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I'm currently writing a journey-focused plot arc, and I'm struggling a bit with the character interactions. To give you some background, the protagonist is a lone wolf of sorts whose job is akin to a nomadic exorcist. He gets wounded at the start of the series, and a bar maiden nurses him back to health. She insists on joining him in his journey to the capital. He begrudgingly allows her to tag along, since he knows that in his weakened state, it isn't safe to venture in the woods alone.

However, the protagonist doesn't particularly like that the bar maiden has joined him, and he's a rather stoic figure so he doesn't say much in general. The problem is, since this is at the beginning of the story I have to allow the reader to get to know these characters... I find this harder to do when one of the characters doesn't really want to talk to the other one. I was hoping maybe someone can give good examples of featuring a duo who doesn't get along and yet, their dialogue still makes the journey interesting?

These characters are mostly traveling in seclusion, so there aren't many other characters who can prompt more conversation. I could make them enjoy each other's company in time, but I struggle with that buildup as well.

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    Not sure if you are aware, but this question is a candidate for our current tag challenge. – linksassin Jun 5 at 6:06
  • Oh - actually I had no idea. – ani ben Jun 5 at 6:08
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    To be clear, they don't know each other at first, right? Why doesn't he like her? Just a bad first impression because she imposed herself on him, or is there something about her that he dislikes? Personally I think it would be more interesting if the characters were neutral about each other at first and then grew to dislike each other as a consequence of the time they shared. – PoorYorick Jun 5 at 18:16
  • I think the male protagonist has been in seclusion for so long that he has convinced himself he enjoys his life that way. The female character, on the other hand, is more outgoing and earnest, and that bothers him. Although they don't know each other at first, the fact that the two characters share different faiths cause a rift of sorts as well. The female protagonist wants to convert him, since he's in a "blasphemous" profession involving dark magic. – ani ben Jun 6 at 6:04
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Actually, the fact that one of your characters doesn’t want to talk has the potential of making the dialogue more interesting. You have created conflict between your characters, and conflict is interesting. Mr. Stoic’s reluctance to communicate says a lot about his nature and will give your barmaid the opportunity to bounce her personality off his wall of silent begrudgery. She is going to provoke him, intentionally or not is up to you, and he is going to respond, whether he intends to or not.

So, how do you pull this off? There are several techniques you could use.

  1. Body language. Actions speak louder than words and Mr. Stoic is going to have some quirks and gestures that he uses without thinking, most of us do. If there’s a fly buzzing around your ear, your going to swat it away. A silly woman trying to chat your ear off might get the same treatment. Or, you might pick up the pace to put some distance between you. Try fist-clenching, teeth grinding, shrugging, eye-rolling. Does she notice and back off, or try harder to get a reaction?

  2. Word choice. Make every word he speaks matter. If he’s going to be a man of few words then make them count. Don’t give him too many yes or no questions he can easily brush off (though a few are fine.). Force some information out of him if you have to.

  3. Inner dialogue. Mr. Stoic may not have a lot to say but I bet he has a lot on his mind. He doesn’t have to tell the barmaid what he’s thinking, he can tell your reader directly. This will also give you the opportunity to drop hints of his backstory.

  4. Create challenges. Make them have to work together. There are only two of them, so when obstacles present themselves they have no one to depend on but each other. They may not want to trust each other, so put them in situations where they have no choice.

For example:

“The bridge is out.” Trixie said.

Oscar didn’t answer. No need to repeat the obvious.

“How will we get across?” She continued.

“We swim.”

“I can’t swim.”

Of course, she couldn’t. This trip was turning into a nightmare.

“And you shouldn’t. The filthy water will re-infect your wound.” The woman nagged more than the nuns who’d raised him. But, she was right.

He grunted, disgusted by the truth. A nice, fever induced delirium would be a welcome break from Trixie’s endless badgering, too bad he was in such a hurry to save this godforsaken world.

