Dialogue and Arguing the Other Side

I’ve been thinking lately about dialogue and what it means. The use of dialogue is, of course, obvious: a tool, the same as any other, a way to move the story forward, and make leaps in the reader’s understanding, as well as a helpful variance in rhythm.

The difficulty with dialogue is (drum roll for another obvious point) is that it’s very, very, very hard. I could write descriptions of the interiors of houses or a person’s interior state all day or imagine the unfolding of a disastrous event till the cows come home, and crumble under the problem of getting a character to speak like a human person, with that mixture of opacity and transparency that we all have, who is not myself or a mouthpiece for myself. Which I think is where the aesthetics and the politics of dialogue collide.

When you put two characters (or three or seven) in a room and get them to talk to each other, you need to take both sides. You need to see both sides, how each has merit, how each might, from the proper angle, be true, and how no truth is entirely complete. Dialogue is arguing the other side. You can spot it a mile away when one character expresses the views of the author and the other exists only to be proved wrong. And when each person, each character, speaks in their own particular voice and is given the respect and autonomy we all deserve, that feels like a triumph for what the American feminist philosopher Elizabeth Anderson calls “deep pluralism.” Deep pluralism, in Anderson’s telling, means we make a few basic social agreements with one another, a few things we must do, but that we also strive to fundamentally leave one another alone to believe, or be, whatever we feel called to. Even when that creates tension. Especially then. Deep pluralism is the difficult practice of democracy. In which every voice counts, even the ones you don’t agree with, as long you and your antagonist/fellow citizen observe the basic decencies.

Dialogue, the speech of people who might not agree, and may never agree, is the deep pluralism of fiction. It’s the practice of knowing that other people are different from you, and that you need to live together anyway.