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How do you write a character that only the protagonist can hear and/or understand?

I'm writing a story with this doll as the antagonist, but the doll is only a figment of the protagonist's imagination. So we don't see what she says but the girl responds with comments because the girl thinks she is real.

I'm having a hard time writing in this way, but I think it is important to make sure that the reader doesn't hear the doll speak. The way I'm thinking about it is like R2D2 in Star Wars, where we always know what he said but we never understand him upfront. If anyone has any ideas, I would be grateful if you could help me out.

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    Is the reader supposed to understand the doll isn't real? Or are you building on some kind of suspense leaving the reader wondering? – Llewellyn Jan 26 at 18:17
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I would suggest that you write the doll as if she has dialog like a normal character and have her "talk" while you are writing. I call this the "Groot Script" after a leak from Avengers: Infinity War directors reveal that in any Marvel Cinimatic Universe film that features the character of Groot, who speaks a language where the only dialog is "I am Groot" (though there is a fourth word)) there is a secret copy of the script that is given to Vin Diesel only that takes all his "I am Groots" and "translates" them into English so Diesel can say the 3 words with the right tone and inflection to convey what he is really saying in that line, and the manner in which to say it, and the response or set up his statement flows to and from.

This was also done by Peter Mayhew in his role as Chewbacca as well as limited use for R2-D2 and Darth Vader's actors. In all cases, the character's voices were dubbed in during post-production, so the suit actors (numerous R2 pilots, David Prowse for Vader respectively) would have scripts and deliver lines on set only for them to be dubbed after the footage had been shot. In the case of Chewie and R2, this had the bonus of allowing Harrison Ford and Anthony Daniels to reply as if the line was delivered by someone not howling or beeping and to keep on the proper cues. David Prowse's acting also served this for Mark Hamil but it's more famously known for allowing a major twist to be kept from leaking in the sequel "Empire Strikes Back" (and if you don't know it by now, shame on you). David Prowse was given the line "No Obi-Wan killed your Father" and was bewildered why Mark Hamil was over acting his disbelieving response (Hamil was only told the real line he had to respond to moments before the first take) and was shocked to learn that James Earl Jones (Vader's voice actor) delivered a completely different and more iconic line and Hamil was in the know (in fact, prior to the premire, only four people in the world knew the secret... Hamil, Jones, George Lucas, and Director Irvin Kershner (though Prowse thinks two others knew)).

The dialog for the "doll" serves the purpose of allowing you to script an actual conversation as well as pay attention to how the scene is staged and if the dialog stands on its own as allowing the reader to "fill in the blank" of the character they can't hear. Recall a lot of Han and C3P0's response to their vocally different partners are enough to understand basically what was said without knowing just what was said.

Another element to consider is having the doll posed, staged, or lit in the scene in a way that the way the girl and audience sees it fits the dialog... When planning out your dialog in your head, get a real doll and try to put it into poses and angles that will make the doll look as if her mood fits the conversation. V for Vendetta is a good film to get an idea as the titular hero is a man who wears a rigid Guy Fawkes mask the whole film and never removes it. His introductory scene is a good watch as through the actor's movements, the lighting, and the camera angles, V's mask changes its "mood" rather well for an object that is not flexible at all. He goes from dramatic to creepy to broody, to giddy, to charming and his "face" never looks out of place.

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This really comes down to point of view. If you are writing a first-person narrative (from the point of view of the girl), or a third-person close-perspective narrative (also from the point of view of the girl), you will need to provide the doll's dialog, because you are in the protagonist's head, and will see and hear things the way the protagonist does.

If you are writing a first-person narrative from a different person's point of view, or a third person limited point of view, you will be viewing the protagonist from the outside. In this case you will see and hear only what the girl herself says and does. In this case, the doll will appear as just like an ordinary doll.

This is a bit different from R2D2, because R2D2 does talk, we just don't speak his language. A wholly imaginary dialog doesn't make any (external) sounds. It's also quite a bit harder in text than in a movie, because in a book, you often have access to a character's inner life in a way that is not as usual in a movie.

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I think this is quite complicated and if you try to extend this kind of communication over time it may appears repetitive for the reader (that's why R2D2 does not "speak" too much. maybe 4 to 5 times per film).

That's being said, my approach to your problem would be:

  • "text here" -said the girls trying to answer the question she thought the doll was asking her.
  • "text here" - replied the girl out loud to the question that was made by the doll on her imagination.
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    I don't think it has to be as obvious as that. It could be clear from the girl's dialogue that she's responding to an unheard comment: "Yes, Polly, that's a great idea!" or "Thank you, Dora. (giggle) I like your dress, too." – Llewellyn Jan 26 at 18:20
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The doll's dialogue can be italicized, no quotes. Thoughts are often treated this way, so it seems like an understandable style for a silent "speaker."

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