Character interaction is all about relationships, and dialogue is no exception. Every conversation centers around one or more important topics, and when discussing a topic it’s important to consider the following questions:
• Who has the relevant knowledge/experience
• Who acts as if they want/value said knowledge/experience
• Who actually wants it.
These questions help to classify characters into novice/junior learner, master/senior expert, and the journeyman/midpoint.
If Sam and Jen walk into a town, and Jen has been there before, while Sam has not, then Jen has a clear advantage. Jen is the senior within this setting. But if Sam is indifferent to Jen’s knowledge, her seniority is essentially academic.
Masters are characters with a great deal of knowledge and experience, more than they can easily convey to others. They are calm, confident, and at ease, relatively speaking. In the midst of a crisis, no one is truly calm, but a master will be calmer than the others.
Masters often fall into the role of teachers, leaders, and authoritarians. Their voice carries a greater weight, though others may accept or resist a master’s leadership. Their wealth of knowledge makes them very powerful, but also lends itself to arrogance and blind spots. A master may easily overlook something important.
Masters can also be powerful enemies, often too powerful to overcome directly. In an indirect conflict they may withhold information, or intentionally mislead, turning natural hazards into traps.
Even as allies, masters frequently withhold some information, providing only what is immediately relevant, ensuring that others cannot interfere with their plans. This can also make them feel distant, and difficult to connect with. When they are opposed, masters can come down hard, full of anger at the presumption and lack of respect.
Gandalf from Lord of the Rings is a great example. He knows far more than anyone else among the party, and frequently keeps his own counsel, believing it best not to burden others with too much knowledge. More than once his temper flares when others fail to heed his counsel.
Journeymen represent a midpoint. They have some knowledge/experience, but it’s far from complete. This means they can follow along if led by a master, leaping to conclusions as the master offers bits of information, but they are still limited. They can’t quite figure everything out on their own. Then again, two or three journeymen working together might be able to find the solution, but they usually won’t have the same certainty that a master would enjoy.
In groups journeymen serve as a natural midpoint between masters and novices, who will often irritate each other because of their conflicting extremes. Journeymen may offer insights, but they also demonstrate very human flaws.
Examples would include Legolas or Gimli from Lord of the Rings, or Professor Lupin from the Harry Potter series. In fact I would propone that by the last book in the series Harry and his friends have graduated to journeymen. They still make their share of mistakes, but they have achieved a level of knowledge and skill that grants them a certain amount of independence from their mentors.
Novices are characters who know little to nothing about the current topic or situation. Their ignorance usually takes one of two forms: humility, or rash arrogance.
A novice who accepts their own ignorance will spend much of a conversation listening, asking questions or offering a tentative remark when the conversation warrants it.
A novice who presumes that they are not ignorant will speak up, demonstrate their lack of understanding, and promptly earn a correction from the journeymen and masters. Embarrassed, they may retreat, or double down, trying to salvage some of their dignity.
Novices frequently serve as a setup for the others. They say something foolish, compelling the journeymen or masters to speak up and correct them, lest others get the wrong idea. Headstrong novices are particularly popular, rashly taking action without hesitation, and creating fresh conflicts, which will either be resolved by the novice themselves, or with the help of others. Novices are often associated with youth, though it’s more accurate to say that due to their lack of experience, all young characters are novices, while not all novices are young.
Examples would include Frodo and the hobbits of Lord of the Rings, or Watson from the Sherlock Holmes Anthology.
Within the fantasy genre most protagonists start out as novices, but very few primary characters remain as novices throughout the story. It’s far more common among lesser characters, who are intended to serve as subordinates or victims throughout the story. One of the more popular patterns of storytelling is the novice who grows into a journeyman or master.
Using These Roles
In any conversation, characters will settle into roles. Roles may change as the scene progresses, but in any conversation it’s good recognize who is the firm, powerful master, who is the knowledgeable but relatable journeyman, and who is the timid or presumptuous novice.
For example, in the Harry Potter series, the three primary characters frequently settle into those roles, with Hermione frequently representing the knowledgeable scholar and master, Ron as the headstrong and presumptuous character, desperate to prove himself in spite of his lack of knowledge, and Harry as the midpoint between them.
A good rule of thumb is to either start by identifying the character with the most knowledge as the master, or by identifying the most emotional/unprepared character as the novice. In turn whoever most clashes with them takes on the contrary role. Once the extremes are identified, it’s easy to recognize who stands beside the novice or master, and who stands between them as a journeyman.
Pacing in Dialogue