Sometimes it happens. You’ve got a main character, maybe your protagonist, who for some reason or another is alone. Maybe they’re bitter and disillusioned, avoiding human contact. Maybe something causes others to shun them. Maybe they’re trapped in a prison cell, chained to a wall, alone. Either way, this can cause difficulties in a story. How does a writer move the action forward, reveal information when there is no one around for dialogue?
Without dialogue, your pages looks like a Henry James novel, block after block of unrelenting text. Well written dialogue helps a writer avoid the dreaded info dump by allowing a character to reveal pieces of his past to a stranger, educate a friend on a vital piece of background for the plot, or cement a relationship with commonalities. It’s the interaction between people that brings them to live and keeps the reader from being bogged down in mental ramblings and reminiscences of a protagonist or omniscient narrator. But what to do when there is no one to dialogue with?
One recent best seller that faces this is The Hunger Games. Katniss does interact with the others, but she generally holds herself aloof from people. The early part of the book is filled with her remembrances, and her internal struggles and fears. This is further exacerbated by the fact that the book is written in first person. A third person view would allow a reader to break from a solitary character and learn more about them through the view of others. A few criticisms I’ve heard about The Hunger Games is that the book seems annoyingly self obsessed – Katniss, Katniss, Katniss. That’s a huge danger of first person point of view, and the protagonist’s solitary nature highlighted this problem. The issue only gets worse when the games start and the heroine is totally alone, struggling to survive away from the other contestants. But right when the book should disintegrate, it gets good. Because there is action. Yes, there is a whole lot of internal thought about strategy, thirst, concern over injuries, but there is action to carry the reader through this. The pacing becomes excellent, edge of your seat scenes followed by a breather for some thoughts and strategy, then another desperate dash for survival. This is where I think The Hunger Games excelled. Katniss was acceptable solo because of the action.
It’s not just the written word that faces this issue. In Cast Away, the writers struggled with how to present an entire movie with a man alone on an island. The simple solution is to have the protagonist narrate the entire movie while the action plays out. I’ve seen movies like this. Briefly. Before I changed the channel. There are few things more boring that watching several hours of one person wandering around doing stuff while his voice drones on in the background about his feelings, desperate thoughts, what he misses from back home. Cast Away was brilliant because of Wilson. A person alone for any length of time is a person who will step to the edge of sanity. What better way to show the intense loneliness and need for companionship than to have the hero draw a face on a volleyball and spend the movie conversing with it as a friend? Dialogue. But dialogue with an inanimate object. And it was made totally believable by the circumstances of the hero. Genius.
Let me know how you’ve dealt with the issues of a solitary character. Have you noticed this type of character in books or movies? What worked or didn’t work?