Sunday, 18 October 2015

Writing an argument between characters by Matthew Presley

Developing characters will often lead to conflicts; if everyone agrees, then where’s the story? And just because characters are on the same side doesn’t mean they’re always going to agree. That’s when arguments come up; not between characters so opposed they can’t agree on anything, but characters who are very much alike, but frustrated that there’s still some conflict. The perfect example is the lover’s quarrel; just because a couple argue doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. If anything, the couples that don’t argue, the ones who stay quiet when they’re upset, have the real problems.

In a story, an argument’s a good way to show character. Is your character unflappable? Do they have a temper? Are they holding back? Is a secret going to come out, or are they smart enough to hold their tongue?

Some things to remember when writing an argument;

Be angry: If an argument has no emotion to it, there’s no character. That doesn’t mean everyone should be shouting all the time though! Think of an argument as an arc; there’s a beginning, a triggering event, escalation, then a resolution. If the character’s are quick to anger, the escalation’s going to be quick and the resolution may end with one of them storming out. Remember the argument doesn’t always start with the characters arguing; the triggering event might be later on, especially if a tension’s been building up for some time.

Write quick, not smart: Unless you’re Oscar Wilde, an argument shouldn’t be a series of witty rejoinders. Even the smartest among us can’t have the best lines ready to counter an argument all the time. When we’re arguing, we don’t know what’s going to be said next, and we don’t have the reaction time to come up with the perfect response; it’s a case of ‘right now’ over ‘right’. When writing, however, the temptation is to make every line perfect; that’s what drafting is for, after all. With an argument, however, the characters level of erudition should drop about three pegs, especially if they’re temperamental and especially if someone’s pushing their buttons.

I found that writing an argument quickly, without worrying about actions or speech marks, gives you a good starting point. I tried not to edit it as much as possible; no doubt some people will dissect it and find it makes no sense, but it’s an argument, not a court case.

Now’s not the time to exposit!: Let’s take a regular, everyday fantasy fiction scene where an argument arises over a son’s decision to join a league of assassins. I think everyone can recognise this as a fairly stock scene.


Father: How can you join the Imperial Assassin’s Guild, the Black Crows? Don’t you remember how they killed your mother?

Son: I remember, father, for I was there ten years ago when mother died at their hands! And my decision isn’t to do with that unfortunate night, but because my wife is ill and only the Empire had the medicine!

Father: Of course! You’ve been married two years; I remember when I gave you your mother’s ebony-handled dagger as a wedding present!

Son: As do I!


If we’re going into an argument and don’t know all this already, then now isn’t the time for an argument. Arguments that introduce new information should be shocking not just to the reader, but to the characters as well. If we know what’s happened before the argument, we have more idea what’s at stake and it allows the characters to act in character.


Father: You-you’ve joined the Crows?

Son: Father...

Father: After all they’ve done?

Son: Lydia’s sick, father. Don’t make this sound like an easy choice.

Father: I won’t let you shame me like this!

Son: I’m doing this for my wife, damn it!


What isn’t the argument about?: Conflicts don’t happen in a vacuum (Except space operas). If someone knows another person well enough to argue with them, there’ll be other things that have happened or that they know which come out in the argument. Bringing up the past might be vindictive, unnecessary, making the situation worse... All things an argument can do. If you set up a lot of things that could come up in the argument, it gives you a good reason for escalating beyond the initial triggering event.

So back to our stock scene; the expository version gave us a lot of things to work with. The triggering event was the son joining an assassin’s guild. That’s what starts the argument, but other things come up. The mother’s death, his wife’s illness, the father’s shame at his son’s decision. These aren’t really what the arguments about, but contribute to keeping the argument going.

Adjusting Resolution: Not every argument should be resolved quickly. People need time to cool down, especially if an arguments get personal or the stakes are high. There’s also a level of tension if a character leaves an argument half-finished; what if they don’t get chance to make amends? They could be heading out to battle; what if one of the arguers dies?