I know there are examples of this type of character dynamic in literature and media, but I can’t think of any of the top of my head.

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    +1 Great answer. As for examples, The Station Agent has some great, dialog-based character exposition using a introverted, interaction-avoiding, taciturn protagonist. – Chris Sunami Jun 5 at 20:00
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You could play them as opposites. He hardly talks at all, she talks enough for both of them!

She is not unaware or oblivious to him, but she just chatters along, asking him questions that he doesn't answer, making up her own answers, telling about her life and things that happened and her family and her neighbors and adventures she has had, or heard about. Just an endless stream of consciousness, filling the silence.

Every once in awhile, he will answer a question, and she listens.

And he doesn't like it, at first. But he's not going to complain, she saved his life. He's got a code, he thinks of this as fair payment. But after a while, he grows used to it. Then he starts to listen to her, and curiosity gets the better of him: He asks questions. She answers, and once in a while trades him an answer for an answer; so he is answering questions.

Make your barmaid smart and perceptive, she understands people. She knows when it is okay to push forward with him a little, and when she should leave him alone. She can read his feelings, and know when he's irritated, or a topic pains him, or embarrasses him, or when he is secretly humored by her stories.

Being an uncommunicative stoic is a recipe for isolation and loneliness. He may have become numb to that loneliness, and think of it as solitude. But because he is that way, she will soon be the person that "gets him" better than anybody else in the world. If you want him to love her, in either a romantic or platonic sense, this can be the recipe for that.

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Two things come to mind:

  1. You don't necessarily need character interaction to develop characters you can work with POV switches and develop the characters through their different reactions to situations arising.

  2. You can force the characters to interact within the narrative due to external pressure; if they are beset by dangers that require them to work together they must communicate, even though they detest each other, once they're in the habit of talking to each other as a matter of necessity it's reasonable to have them start talking at other times as well.

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If Maiden is plucky as LoneWolf is terse, perhaps Maiden can simply answer for him until his looks of wild surmise are not enough and he actually breaks into speech. Perhaps she could be funny and clever and if not win him over exactly, then at least provide company and occasional help with bandaging those hard-to-reach wounds. Matilda and Amadeus' answers to this Q both appeal to me greatly. Just wanted to add the suggestion that Maid's making up far-fetched answers for Wolf might provide a decent comedic counterpoint to intervals of extreme danger (I'm assuming this journey will be fraught with same), showing her courage/pluck and his wood-smarts (or whatever it is we need to see) while building their tolerance for one another's personalities.

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Augment your dialog with narrative and action.

What is the most extreme thing he can do and/or say to communicate his dislike of her? Would he hurt her? Verbally abuse her? Why or why not? Write such a scene.

What is the most extreme thing she can do? Go ahead and write that scene too.

Or turn it on its head, too. Don't make his feeling simple dislike--give it a layer or two of complexity. Maybe... He doesn't want to be around her for a reason. Ideally, it'd be something specific the reader can grab onto, not a vague generality ("lone wolf") but something specific. She smells like a decomposing corpse. She's better educated than him. Anything specific makes it more vibrant.

"You know Bob?" I say in disbelief.

"That's one way of putting it," she answers with a laugh.

"From Kilkenny."

"That's right. He even proposed to me once, you know. But he's not really a family man, not like you. I said no."

If that don't beat all. The dame knows Kilkenny Bob--the man who cheated me out of my fortune in a fixed poker game. And she says they were a thing, her and Bob, an item, for over a year, if you can believe it! So now I'm s'posed to be thankful to her for her 'gentle ministrations?' Sheesh. Not likely.

I pick up her suitcase and hurl it, hard, across the car, and it hits with a satisfying crack, and her jaw about falls to the floor. Now I'm the one laughing. She hurries over to grab it, and I think, not for the first time, the dame has gams that could rival Paltrow. I give 'em a hard look as she bends over the seat.

Take that, Bob.

Might not be my finest moment, but screw it. He's the reason I'm in this mess to begin with.

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