Brennan Lee Mulligan, a popular improvisor, gaming master, and comedian, made a point about character motivations and stories in role-playing games during a roundtable conversation on the Critical Role YouTube Channel that I believe is acutely applicable to dialogue in fiction. While it is applicable to character motivations, plot, story progression, and more, I am going to focus on dialogue.
Brennan stated that when he is playing a role-playing game and he inhabits a character, he wants to be immersed. The character does not believe he is a character. The character has a goal and he wants to go directly towards that goal, but that would be boring. As the player outside of the character, he wants to experience interesting obstacles and distractions from his goal, a complete story arc. The part of him that is playing a game and the part of him that is his character within the game are inherently at odds.
This applies to you as the author of your story and you as the inner voice of your characters. It also applies to your reader. Your reader wants to get to the end of the book and they want to be immersed and entertained along the way. While it is obvious you are not going to let your reader get from start to finish without obstacles, they don’t want to see you manipulating the story.
Brennan goes further on to say that he sees his character as a stream going down a hill. The character wants to go straight down the hill, but the player needs to be forced to go through obstacles. In the end, the character will have always taken the path of least resistance down the hill, but the stones and the curvature of the land, not the player, forced them to take a less straightforward path.
How does this apply to dialogue? Dialogue can further the plot, provide exposition, define and develop character, manage pacing, and explore character relationships, but when it does so without obstacles it feels overly convenient and when obstacles are obvious it feels inauthentic. Your role as the author is to inhabit the characters and drive them to the path of least resistance, all the while placing obstacles that deviate them from their path.
Authors have a wide variety of obstacles to select from. The primary obstacle is misaligned character goals. From each character’s perspective, they are the stream. From the other’s, they are the boulder diverting the stream. Each character will take the conversation towards their own ends, ask questions that don’t mesh with the other character’s needs, or they will misinterpret all in service of their goals.
In addition to misaligned goals, authors can create situational roadblocks like ticking clocks, secrets with consequences, misinterpretations (though these can be obvious and annoying), language barriers, personal character conflict and history. By using these obstacles, you can make your dialogue more interesting and more authentic.
One common problem I have seen with newer writers is what I call the question-and-answer game. The author wants character A to explain something so they have character B ask about that thing. Character A answers and character B asks another question to lead them down the road to what the author wants them to say. But people don’t talk like this. In real life, people answer with questions, they answer the questions the way they want to, and they ignore the questions and talk about what they want to talk about.
Conversations are never a straight line to the goal, even though our characters are looking for that straight line. When dialogue finds a straight line, it comes out as infodumps, readers lose immersion, and/or characters develop inconsistencies. As Brennan Lee Mulligan said during the Critical Role roundtable, “[We are looking to] achieve the shape of a story while trying your hardest to go in a straight line.”
This is a long, convoluted way to say that you as the author have your own goals in mind, but in every scene your secondary goal is to hide your intentions. The better you do that, the more your readers will be immersed in your story. This analogy has helped me think more critically about my dialogue work and maybe it will help you.
Watch the full roundtable discussion on YouTube here. I found listening to these game masters discussing their treatment of players helpful to how I develop my thoughts around character-work.