Whaddya Think? (Using Internal Dialogue to Enhance Character)

220px-Ladyhawke_ver1One of my favorite characters in film or literature is The Mouse from 1980s film Ladyhawke. A youthful thief of slender dimensions, Mouse makes promises to God then promptly breaks them, and though his faith is undimmed, his skepticism remains sharp.

“Lord, I’ll never pick another pocket again as long as I live. I swear it. But here’s the problem: You’ve got to let me live. How can I prove my good faith to you? If you’ve heard me, this ledge will remain steady as a rock, and that thing coming at me won’t be what I think it is. If it is, there’s no hard feelings, of course, but I’d be very disappointed.”

Later:

“We have come full circle, Lord. I would like to think there is some higher meaning in this. It certainly would reflect well on You.”

At the beginning of the film, when he’s escaping from the dungeon via a passage so small it should have been impossible:

“This is not unlike escaping my mother’s womb. God, what a memory.”

Fearful yet courageous, uncertain yet bold, seeking company yet often alone, he verbalizes his internal dialogue to humorous, insightful effect. Without Mouse’s spoken thoughts, the story would be less. It would be flat, too earnest, maybe even pretentious. But Mouse and his constant patter bring heart, humor, and that disbelieving look askance that somehow makes us believe it even more.

Granted, most internal dialogue is internal — that’s the point. It’s a character’s unspoken thoughts that readers are allowed to know, whether or not those thoughts are ever revealed to other characters in the story.

It can take many forms, from prayers to wishes, from snarky comments or ironic remarks, from telling the truth to outright lies, even conversations with people who aren’t there. In the passage below — from an episode in Keanan Brand‘s science fiction serial, Thieves’ Honor, there’s spoken dialogue between mercenary Bosko and prisoner Finney, but internal dialogue between Finney and her deceased grandfather, Admiral Cunningham. [Note: The Admiral calls her “Gracie” because that’s what he called her father, whose last name was “Grace”.  Father-in-law good-naturedly harassing his son-in-law. Both men are deceased before the story begins.]

“Like I said, you’re an uncommon target.” He chuckled again. “A great many governors and officials didn’t seem too eager to help us find you. Lotta lowlifes, too. Figured they’d been paid off—or they do business with the Vega. Name’s Bosko, by the way.”

“We’re not friends.”

“No reason we can’t talk.”

Ye don’t like talking, Gracie, do ye? Except to that crew and its captain. The admiral’s voice held a slight harrumph. Pilot on a reputable ship might make a grandda proud, but on a pirate vessel?

Fewer rules, she replied. No uniforms. No salutes. No blasted colonial government.

Ach, Gracie, now yer talkin’ like a rebel.

Aye, Grandfather, and were I braver I’d have joined them years ago, but it’s safer in the supply line.

There was a snort. Safer? And with supplies stolen from honest citizens! Then the imagined voice gentled. Not always so honest, I suppose. Still, the goods are not yers for the taking. Look where piracy has brought ye.

Not piracy. She looked down, and wrapped one blood-crusted hand around the collar. Murder. Vengeance for you. Tears slipped from the corners of her eyes and dripped from her chin. I acted in haste, and the wrong person died.

“No tears now”—Bosko sounded nervous—”and no pulling at that collar.” (from Episode 15, “Leaping the Circle, copyright KB)

Done well, internal dialogue adds tang to the story, expands the readers’ understanding of or connection to a character, and reveals that character’s philosophy, belief, opinion, etcetera. It can liven the spoken dialogue and even liven a character.

On the other hand, wielded clumsily, it can kill a character.

This was evidenced in a manuscript I recently edited. The author was concerned about feedback from beta readers who said they didn’t connect with her main character. In fact, they didn’t like her. She was cold, arrogant, unsympathetic. After I provided a detailed critique, the author made changes, but she was still concerned about the readers’ perception of the main character.

Due to various behind-scenes-matters that attend the publishing process, I didn’t read the manuscript again for a few weeks. However, when I dove in again, I saw the problem: The character’s snarky, blame-casting internal dialogue made her seem whiny and belligerent rather than realistic and confident. By trying too hard to make her seem hip or smart, the author actually undercut the character.*

“Children should be seen and not heard,” or so goes the old saying. I disagree with its intent of marginalizing children, but there’s truth in it, too. Or, to quote other old sayings, “actions speak louder than words” and “a picture’s word a thousand words.”

“Think before you speak.”

Or, in the case of an author wondering whether or not to reveal a character’s thoughts, “think before you write.”

Be aware of what is being revealed in dialogue. Is it what you intend? Will it enhance or undercut the character? Will it contradict everything else we know about the character? Will it add just the right amount of spice, or will it leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth? Will it make an unlikeable character seem nicer than you intend, or make a sympathetic character lose the reader’s respect?

Internal dialogue can also add subtext and subtlety to a story. Subtext is what is meant but never actually written or said, and subtlety is the use of the indirect or the obscure in order to reveal what isn’t obvious. Subtlety could also be defined as cleverness or perception.

Do your characters make oblique observations that, on the surface, are about something mundane but reveal what the characters are really feeling? Or, perhaps, we know exactly what they’re thinking, but something else is engaged in the dialogue, too. In the example below from a soon-to-be-published fantasy novel, nature — or God? — seems to be responding to the character’s unspoken questions:

There was another place for the fallen, for the murdered and the war dead. They were said to cry in eternal grief and bitterness, trapped on the Highlands, separated from kindred until a blue sun rose in the west. Their howls, Turi suspected, were nothing more than wind through stones, but even he would go no closer to the Highlands than the wood. After all, what defense was a sword against a spirit?

He tilted back his head and looked up at the ribboned sky. Omwendinn?

A sudden breeze set banners waving, snapping the green Oak of Disson in a brisk salute.

When will those distant fires be the fires of home?

The breeze died. The first stars of evening winked in the sky. (Dragon’s Rook, copyright 2014, Keanan Brand)

There are many ways to employ internal dialogue. Play with it. Experiment. See what works. Does it make you laugh? Gasp with surprise? Nod your head and say, “Aha!”

If so, well done.

Or, as the admiral might say, “Carry on, Gracie. Carry on.”

* This book will be published in late 2014, and I do not have permission to share examples from the text.