Dialogue as Character (and Narrative) Complexity in Monica McFawn’s “Out of the Mouths of Babes”
By Gwendolyn Edward •
I’ve often battled with how to better develop secondary characters in short stories that use a limited, third-person point of view. While I’ve learned how to use my main character’s memories and current thoughts to help flesh out the other characters they encounter it can also feel as if my secondary characters are “filtered” too much through the lens of my main character’s experience. I don’t always want my secondary characters to be developed through my main character’s eyes. This is especially true in stories that have external conflicts expressed within the conflicts between characters, like in an eco-narrative where a changing landscape affects how characters respond to each other, or in a story where place becomes its own character (think haunted house), and the people in my story respond to place through their interactions with each other. In these stories, I want my secondary characters to stand on their own two feet because I find that heightens the stakes of the larger external conflict I’m exploring.
It wasn’t until I read Monica McFawn’s short story “Out of the Mouths of Babes” (first published in The Georgia Review and included in her collection Bright Shards of Someplace Else: Stories) that I began to see how I could use one-sided dialogue to give my secondary characters the autonomy I wanted them to have. In “Out of the Mouths of Babes,” a woman, Grace, comes to the Henderson house one night to babysit a child named Andy; both have distinct personalities that help drive the narrative and conflicts forward. In the story, after the mother leaves, and after Grace has poked around the house, we have the first scene in which Andy speaks, and through his dialogue, his character is developed in a way Grace’s character can’t convey through her limited perspective:
As she walked down the stairs, she began to make out what was being said. “Mmmm… I see. But what if we have wood termites? You’d just leave and treat them on a second visit?” When she entered the living room, she was surprised to see only the boy: he was on the phone and the voice was coming from him. His back was turned to her and she stopped to listen. “That doesn’t work. What if they multiply between the two visits? Then you’ll get more money than if you treated for them the first time through.”
The boy, when she listened more closely, didn’t sound like a man, exactly. His words began with an eager high chirp and a fuzzy pronunciation, like those of most children, but the ends of his phrases were crisp, even brittle. Within a single sentence he ran through the vocal life cycle, sounding like both a babbling toddler and an old man with the bass thinned out from his tone. The person on the other end of the line would have had a hard time suspecting his age, not in the least because of his penchant for hard bargaining. “No, I need all the vermin taken care of in one go. I have in my hand a coupon from your competitor—Riddit—and it says here that they’ll…” The boy was getting more and more excited. She could see him bounce on the couch as he read out the coupon in a ringing, triumphant voice. “Okay, then. I look forward to getting the manager’s call.” He hung up the phone and caught sight of her.
In these two paragraphs, we receive a description of the way the boy talks—adjectives like eager, crisp, and excited that help characterize him. But it’s what he says in response to the invisible character on the other end of the phone that carries the most weight for me; to rely on an old craft adage, there is a difference between “telling” the conversation through Grace’s experience and “showing” Andy’s personality through what he says. While Grace’s experience shows us how Andy is talking (and in turn also shows us some of her personality), it’s what Andy says that gives us a deeper understanding of his complex character.
In the first paragraph, we see quickly that Andy is a critical thinker; he vocalizes through his response to the invisible character’s apparent plan for pest treatment that he has identified a flaw in approach—“What if they multiply between the two visits?—and then he challenges that person about the flaw: “Then you’ll get more money than if you treated for them the first time through.”
In the second paragraph, we come to see that not only is Andy a critical thinker; he’s a planner. He has anticipated a counter argument and has prepared for it; he says that he’s found a coupon and seems prepared to compare the competitor’s treatment plan against what the invisible character on the phone proposes. Additionally, Andy is a fighter; he’s willing to continue the argument—to escalate it even—when he says, “Okay, then. I look forward to getting the manager’s call.”
All these personality traits—the logic, the forethought, the ability to wield these through rhetoric—become essential as the narrative progresses; what Grace’s perception fails to see at the beginning—the “hidden” personality of the boy—focusing instead on his behavior and how he appears (topical description), becomes entwined with the plot. Not only does Andy become a distinct character separate from Grace’s experience, but the entire narrative of “Out of the Mouths of Babes” gains complexity from this craft method; no spoilers here (the story is too good!), so I recommend getting a copy of it and reading the whole story with the above in mind.
Version 1: Mimic McFawn’s method in a scene where you want to reveal the personality of a secondary character the first time we see them without using the main character’s thoughts to filter the introduction. What can this secondary character in an interaction with someone on- or off-screen say that reveals hidden personality traits that will become vital to the narrative? What can you communicate through this dialogue that is not picked up on by your main character?
Version 2: To take it one step farther, duplicate McFawn’s method and combine the filtered perception of this secondary character’s dialogue through your main character’s viewpoint and use the dialogue of the secondary character to reveal the hidden personality trait essential to the narrative. Use topical description of what your main character sees/hears combined with the second character’s dialogue that shows their personality traits in a way simple adjectives cannot.
GWENDOLYN EDWARD is hearing impaired, queer, and a member of the Cherokee Nation. Her writing has earned nominations for both the Pushcart and Best American Essays, and her prose and poetry have appeared in Assay, Crab Orchard Review, Brevity, Fourth River, Booth, and others. She retains an MA from the University of North Texas, an MFA from Bennington College, and is currently finishing her PhD at the University of Missouri, where she lives with her partner. When she’s not weightlifting, playing video games, or reading all the books she’s amassed, she writes speculative fiction, nontraditional nonfiction, and bends genre.