Now we’re getting into more straightforward aspects of dialogue: intentions, goals, and perspective/opinion.
3. Intentions & Goals
Is each character clear and open about their intentions (to themselves, to the audience, an to others), or do they conceal their agenda? What is each character trying to accomplish? In many ways this relates back to secrets and deception. In fact one of the most common forms of deception is a false pretense or other form of “disguise”, designed to disarm someone into misunderstanding what another character is trying to accomplish.
For example, in the film Django Unchained (by Tarantino), one of the characters tells a story of how a man wishes to buy a farmer’s horse, but knowing that the farmer will bargain shrewdly, he instead negotiates to “buy the farm”, offering an incredible sum of money. In the midst of such an offer, the horse becomes little more than an afterthought, purchased for a fraction of its worth, a “bonus”. The man departs, the legal owner of the horse, and never returns to complete his purchase of the farm.
Whether or not a character is open and clear about their intentions is itself a matter of contention. Many adversaries manage a certain “professional respect” when they are open and honest with each other, while those who “refuse to admit their intentions” provoke intense anger.
If characters are open with each other, the question becomes “are we in conflict,” along with “can we negotiate?” Fantasy and science fiction frequently feature heroes and villains who are unequivocally at odds, but what about the others?
Every character needs their own goals, their own agenda, and a great way to manage tension between allies is to change the relationship between their respective goals. One of the best examples I can think of is the Codex Alera series, where the protagonist makes a habit of demonstrating how his enemies might find it more profitable to become his allies.
The most common form of shifting goals comes from business dealings, where changes in a market may premeditate a sudden shift in priorities, but there’s also plenty of room for allies to shift. For example, a character may be on a quest to save a long lost friend or family member. At first they simply travel with other good-natured adventurers, helping out along the way, until they catch word that said friend/family member is nearby. Suddenly they abandon the group and head off in a new direction, leaving others to scramble in the wake of this loss.
4. Opinions, how they form and how they change
This is perhaps the most obvious variable when determining how two characters will interact. What is their opinion of each other? On a basic level there are only 4 possibilities; mutually positive, mutually negative, one sided positive/negative, and indifferent.
Of course what one character thinks about another is entirely dependent upon what they know about each other. For example, throughout much of the Harry Potter series, Harry holds Dumbledore in the highest regard. It isn’t until book 7 that Harry begins to question this person he has so blindly followed throughout the prior books.
The key is recognizing that opinions are rooted in information. New information won’t always change a character’s opinion, but opinions only change because of new information. What this means is any time a character learns something new about someone else, ask yourself “Would this change their opinion of said character, yes or no? If yes, how? If not, why not?”
And if you feel that a character’s opinion needs to change, work backwards from that point. Identify the underlying reasons for the opinion, the values that lead the character to feel this way, and then use one of two techniques:
- Prove that the “villain” in question didn’t actually “commit the crime”
- Reveal that they did so because the alternative was even worse.
For example, in Speaker for the Dead (sequel to Ender’s Game), the name Ender has become synonymous with a terrible act. No one remembers the details surrounding the event, which leads to a terrible misunderstanding. All that’s remembered is the fact that Ender Wiggin committed an unforgiveable act.
Similarly there are other series, including Harry Potter, and the Ender’s Shadow series, where specific characters seemingly commit terrible deeds, only to later reveal that they willingly “played the part of the villain”, so that when the time was right, they could play the hero.
Most characters form an opinion about others in one of two ways:
1. Suddenly (based on a prejudice of some sort)
What does your character hate, or love? What are their early memories, positive and negative? In the Belgariad, the protagonist grows up on a farm, often in the kitchen. He feels a natural kinship with simple folk, and finds nobles and merchants unfamiliar and intimidating.
2. Gradually, as they get to know the person.
When two characters are interacting, watch for “first times”. In Harry Potter, when Harry first meets Malfoy, he doesn’t know what to think of him. But then Malfoy sneers at Hagrid, and later, on the train, he dismisses Ron. Gradually, as they interact more, Harry’s hostility towards Malfoy grows.
Once a character forms an opinion, it’s unlikely to change, unless they learn something that calls everything about the character into question (Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). Secrets are the most common reason for opinions to change, secrets or “new circumstances”.
When crafting a conversation, it’s good to go down the list:
- 1. To what extent do the characters understand each other? What differences (cultural, economic, professional, personal, etc.) separate the two?
- What are each character’s goals during this conversation? Are they open and honest about their intentions?
- Is either character hiding anything?
- What are each character’s general opinions about the other(s)?
Once you’ve answered these 4 questions, you can determine what a character will say, how they will say it, what they will avoid, and what could derail their plans for the conversation. And once you know every character’s plans, you can see how each plan will affect the others, whether the effect is a subtle shift, or a sudden and sharp turn.
Low Intensity Dialogue