Writing Advice

Help for Authors and Writers

The Craft of Writing: Confrontation Through Dialogue.

What does effective confrontational dialogue look like? What do the hero and villain say to each other?

I think there are two keys to writing a confrontation without it ending up flat: you, as author, must steel-man the characters’ arguments, which means you must really understand them even if you don’t subscribe to them, so the characters can make the strongest case possible of their worldview; and your characters must sincerely believe what they’re saying, even if you as author don’t.

A good antagonist isn’t a cardboard cutout. Protagonists don’t do what they do merely out of random spite. They have a goal. There’s a reason they do what they do. Even when they’re motivated by spite, they have an agenda, something they’re working toward (think Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello). They have their own code of conduct, even if it’s twisted.

You, the writer, must show the antagonist’s depth. Confrontational dialogue is an opportunity to do this, and to have your antagonist express, in his or her own words, the core beliefs behind attempts to thwart the protagonist. That’s not easy to do, especially if you have a character espousing a view you personally reject. But it’s important to be able to get inside your characters’ heads, to see the world the way they do.

Probably the best example of this in modern storytelling, I think, is Magneto in the X-Men movies. The movies themselves are pretty dreary and eminently forgettable, but the character Magneto stands out in part because he is passionate about what he believes. He argues strongly for it precisely because he comes from a place of sincerity—he’s not a mustache-twirling cartoon villain, he stands for something…something the audience can understand even if they don’t agree with his choices.

But you can still do this even if you personally, and the audience generally, doesn’t agree with the characters’ position; you have to present the dialogue as if the character believes it.

There’s a pivotal confrontation between two characters in the contemporary urban fantasy that Eunice and I are currently (as of the time of writing this essay) working on. Here’s a first-draft version of their confrontation that I think shows what I’m talking about:

“What do you want?” May said.

“What do I want? Everything.” Dormer spread his arms expansively. “All that there is, and more. It’s the birthright of those with the skill and the will to take what they’re due. But that’s not what I invited you here to discuss.” He leaned forward, gloved hands on his knee. “What do you want, Mèilì?”

“You don’t get to call me that!” May snapped. “Only my family calls me that.”

“Ah, but that’s part of what I am offering you. A family. Not a happenstance of birth, not some random bits of DNA, but a family of choice, made up of people like you. People who share your talent and can teach you the ways of power.”

“Do you have any idea how ridiculous you sound? You sound like an evil Yoda.”

“Good. Evil. How quaint.” Dormer gestured to the window. “Look out there. What do you see?”

A gigantic accumulator of magical force, May didn’t say. She had no idea how much Dormer knew she knew, and saw no reason to give him information he might not already have. “The Thames. What of it?”

He made a sound of exasperation, a small tchss between his teeth. “Don’t be dim. I know you’re better than that.” He waved his hand in the air as if clearing away some noxious smell. “This city was once the centre of an empire that spanned the entire globe, an empire upon which the sun quite literally never set. Your parents are from Hong Kong, are they not? Your family knows from personal experience what it’s like to have lived as British subjects, under British rule.” A quick hot flash of anger flared in May. “And yet,” he went on, “look at us today. An empire in ruins, voluntarily placing itself under the bootheel of its inferiors in Brussels. Do you know why the British flag was once feared and respected as a symbol of power throughout the world? We were a nation of embodied will, united by a singular vision. Now we are content with whatever scraps the Americans and the Chinese and the Russians leave for us. The war broke something in the British character. We beat back the Germans, only to bend the knee to a coalition of rabble on the Continent.”

May snorted. “Are you hearing yourself? Now you sound like a wannabe tin-pot megalomaniac dictator.”

“A dictator?” Dormer flicked his hand dismissively. “Nothing so crass. There are those who are content to allow others to control their destiny, to choose how they will live their lives. And there are those who believe in making their own. I am one of the latter sort.” His eyes narrowed. He studied May’s face closely, like a biologist examining some new species of beetle. “Which sort are you, I wonder? It has been interesting to watch you. So far, you’ve been mostly reactive, content to go about your little life with your little friends, no different from any of millions of other small people. But where a lesser person might see mediocrity, I see potential. You and I, we belong to the same rarified breed.”

