Language – into today’s post, spoken language – is a powerful tool. When we form phenomes and morphemes into phrases and sentences and paragraphs it communicates a thousand ideas. And when we speak, we open up a world of social interaction that can’t be contained by silent gestures and solitary thoughts.
Linguistic Determinism is the idea that language not only helps us communicate socially, but it also determines our thoughts and thought processes.
While the idea itself is not fully validated nor accepted by all linguists and psychologists, it provided an interesting idea:
Do our words shape who we are?
In many ways, I think they do. Now, the point of this post isn’t supposed to be a philosophical discussion about the influence of a given language on the speaker’s thoughts and consciousness, but I still wanted to point it out:
What we say – and how we say it – matters.
Even when we talk alone.
Let me try again, but at length.
Our characters like to talk. Even when the only thing they have to talk to is a volley ball, like Tom Hank’s character in Cast Away. Wilson [the volleyball] is one of the only things that keeps this fellow sane as he lives alone for quite some time.
Without language, we fall into silence and feel alone. Alone for so long that even those of us who enjoy silence begin to feel… wrong.
We weren’t meant to be silent.
Some characters, however just don’t know how to shut up.
Instead, they talk and talk and talk. Your reader begins to tire of them and even starts to complain about the talkativeness of your character.
And others are the opposite. Some characters never talk at all. This can be by circumstance, personality, or both. For instance, in my current project, I have a character named Deyu. She’s an escaped slave girl who is running from the trail of dead that follow her and she hardly ever speaks.
Her chapters are hard sometimes, because a whole chapter can pass without a single sentence of dialogue. That much narrative is difficult, to say the least. Even in the chapters with other people involved (of which there are few, since she’s sort of… running from everyone), she rarely ever speaks. From childhood, she’s been talk to be silent. Never to cry, never to laugh, never to speak. So when she has the opportunity to make noise, she avoids doing so. Instead, she’ll mumble something awkwardly and slip away. Because of her status as a slave, she can neither read nor write, and she hardly knows many spoken words to begin with, beyond those shouted at her on a daily basis. Words of hate and anger and indifference.
What do we do about the silent characters? And the talkative ones?
First, silent characters are okay. If they don’t speak, it’s not a bad thing. For my character Deyu, it fits her character and her story arc for her to say very little. Rather, her mental state and inner thoughts become important. My alpha readers have noted this to be especially true. When I write her chapters, but overlook her inner thoughts, the chapters come across as weak or stale. But when her mental state is communicated clearly, the chapter is gripping, especially for a first draft.
So. Let your silent characters be silent. Just be sure to communicate the inner words. Emotions and motives and thoughts become so important.
There are two kinds of talkative characters: those that ramble and those that ramble.
Let me explain: the first kind of rambling is the character who just talk and talks. They comment on everything and do so in great detail.
If it’s in character for them, great. So long as it fits in your style and story to have a character that describes everything in dialogue, go for it. I’ve read fantastic books with rambly characters, characters who talk just to talk, but get away with it.
Just don’t go too far.
When more than a page passes without anything happening except your characters discussing the style of dress your heroine is wearing, then it’s time to shut them up and get them moving.
The last are harder to deal with.
Because they’re a problem.
We all know the villainous cliché of talking too much.
Imagine this scenario, and you’ll find yourself in the setting of a dozen poorly made movies and poorly written books [even some of the good ones]:
The main character is captured. They’re at the mercy of the villain and have everything to lose. The dastardly villain is holding them at gunpoint (or sword point or death star point) along with the Love Interest, the lovable Ally. Chances are, the Mentor is dead and nothing can stop the villain now.
And what does the villain do? After all, they’ve waited the whole story for this moment. They swore to kill the hero and all his friends, and they’ve got the upper hand now.
The villain slaughters the hero and executes his plan flawlessly right?
Instead, the villain talks.
Yup, I just described the average “Black Moment” scene of action/adventure movies and almost every blockbuster movie ever.
Why is this a problem?
You don’t hear real stories about murderers who get caught because they spent too long talking to their captives about their master plan.
Hitler didn’t almost win the Second World War because he captured his enemies and told them his whole plan.
Stalin didn’t set up the USSR by setting up a “let’s share our masterplans” meeting with the capitalist countries.
Terrorists don’t inspire fear by not killing people.
Real villains don’t have long monologues, explaining the details of their plans, and they most certainly don’t wait to kill people because they want to enjoy the experience.
Now this cliché comes from one simple dilemma: authors write themselves into a corner, and have to write themselves out. Much like the “character who died didn’t really die” cliché, it comes out of laziness and a need for an escape.
This can be written out of your story, if you refuse to use the cliché and instead find a new way for your hero to win.
But there are other kinds of character monologues.
Three kinds of monologues you should avoid [not including the one just outlined above]:
“Love Interest declares their love.” And every single reason for it. This monologue usually exists in teen thrillers and in romance novels. It can come from either side of the relationship, but usually involves an excessive amount of description. It’s like one character is trying to tell the audience all the reasons we should like the other character.
That’s not how character-reader connection works.
It’s also not how real romantic relationships work. No, I’m not in one, but I’m surrounded by them and trust me: it doesn’t work that way. You’re welcome.
“Mentor teaches Hero [characteristic].” You can fill in the brackets with anything you want: humility, courage, hunting, fighting, dancing, whatever.
Most of the things I just listed aren’t usually learned by listening to a speech about them, right? You learn how to hunt by hunting, you learn how to dance by dancing and you learn humility by being humbled.
But instead of learning by experience, the hero somehow learns by listen to the Mentor character talking for a page or two?
Um no let’s not.
It’s like in the Star Wars prequels, as the various Jedi Masters spew knowledge about the Dark/Light side of the force. The main character never learns those things he hears about.
Despite an interesting fact: he heard all about them.
So don’t teach by words.
Teach by having your character get off their lazy hindquarters and doing.
“Hero to others.” This is most common in fantasy novels and medieval historical fiction. The main character is usually a young [17-20] man who is leading an army [of more experienced men, probably] into a battle that they should – statistically – have no chance of winning [but they’ll win anyway, of course].
And so, right before the battle, this young man rides his horse out in front of his army and gives this long speech about how they should be brave and be proud of themselves and their country and how they’ll probably not survive [ha…ha] and on and on and on.
This sort of thing also happens in other genres and situations, but this is the most common and cliché one.
Two reasons why this is wrong [excluding the idea that the 50,000 soldiers can’t all hear the MC?]:
1. Blatant ideal spreading. This speech usually sums up the theme and ideals of the story. It tells us to be brave and selfless and courageous and forgiving and whatnot. Great. But… it doesn’t show us how and doesn’t give us the motivation to do anything. So we won’t.
2. Show, don’t tell. I like to talk about this idea even though I disagree with it on occasion. But it fits here. When you want to show us all of the things your hero is about to say, don’t have him… tell us.
Show us the valiant charge, show us the grim determination.
That’s how to write a good story.
There are two types of characters: those who talk and those who almost never talk.
Both are good, neither is strictly bad.
And either one can be used to show good story.