May 16 2012

Please Avoid Having Characters Repeat Each Other

Published by at 7:29 am under Dialogue,Scene-Building

Character 1: “Bob and I are going to Vancouver for the summer.”

Character 2: “Vancouver?”

 

Character 2 comes across as sort of mentally slow, right? Unless you’re trying to make characters sound slow (or totally disoriented), I would recommend against having them just repeat each other.

 

Whenever a character says something, it should develop a character and/or advance the plot (e.g. conflicts, goals/motivations, major decisions, etc).  For example, you can use questions to bring in new details rather than just repeating something that has already been introduced.

 

Here are some more interesting responses to “Bob and I are going to Vancouver for the summer.”

  • “Where’d you get the money for that?”
  • “What about your job?”
  • “But there are Canadians there. You don’t even own a gun!” (This character isn’t much smarter than in the original, but is definitely more memorable).
  • “Isn’t Bob convinced the airlines are trying to kill him? How are you getting there?”
  • “Did that Canadian put you up to this?”

 

 

21 responses so far

21 Responses to “Please Avoid Having Characters Repeat Each Other”

  1. Beccaon 16 May 2012 at 3:18 pm

    I’m a Vancouverite and I approve this message.

  2. B. McKenzieon 16 May 2012 at 3:20 pm

    Heh, thanks. I might still have some hard feelings over a certain hockey series. 😛

  3. Beccaon 16 May 2012 at 4:10 pm

    Oh, we’ve completely forgotten you guys in the wake of Boston. And now I guess L.A. Grrr…

  4. B. McKenzieon 16 May 2012 at 6:00 pm

    Ah, it’s okay. You may have forgotten. But Chicagoans only bury the hatchet in the enemy’s back. Much like elephants

  5. Cuddleson 17 May 2012 at 3:29 am

    Thanks B. Mac! I’ve seen this problem a lot in anime (“[made up word] desuka?”), but was blind to it in my own work because I couldn’t think of a better way. You’ve totally ramped up the dialogue of my next draft with this post.

  6. B. McKenzieon 17 May 2012 at 5:04 am

    Relatedly, Cuddles, if a sentence introduces Invented Word X, “What’s [Invented Word X]?” is generally mundane and unnecessary compared to a more specific question that shows the character has been paying attention to the conversation. For example, if John Doe hasn’t heard of the Avengers Initiative, he can probably make some inferences (which may or may not be correct) about what the Avengers are by the way Nick Fury is trying to recruit him and the fact that Nick Fury is going after people with backgrounds in extreme violence. (So, at the very least, he can guess it’s not a cooking show).

    E.g. Instead of “What are the Avengers?”, maybe something like “What do you want me to do?” or “Why choose me [for the Avengers]?”

  7. Beccaon 17 May 2012 at 10:00 pm

    Even asking “What are the Avengers?” is better than having him repeat “The Avengers?” like a moron 🙂

  8. Mynaon 18 May 2012 at 2:43 am

    I’ve found that the whole repeating-things-other-characters-are-saying thing only works if the character is really out of it. For example, in Looking for Alaska by John Green, the main character gets whammed in the head with a basketball and ends up having a concussion, and while he’s recovering he talks to his friend, but is fairly incoherent. It’s a good way to make characters seem disoriented, like you said.

  9. B. McKenzieon 18 May 2012 at 8:30 am

    “Even asking ‘What are the Avengers?’ is better than having him repeat ‘The Avengers?’ like a moron.” Agreed.

    “I’ve found that the whole repeating-things-other-characters-are-saying thing only works if the character is really out of it. For example, in Looking for Alaska by John Green, the main character gets whammed in the head with a basketball and ends up having a concussion…” That sounds like it could be really effective. In real life, if somebody started repeating things I had said, the first two possibilities that would come to mind would be 1) some sort of mental issue (perhaps a concussion, disorientation, or drugs) or 2) linguistic difficulties, especially if the term is slang or advanced vocabulary.

    E.g. “It’d be really cool to go to Florida.” –> “Cool? I heard Florida was very sunny.”

  10. Linebylineon 19 May 2012 at 7:45 am

    Okay, but what about this construction:

    Character 1 explains some ridiculous plan that culminates in something outlandish or non-sequitur-ish. Squirrels, let’s say.

    Character 2: “‘Squirrels’?”