“We are not the same,” May spat.

“Oh, but we are, despite our…” He looked her up and down. “Superficial differences. Why is it, do you suppose, that a tiny island nation, beset by enemies on all sides, was able to rule a globe-spanning empire? Some people will tell you it’s down to the superiority of the British race, usually because they have done nothing themselves but desire to claim some credit for the accomplishments of their betters merely by association.” His lips curled in disgust. “Such ideas are facile poppycock. They find champions in the most meritless of hangers-on, Cargo Cultists of biology who bask in the reflected glory of men of achievement on the basis of the slightest resemblance. No, it is no special virtue of the British race that enabled this nation’s former glory, but rather the virtue of those individuals who understood that the measure of a man is in what he can put his mind and his mettle to. It was the singular qualities of Alexander the Great, not some innate characteristic of the Greek, that enabled him to build an empire. Abbas ibn Abdul-Muttalib built his caliphate not by some virtue intrinsic to his race, but by the expression of his desire. I say this, Mèilì Yeung, so that you understand what I am offering.”

“Offering. Is that what you call it? You have a hell of a way of offering, dragging me out of a hospital and bringing me here. What, exactly, are you offering?”

“Everything you could ever desire. I offer you knowledge. You have a gift. I can teach you to unlock it in a way the people you’re now associated with cannot, because I know the truth they fear. I offer you the power to control your own destiny. You have a talent, Ms. Yeung, that sets you apart from the masses. With it, you can become the captain of your fate. I offer you freedom. I offer you unlimited opportunity to take the reins and remake the world as you see fit.” He leaned forward, eyes aglow. “There are two kinds of people in this world, Ms. Yeung, those who make their own way and those who trod the path laid down by others. You have a chance to be among the rare few who bend the world to their will instead of being bent by it. This is your life. Don’t surrender control of it to those of lesser stature. Value yourself, Ms. Yeung. Fight for your happiness.”

“Fight for my happiness.” The ember of rage flared hot. “Would it make me happy to have let you and your goons kill me and my friends? Is that the happiness you’re offering me? You came at us, and now you think you can offer me happiness? Are you even for real?”

“Indeed I am, Ms. Yeung. More real than the infantile illusions you cling to so stubbornly. Do you want to know why I did what I did? Because I saw an opportunity to act and I acted, as is my right. At this moment, you understand nothing. You are incapable of seeing the larger picture. You don’t even know what values those with whom you would cast your lot represent. I act with greater understanding, because I know the truth and you do not. The truth is not for everyone. It does not come to you without effort. It belongs only to those who seek it out. That is the greatest gift I offer you—the truth. The truth of your situation. The truth of those whom you consider friends. Not platitudes, not feel-good illusions. Do you think I delight in violence? Do you imagine me as some cartoon villain, gleefully cackling over chaos and destruction? Do you know what the greatest trait of humanity is?”

“I imagine I can’t stop you from telling me.”

“The greatest trait of humanity is our ability to reason, to understand the world the way it is, and having done so, to see the world that might be, to work to make it better. It is a difficult and dangerous undertaking, the most difficult any of us might ever set out upon. And sometimes it requires sacrifice, for there is nothing more common than the person who values conformity over choice, illusion over reality. I took no joy in trying to kill you or your friends. I set out to do what was necessary because that is what men of principle do. When you thwarted me, when you showed me that you are also a person who will not simply lie down, I knew that you might have that essential spark within you to see the world as it is, not as you would like it to be, and so to set about remaking it in your own image.”
The antagonist’s rationalizations and explanations are obviously self-serving, but that’s part of the point. Confrontations with the protagonist offer your antagonist an opportunity to present their best version of their beliefs.

To write a confrontation that the reader will accept, you need to inhabit the characters well enough that you see the world through their eyes and value, at least for those moments when you’re writing their words, what they value.

Even if it’s reprehensible.