can achieve in the same way people blind from birth will get better at paying attention to their other senses.

    Those characters still do things I wouldn’t. They still feel and react to things in ways I wouldn’t because they’re still not me, even if I am so immersed in writing the story that I forget I’m not them. The fear coming up is self consciousness – is the fear that people will recognize you, that you’re a bad actor, will muff your lines and get laughed at. Stage fright. Relax about it. Once you’re not there, most of the readers don’t know you and would not care if at some moment in the story, the character’s reacting with an authorial bias. Generally they share it because they liked your book.

    At that point of getting nervous, push yourself past it and roleplay. Pay attention to the things about the character that aren’t you – even the happy wish fulfillment things like dangerous profession, owning a gun, driving a fast car, whatever it is that got you putting that poor bloke in that bad situation. Don’t let it make you go soft on him.

    This is where the outline can help too – it can eliminate the Mary Sue urge to turn all his opponents into cardboard targets easily kicked down. You gave this character some good luck at the top, the larger than life things that would be fun to imagine you had – big money, great health, good looks, an exciting job. Every one of those good things has a big catch, a down side, a set of nasty consequences that throughout the book are going to rain on his parade in a huge way. Most novels are about the worst times in the character’s life.

    Even biographies sometimes lose entire decades to the fact that the subject of the story had a good time with no disasters in it to give it good story. The story picks up again when the roof falls in, not when the nerdy little details of how to do home improvements got him building the deck in the back that didn’t fall in and was a joy to him and his family all those years. At most you can put in a two page nibblet of How To in the story to subsume ten years of deck building into a few handy tips for readers who are actually doing it for the first time.

    But force the character to move two weeks before the deck is completed and you have story, you have him pounding the walls in frustration and maybe taking an axe to the project. Or miserably finishing it for someone else and trying to show the house to new buyers.

    The “I-Guy” is method that makes readers identify with the story. I used to get on the bus to work and pretend I was running for my life from the mob because I saw something I shouldn’t or zipping around in a space ship or poised to kill a giant elk in a prehistoric meadow with only a stone spear. That’s the fun of stories. That’s the heart of them. You’re choking at exactly the point you’re getting it right because it will affect the author too.

    Just remember that’s what it is – when it feels like he turns into you, that is the moment you turned into him. Just keep going, see what happens and curb it in the editing stage if all his enemies turn into cardboard targets that fall over on the first shot.

  14. Oh, one last PS – the best way to avoid the Mary Sue problem of cardboard opponents is to change Point Of View. Write it from the bad guy’s perspective, where he thinks he’s the good guy and the good guy should just go down like a cardboard target because, dagnab it, he’s got the strength of ten because his heart is pure. Just because he’s dead wrong doesn’t mean he doesn’t think it’s 100% true and righteous. The best way to keep “game balance” in a plot is to spin the table and play all the characters to the hilt, not just the hero.

  15. Very good post. I have a characer I put into high stress and violent situations. I try to imagine: first, what a woman would think and do in the situation, then what my character with her background and personality would think and do. I feel I can really get into the character’s head by driving up the emotion.

  16. That’s ‘character’. My fingers couldn’t spell.

  17. Robert, thanks for your info. That’s a post in itself!

  18. Donna Lodge

    Suzanne Brockmann wrote a romantic suspense series with Navy Seals as the protagonists (I think it’s the “Troubleshooter” series). The books are written in third person point of view, and Brockmann’s very good at writing internal dialogue. I’ve used one of the books as a go to for examples of writing internal/inner dialogue.

  19. Love this! The place where it clicked for me was when you talked about the space between how we feel and what we do. Another word for this that comes to mind is “irony.” We feel so differently sometimes from the appearance we’re trying to create. This is very human. Thanks for the encouragement and tips for how to make our fiction resonate!

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