Beware the Bickering: Two people are thrown together by circumstance, and must stay in each other’s company because of reasons! But one considers his counterpart brash and arrogant, while the other sees his travelling companion as weak and snobby! What could possibly ensue but hilarity?

Annoyance. Annoyance will ensue if they can’t resolve their differences. Annoyance will make every line they say a chore. Especially if the argument is the first time we meet a character. Let’s try a quick example;

A fighter, a thief and a wizard walk into a bar. They want to find a healer. When one turns up, the healer chastises the thief for his criminal nature. He curses the wizard for using godless magic, and makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the ‘dumb brute’ fighter.

The three all agree to find find a nicer healer.

We’re not given a reason to like the healer. The healer’s a complete jerk! Can you imagine wanting him to stick around? Let’s try again;

A thief and a wizard rush into town; the fighter’s grievously injured, and they need to find a healer. When one turns up, he uses his magic to patch up the fighter, but won’t accept money off the thief, considering it a crime to accept stolen money. When the fighters recovered, he recognises the use in having a healer join the group. The healer has some misgivings about joining, but isn’t in a position to turn down work, especially as the fighter still owes him for the first patch-up. Along the journey, the healer and wizard have good-natured arguments over the good and bad aspects of each other’s magic, and despite his initial distrust of the thief, the healer recognises when his skills are useful in picking locks or hiding from enemies.

There; the argument isn’t gone entirely, but it’s spread out over a length of time to make us appreciate the healer’s characters. He still argues a little with the thief, dislikes the wizard’s magic and might consider the fighter a dumb brute, but he’s not slamming his beliefs against our established characters. What’s more, he gave aid to the injured fighter before arguing with the thief. That’s enough reason to, if not like the guy, then at least not hate him.

But maybe your characters are more stubborn? Let’s try again.

A thief and a wizard rush into town; the fighter’s grievously injured, and they need to find a healer. When one turns up, he uses his magic to patch up the fighter, but won’t accept money off the thief, considering it a crime to accept stolen money. The thief takes umbrage at this; how is his money worse than anyone elses? The healer knows about the thief’s criminal nature; he’s been branded by the guard, so he might’ve been caught stealing at some point. The thief argues that it was years ago and the fighter’s been helping him reform; the healer begins to question how the fighter got injured in the first place. The fight is stopped, however, by the fighter; he recovers his sense enough to thank his healer, explains his injury, and tells the others to leave it till the morning when he can sort out payments. The next morning, the thief and healer are cold to each other, but the fighter recognises the benefits of them working together. The healer is doubtful, saying he won’t help in any crimes. With the fighter’s assurances of honest payment, the party’s journey continues.

The argument has a bit of tension to it, but the healer’s not so annoying the party won’t want him around (as well as the audience). Also remember the following point...

‘Screw this, I’ll do it alone!’: A common goal isn’t enough to stop people splitting apart if their differences are too great. Yeah, the evil baron needs defeating, but would you rather work with people who hate you, or that you get on with? Besides, if everyone else is a tool, they’re not going to be much use against the evil baron, are they? Especially if they’re criminals, godless magicians and dumb brutes!

Some fiction uses the situation to keep characters together. Red Dwarf has a central animosity between Lister and Rimmer that runs through the entire TV show and book series, but also isolates the characters from the world they knew. Farscape features a lot of bickering between the main crew of the Moya, however they can’t split up; they’re all wanted criminals, and at least together they have a mutual defence. If they split up, the Peacekeepers would presumably imprison them again. In your story, if the arguments continue without either side backing down, there must be a good reason why people don’t part ways. ‘Because the plot says so’ isn’t a good reason.

Above all, have fun. While as a person I’m shy and quiet, I find writing an argument fun; it gives me a chance to write heightened emotions in a way other scenes can’t. But that’s just my opinion; feel free to debate if you disagree.

No comments: