Arguing with Yourself

In every work of fiction there is usually some form of conflict. Sometimes it is a disagreement between characters that might send your protagonist on their set path, other times it is just a difference of opinion between your characters. It can be just a discussion or a knock down drag out fight. The situation is story dependant of course. The argument could be about why your protagonist is getting fired from their job or it could be about why your evil sorcerer is trying to kill your sword wielding hero.

Regardless, there will be conflict or at least a discussion of options and a difference of opinion.

The problem a lot of writers face is that the argument can seem one sided. You know that this argument is what sends your hero on his noble quest (job interview, solo campout, left turn at the crossroads, etc) and therefore you know what you need to shape the argument/discussion for your protagonist’s sake. And so that’s how you write it.

In a past post we talked about getting to know your villains. The same thing applies here. Sure the hero may leave his village because there is no food, and that could be what starts him on his quest rather than a direct fight against an evil sorcerer, but why is there no food and why has he chosen this course of action?

Unless he is the only one left alive in the village, someone may have a different idea about what to do, even if it is just to go with him when he wants to go alone. And if he is the only one left alive, he can argue with himself about his options.

It is rare that there is only one path that can be taken in a story especially at the beginning (think of the morning writing prompts and how the stories differ from person to person when they all start with the same sentence). Even if the path is inevitable and obvious to the reader, there need to be options presented for it to seem realistic.

We know Bob will eventually face down the Slug Monster General or even just the army of slug monsters once we as readers know that Slug monsters have invaded Bob’s town.

But he could also choose to run away. He could choose to hide. He could sit in his house binge watching Gilligan’s Island and pretending the slu monsters don’t exist.

Having an argument about a course of action can help you flesh out your story in a number of ways. It can make your villains or situation seem more realistic, it can help your reader understand why your protagonist chose this course of action from the list available, and it can even add an element of uncertainty to your protagonist’s actions. Maybe he should have gone left instead of right, but he went right and now has to make the best of it. It can also lead you to pieces of your story that you might not have found before.

If you are writing from one character’s perspective though, sometimes it can be hard to see other points of view.

The exercise I like to do is to write out the same argument from both perspectives (or more if it is a group discussion). First, decide what the argument is about.

  • Bob wants to take Water Street to get out of town, but Crazy Eddie is advocating for Elm Street and his neighbor Betty thinks that Oak Avenue would be quicker.

In this case we have three people with three different cases. Perhaps one will sway the others. Perhaps you will change your mind about which path you want your characters to take. So first we write out the argument about which way to go from Bob’s perspective and then the others. You can write it out as a full scene or just a paragraph, your choice. this is a tool and not actually something you’ll incorporate whole cloth into your manuscript. I’m paring it down for this example, but the point is to get inside each of your character’s heads.

  • Bob wants to take Water Street because it is the direct line out of town. Also if they followed Water Street until it became County Road 6 it would take them directly to the County Sheriff’s office where they could report the Slug Monster invasion to the authorities and leave the whole mess in someone else’s hands. He doesn’t mind leading his neighbors to safety, but he is not looking to be a hero.
  • Crazy Eddie knows that earlier that day he set an explosive charge too near the bridge on Water Street and that while the bridge is still technically standing, it is now structurally unsound. He knows it is just a matter of time before it comes down and he doesn’t want to be on it when it does. He knows that Elm Street will take them out of town, but let them escape without crossing the bridge. He thinks that if he doesn’t admit to being the one who damaged the bridge then others will think that the slug monsters destroyed it and he won’t be blamed. As he has already received several warnings about his use of explosives within the town limits he does not want to admit to another one.
  • Betty wants to take Oak Avenue because there is an assisted living facility in that direction where several of her friends live. She thinks if they take Oak Avenue they can pick up her friends along the way and help them get to safety as well. She doesn’t want to tell the others incase they worry that the elderly might slow down their escape and hopes to pull and “oh while we’re here surely we can help them out” once they are near the Assisted living facility.

Yes, I realize none of these people are villains, but arguments and discussions aren’t always with those of evil intent. While not all of what I listed out will make it into the actual discussion of which way to go, it helps me to know who wants to go where and why. And it can get a little boring if your protagonist makes a decision and everyone always agrees with him. It’s also a little unrealistic. Tensions are often high and as we can see, while everyone wants to escape the Slug Monsters, not everyone has the same thoughts about it.

When writing it is very easy to see the path you want your characters to take and to just send them on it. And if there is a debate about the choice of path it is also easy to let your protagonist win. (unless your characters all stage a coup and decide to take a story in a direction you didn’t intend, which happens a lot to me). Since you are arguing with yourself, it is easy to win the argument.

Taking a few moments to break out the argument from different perspectives can keep those wins from looking too easy and provide you with more information. I for one did not know there was an assisted living facility on Oak Avenue before I broke out the argument.I was just thinking that they couldn’t use Water Street because Crazy Eddie blew up the bridge. Now I know a little bit more about the bridge, and about Crazy Eddie. I also know that since this wasn’t his first instance, there might be further damage or even explosive charges that haven’t been set off located throughout town. This might come in handy when taking on the Slug Monster General and his Slug Army. Or I might not use it at all. But now I know that it is a possibility.

Perhaps now, Crazy Eddies explosive caches around town can be used to destroy the mothership. Perhaps one of Betty’s friends collects salt and pepper shakers and will be where Bob arms himself with salt shakers to take on the Slug Monster General.

It just might be.

Seeing an argument from multiple points can be helpful for you in general and it can also keep your arguments from looking flat and one sided. There is a lot to be said for seeing a discussion from someone else’s point of view.

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