    The scene itself is a bit of a cliché, I guess, but it doesn’t look to me like the repitiion itself is a problem. Do you think that (in keeping with the “What are the Avengers?” example) it would work better as, “Did you just say, ‘squirrels’?” or something similar?

  11. Revengelon 21 May 2012 at 9:41 am

    I agree with Linebyline – it’s more the context.

    Readers like to connect with a character and I feel that *when used sparingly* repeating what the first character said can and has worked.

    “You must learn the ways of The Force.”
    “The Force?”
    [insert explination that does not involve microscopic creatures]

    Or:
    “Have you heard of The Avengers Initiative?”
    “No I haven’t” or “Avengers?” or “Is that some kind of drink?”
    All three of those *could* be spoken by the current representation of Tony Stark, though I’ll put more money on the last one.

    Just a thought…

  12. B. McKenzieon 21 May 2012 at 10:24 am

    AGENT ORANGE: While the hostages are certainly in some danger, at least the hostiles are badly outnumbered.
    GARY: What? There’s at least 5 terrorists in here. Do we have even backup coming?
    AGENT ORANGE: Our squirrels are already here.
    GARY: [Disbelief] Squirrels?
    AGENT ORANGE: [Facepalm] How have you survived this long? Maneating squatter rodents. They’re here, and hungry. Now we just need to mark a target. The peanut butter is in the car. If you’re fond of your limbs, don’t get any on you.



    I feel like Gary comes across as pretty dumb for asking “Squirrels?” here. It’s not the most intelligent/active way to show skepticism or doubt. Unless that’s intentional, when character 1 says something aggressively crazy and/or hard to believe, I’d like character 2 to respond in a more assertive fashion than simply repeating what was hard to believe in the form of a question.



    “You must learn the ways of The Force.”
    “The Force?”

    I feel like there are more artful ways to show that the second character does not know what the Force is (e.g. asking a question about what it will take to learn the Force, or why he should, or offering an objection).

  13. Revengelon 21 May 2012 at 11:43 am

    See, I actually liked what was written in the Agent Orange/Gary exchange. Gary comes across as…well…someone I could take as a real person. If you take 50 people off the street and put them in the above scenario it’s likely that 40+ of them say “Squirrels?” in that situation.

    To me exchanges like that – when used sparingly – can convey a very real reaction by “the person on the street”. To use TV as an example there’s the show Eureka. Sherrif Carter is the only non-genius in a town full of them, and he would react very much the same way that Gary would in most situations. There are examples of this in written works as well (West Pacific Supers comes to mind since I’m on the second book as we speak) and the reaction I had as a reader is the same.

    To constantly repeat the first character is a pitfall unless the second character is less inteligent. E.G. – there’s a great example of this in Black Panther written by Christopher Preist using The Hulk. However to use it occasionally can certainly work.

    Because sometimes the most accurate and engaging reaction to someone saying they plan to go to Vancouver is to say:

    “Vancouver..?”

  14. B. McKenzieon 21 May 2012 at 12:30 pm

    “If you take 50 people off the street and put them in the above scenario it’s likely that 40+ of them say ‘Squirrels?’ in that situation.” They haven’t worked with Orange long enough to know whether he’s serious. Gary knows. If Gary asks “squirrels?” even though he knows Agent Orange literally meant what he said, I think he’d come across as less intelligent and interesting than if he responded in a more individualized, distinct way (e.g. more assertively). I’d prefer something like:

    GARY: What? There’s at least 5 terrorists in there. Do we have even backup coming?
    AGENT ORANGE: Our squirrels are already here.
    GARY: [facepalm] What are squirrels going to do? Bite them to death?
    AGENT ORANGE: We just need to mark a target. Peanut butter’s in the car. Keep it off any limbs you’d miss.

    I think the main change here is that it cuts out a passage where Gary essentially asks Agent Orange to confirm he’s serious (and explain the joke). Isn’t it funnier if Gary already knows AO is serious? (Also, Gary SHOULD know what’s going on, given that this isn’t the first or second time AO has done something completely outlandish).



    “Because sometimes the most accurate and engaging reaction to someone saying they plan to go to Vancouver is to say ‘Vancouver?'” I think there are a few exceptions, but I’d recommend staying away from it unless you have a situation like:
    1) You’re showing that the character is mentally dull and/or not paying much attention.

    2) The character is totally disoriented.

