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Months after starting my first novel (which hasn't made any progress and is still in its first draft) I feel I can only react to a given situation rather than create one. The same seems to apply to my characters. The conversations feel very forced and nothing seems to be helping me make them better.

Even though I want the novel to be a third person narrative, would it help if I wrote from each character's POV to think like that character and understand how that particular character would react to the situation?

What other methods would make the conversations feel more natural?
Here is a link to what I have written so far.

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If the characters are only reacting, give each character something to want. A desire strong enough that the character will struggle to achieve it. Then make the character struggle.

For dialogue, give each character an agenda. Things they want from the conversation. Things they do not want to happen. Things they do not want to reveal. And make sure their agendas conflict.

The agendas may show up directly in the dialogue. Or they may show up indirectly, in the way the characters say things, or in what they don't say, or in what they pay attention to, or in the way they react to each other.

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I think the problem with dialogue is often that people try to make it sound like real conversation when that isn't the purpose at all. The purpose of dialogue in a novel is to convey a point, but using a character to do so, instead of just telling the fact.

Don't worry too much about what the character is saying, initially just get their point across, even if it is without dialogue. So maybe in your first draft simply have

Bob told everyone he was going to the shop for a turnip.

then as you learn more about your character you will get a better feel for how he would say that line. So your second draft might replace it with

"Hey everyone, I'm all out of turnips here! I gotta go shop..."

Don't get too hung up with stuff that is to do with getting to know your characters, you will get to know them as the story progresses. At the end of your first draft you will be able to go back and get a much better feel for what they are going to say.

Don't aim for perfect on the first draft. (Or the second, third, forth or fifth for that matter) Just know the second (third, forth,fifth) will be a vast improvement.

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  • I do the opposite. First draft is all talky, full of dialog. In later drafts I delete or summarize in order to focus on the relevant things that people are saying. (Sometimes a whole conversation ends up as a single sentence.) – Ken Mohnkern Jan 9 at 18:48
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The trick is to identify what is driving your story forward. Is it event driven (the volcano is about to erupt and everyone is reacting to that) or is people driven (a group of people decide to rob the local museum while everyone else is distracted by a volcano).

For some reason, it's easier to write when events drive the narrative. Everyone just reacts to something external that's going on. But that's exactly the problem you're describing. Your characters aren't people, they're passengers.

Sometimes events happen. Eventually the volcano will erupt and your characters will need to deal with it. Before that, however, they need to drive the story, which means they need to control events.

It might be easier if you identify those goals in advance. Instead of writing from the point of view of the character, write a very short biography instead. Identify what each character wants, what they are afraid of, who they care about, and (most importantly) why they want that, fear that, care about that person. A story should be about an individual's pursuit of happiness and all the flawed ways we go about obtaining it.

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I've heard that you need to discover your character's strengths and weaknesses, motivations, and their backstory. Get to know your characters and what makes them special. Good characters should have these things directly influencing each other. If you understand what makes your character who they are, what motivates them, ect., then you can understand how they specifically would respond to a given situation.

As for the issue of them reacting to situations and not creating them (if I'm understanding you right), maybe it's an issue of active vs. passive characters. Main characters should be active (their decisions directly influence the plot), rather than passive (the plot influences them - active characters can be influenced by the plot, but their choices should matter).

One resource I've learned a lot from is the YouTube channel Writing With Jenna Moreci (be warned that she does use a lot of humor and bad words to relay her extremely helpful and intelligent information). She has videos that go into detail about character backstories, arcs, and active vs. passive characters.

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