Fantasy Writing: 5 Things To Keep Your Characters Busy While They Talk

It’s tough sometimes when writing a fantasy novel and you come to a scene in which your characters are doing this number:

“We must collect the ring, Reginald,” Thaddeus said.

“I understand,” Reginald said. “It will be a long journey.”

“Yes it will.”

“Are you ready?”

“Yes, I am,” Thaddeus said. “Let me collect my sword.”

What are these characters doing while they’re talking? Just staring nose to nose? Is one guy sort of paying attention while the other is picking his nose? I think this kind of structure is fine, but too many “he said/she saids” can maybe lull a reader into a stupor. Mixing it up a bit helps keep readers on their toes. So what can you have your characters do while they are talking?

Here are some ideas:

1. Play a game

“So tomorrow we’re going to kill that dragon,right?” “Yeah, right after I bite the mailman.”

You see it all the time. Characters playing cards, chess, putt-putt golf, whatever. This is a good way to have your characters not only physically play a game, but how people play games can say a lot about their character. Do you have a grumpy warlock that burns the cards every time he loses? You have a rogue who sneaks cards in the sleeves of her coat when others aren’t looking? Do you have an ogre that crushes the chess board a la Chewbacca? Actions can say a lot more than words. So having a game going on while your characters are talking can add a lot to the discussion and make it feel more realistic.

2. Eat

Yeah, yeah, I already used this image. Just pretend Tyrion is there drinking spiced wine or something.

George R.R. Martin is fond of writing scenes with his characters eating. I personally like many of these scenes simply because you learn so much about different types of people and their cultures by what they eat. The Manderlys eat lamprey pies (can’t imagine that) while the Dothraki eat horse. Daenerys has eaten many an olive in her day. Many awesome discussions have been made over food. If you have characters sitting down for food, there are all sort of topics that can be broached. Its too salty, its delicious, is this goat, what’s this purple meat, can I have more wine/beer/ale, etc. Or you can have the characters discuss war, politics, a marriage, a death, an assassination attempt, anything under the sun. It’s always fun to read about a warlord with wine dribbling from his mouth and a turkey leg in his hand ramble on about his next conquest. The same goes for a calculating sorceress enjoying a cup of black tea with her sentient cat.

3. An Interesting Setting

I know this isn’t a picture, but my entry won a contest for Fantasy-Faction’s website a while back. It was about a setting, specially with the theme “The City.” My entry featured a city made of black glass. Not the best place you’d want to retire.

The old reliable inn/tavern. A haunted castle. A deep, dank dungeon. These are pretty tried and true fantasy settings. You can do a lot with these to beef up interaction, have new characters/creatures wander in, make new characterizations (your priest is a violent drunk, your king talks to the ghosts of his victims, your dragon slayer has horrible night vision, etc.)

However, thinking outside the box can also be interesting. Have your characters talking as they climb up a wall of sheer obsidian or have them screaming at each other as a tornado rips through the village. There are many creative interactions characters can have if the setting makes the circumstances different or brings out something new in their character.

4. Inner Thoughts

What are you thinking “Beautiful Young Woman Thinking” stock photo? You hate me? Oh…

Always a popular choice, a character may be saying one thing while thinking another. This is a great way to “give your characters something to do” as they’re talking. Maybe your character’s mind is wandering as he’s talking about a planned siege. Or another character is thinking about an ex-boyfriend while she is in bed with her current lover. These options can make scenes multi-layered and can do a lot of work without your characters actually “doing” anything.

5. Working on Something

Dude, I’m at work right now. Can you come back later when I’m not grinding a dragonbone war axe?

A painter chats with a client while sketching a dead minotaur. A wizard tinkers with a device that may or may not tear the fabric of space in half. A warrior lines up his shiny collection of swords and polishes each one of them. People don’t always just sit across from each other and talk. They’re busy. If they’re interrupted, they may carry on doing what they were doing before the conversation started. This is what I’ll call “The Skyrim Effect.” I know this from a video game, but if you know anything about the Elder Scrolls series, in the fourth installment Oblivion the characters would just stand there and talk to you, blinking periodically. With Skyrim, the characters continued working at a forge or look up from a book they were reading. This shows that just because someone is talking with your characters, they don’t just drop everything they’re doing, talk, stare, and blink.

So these are just some of my ideas. How about you? What do you do to vary up the types of interactions your characters have? Please share!

And remember, all fantasy, all the time!