    3) Character B thinks Character A might not be talking literally. For example, if this is a police officer’s first time working with Agent Orange, he might assume that “squirrels” is some sort of slang term or code because the idea of using squirrels against terrorists is so counterintuitive.

    4) For whatever reason, Character B has never heard of the word and doesn’t have the context to ask a better question. For example, if character A tells a rural Botswanan that he’s been dreaming of Vancouver, “Vancouver?” is probably a smoother and more natural response than “What’s Vancouver?” or “I don’t know what Vancouver is.” However, if character B knows anything about Vancouver, then “Vancouver?” is probably not the most interesting response available.

  15. Revengelon 21 May 2012 at 1:07 pm

    “They haven’t worked with Orange long enough to know whether he’s serious. Gary knows. ”

    And that’s my bad. I took it as a one-off rather than being in an established working relationship & figured you just used the two characters for names.

    If I change Agent Orange to The Tick and Gary to Tom Brokaw I read that & completely side with Tom. Granted that’s a personal preference.

    *******

    I completely agree that to repeat again and again is a poor way to write a novel. But if there’s a case where for example the character has shown a disdain for a destination but she’s decided to go there anyway the conversation could be more like this:

    “So after I finish with these Congressional Hearings,” Colonel Fury boasted, “I’m going on some R and R.”
    “R and R” agent Coleson asked. “Where to?”
    “Pacfic Northwest, agent. Vancouver to be percise.”
    “Vancouver?”
    “That’s what I said.”
    “But sir? You said you hated Vancouver.”
    “Yes I did.”
    “But you’re going there for…R and R?”
    “Agent, sometimes the best R and R is to blow some s*** up. And *that’s* why I’m going to Vancouver.

    ———

    Here I feel the response of ‘Vancouver’ makes complete sense. Thoughts?

  16. B. McKenzieon 21 May 2012 at 1:20 pm

    FURY: I’m going to Vancouver on some R and R.
    COULSON: After the Skrull mission, you said you wouldn’t go back there even if Dr. Doom were killing everybody.
    FURY: Did I say what I’d do if a 300-foot mutant parakeet were killing everybody? Did I?
    COULSON: I’ll get the rockets.
    FURY: Right answer.



    If you wanted, it wouldn’t matter much if you inserted “Vancouver?” at the start of Coulson’s first line, but I wouldn’t recommend having that be the only thing he says there. It doesn’t give Fury as much to respond to as something like a piece of information about why Coulson finds it surprising that Fury would go to Vancouver.

  17. Gogopowon 21 May 2012 at 5:44 pm

    I agree. It’s pointless fluff. It’s annoying when it happens in real conversations. Personally, I hate it because when I catch someone in trouble, they repeat my words back to me as if trying to be dumb. If it’s obnoxious in real life, it will be in writing. (Which is why I don’t write dialogue in accents. If I have a hard time enough when faced with people who speak differently, why would I want to translate that in a book?)

    It doesn’t add any characterization. It also kills really funny moments. Dialogue should always reveal the character’s personality. I read that dialogue is a different language than what you speak. I think it should be more interesting than just repeating people’s words. Sure, if writer’s really wanted to cling repeating words, they can. It won’t always make a book bad, but it can make a good book better.

  18. Alpha Flighton 17 Dec 2014 at 7:07 am

    Hey! What does this blog have against Canadians?! What did we ever do to deserve such treatment ? (but if we are deserving of such discrimination, I am very sorry that we did something to offend you. We’ll try to make it up to you, eh?) Besides… We only have one lethal superhero that I know of. 😛

  19. B. McKenzieon 17 Dec 2014 at 5:35 pm

    “What does this blog have against Canadians?!” http://sports.espn.go.com/chicago/nhl/columns/story?columnist=lebrun_pierre&id=6434987

  20. redassassinon 22 Mar 2019 at 5:50 am

    This is about the thing above with the whole “Vancouver?” thing.

    “Bob and I are going to Vancouver for the summer.” (I’m just am going to ignore tags for now)
    Character Two(or first person) spat out the drink(I don’t know an idea). “Van*couver*?!”

  21. B. McKenzieon 24 Mar 2019 at 12:12 am

    Character 1: “Bob and I are going to Vancouver for the summer.”
    Character 2 spits out drink. “Van*couver*?!”

    I’d recommend checking out the above threads, I think character 2’s response here isn’t giving character 1 much to respond to. (E.g. compared to a piece of information about why Vancouver would be particularly surprising or objectionable).

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