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I'm currently writing a novel, in which two characters who are old friends are having an argument.

I'm writing the argument to establish who the characters are and what their values are (the argument is in chapter 1), and also to demonstrate some distance and conflict between them.

But, I'm struggling to come up with a convincing argument between them, because their ideals and opinions are fairly similar. They both share roughly the same worldview, but one of them is more moderate and the other is more extreme. Since they're basically on the same side, I'm just not finding any good way to differentiate between them, at least not in any way that gives both of them good points. It's very important to me that the argument be convincing, without either character being a caricature.

How can I develop an argument between two characters if the differences between them are fairly subtle?

If you can use my particular case as an example, my two characters are both left-wing and anti-war. The more moderate one has recently worked as a third party contractor (as a software developer) for the military to develop an improved training program that allows highly trained operatives to be better at missions such as extracting hostages and assassinating terrorists. He rationalizes his work as non-harmful, and potentially saving the lives of both civilians and soldiers. The other friend disagrees with him working for the military in any capacity, and accuses him of selling out his values.

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I'm unclear on what you're asking here; this question also is veering very close to asking what to write, which is off-topic here. I'm going to place this on hold until it can be edited into a more clear, specific question. – Neil Fein Mar 11 at 19:45
I think the edit pushes this question in the direction @NeilFein says, yes. – Standback Mar 12 at 9:13
I see an excellent question here about how to handle two characters who belong to the same ideological "camp", who still have major differences between them, which they see as crucial - but to a reader might come across as arguing over minor nuances and trivial differences. I think that makes a great question. – Standback Mar 12 at 9:16
But OP is focused on specific points for an ideological argument, which, to be honest, is not how I'd recommend going about this at all. Ideological debates make for very dull fiction, all the moreso if the author himself feels the two positions are difficult to differentiate in a meaningful and authentic way. Asking for specific points is both unhelpful - because I don't think that's the way to handle this - and too localized, because nobody else is going to be writing this specific conflict and need those specific points. – Standback Mar 12 at 9:18
@Standback That would be great, thank you. I'm part of 4 stackExchange forums and this is my first question, so I'm still not entirely sure on how to ask. I think I may have gone into too much detail about my specific problem for it to be entirely useful/answerable. But a question about arguing a similar standpoint with minor differences would certainly help me, and if you edit the question I can see where I went wrong with my question for future reference. Thank you! – Mike.C.Ford Mar 12 at 11:54

5 Answers 5

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It should go without saying that some of these other answers have very valuable advice that is definitely worth reading.

When people "debate" it is rarely calm and cool headed. It rarely stays on topic and quite often comes from the fact that the basic assumptions which each has hitherto assumed the other also held are different.

This is a great time to expose any character flaws (which I assume you have thought about because you strike me as a sensible writer) and have a good opportunity not just to exposition the situation to the readers but also show the characters dealing with their conflict.

When I want to turn up the heat in a character debate I try to stay laser focused on what exactly the bone of contention is but allow the characters to throw in unrelated things that the reader might not be fully aware of (or was nto present for) but the characters know as they have a shared history before the story started.

The core disagreement should be something that can be expressed in not many words and doing so helps to clarify the positions of the two characters more clearly in my mind. What can really make an argument bitter and drawn out is when the words people are using clearly mean something different to each of them.

I have seen two very liberal Christians spend hours debating a single issue that from the outside it might seem that they are both agreeing rather aggressively with each other on. This is because they have assigned vastly different meanings tot he same words. As the debate gets heated there is the odd slip to bringing in unrelated barbs. This is where the art of subtext is really important.

It also allows the debate to go meta (which happens) where the characters have to "side bar" in order to thrash out what some word or phase means.

Further it can really help to give the emotional reaction too. Remembering that it is not so much the thesis of what they are saying that brings character to the front but their emotional reaction to each other.

"No, that's not right at all" said Bob as he struggled to not let his frustration with John boil over into actual shouting. Why can he not see how wrong he is on this?

"I don't think you are hearing what I am saying," said John feeling that Bob was not listening to him properly. "This is not the old 'out in the military' debate, this is about saving lives."

"How the hot hell do you mean to save lives by ending them?" Snapped Bob more angrily than he intended.

In the above example, which I invented just now (feel free to use and abuse as you wish), I have tried to say nothing at all about the actual debate and yet the two speakers are getting really irate over the issue all the same. Not all debates are filled with people giving good articulation to point and counter point. People are irrational and can sometimes simply communicate very badly. Make use of this as needed.

If this were part of some actual narrative we would have learned that these guys have had debates like this before and do not agree. It says a lot about John and Bob without actually adding anything new to the debate itself which, sadly, is how most people carry on.

TL;DR: let the character's passion show in their dialogue.

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In my experience (in real life), some of the most bitter arguments are between people who whose positions are, objectively speaking, quite close. In this case, you've already outlined a key difference between these characters --whether cooperation with the military is acceptable. I can't foresee any trouble in drawing these two into a huge fight --just make them rigid and ideological about their own respective views.

It's also worth remembering that there's always a subtext to any conversation, and that the surface disagreements may be actually playing out some interpersonal issues: Are these characters competitive with each other? Does one feel betrayed by the other? Was there a mentorship relationship that was outgrown? Did their friendship break up over a mutual love interest? Are there any homoerotic sexual tensions between them? Is this a longstanding ideological quarrel they battle about every time they see each other? Did one idolize the other, and now feels disillusioned? If any of those conditions hold, it may add fuel to the fire that might not otherwise exist.

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Let's call them Monty the Moderate and Larry the Left-Winger for the sake of discussion...

I think both your charaters are less left-wing and anti-war than you think they are.

If Monty is willing to train soldiers to be better assassins, that's not being anti war. That's being practical, or perhaps utilitarian: This war is ongoing; let's minimize the damage and finish it as quickly and efficiently as possible. "Finish the war" will sometimes involve "killing the enemy."

That will be the crux of your argument: that Monty thinks of himself as being a left-wing anti-war person, when actually he has strayed over the political center line on a few issues. Not everything; you should probably keep him left-wing on other issues — maybe he's vegan, tries to buy local, checks his plastics for BPA, donates to Planned Parenthood, etc. But once he got this job, he made certain rationalizations which allowed him to justify his actions.

Larry might be brainwashed into wanting to kill indiscriminately, or trying to topple a government, smuggle arms to Sandinistas or whatever the equivalent is these days, write a letter to Iran insisting that negotiations with the sitting president are futile, etc. He's gone so far 'round the bend into extremism that he's come out the other side on the far right. Monty needs to talk him back down to sanity.

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Suggested strategies:

1) As indicated by other responders, make the argument really about something else more personal. You can get great drama from repressed and/or unadmitted emotions leaking out into ostensibly polite debate.

2) Foreshadow that this argument may be mild now but is going to have dramatic consequences. E.g. one of the characters makes an ominous parting shot, leaving the other to wonder if she has pushed him too far.

3) If your main problem is literally what to have the characters say, then you should look at genuine debates (e.g. on political forums, newspaper comment sites etc.) on this issue from people with similar opinions. Write it up, then edit it down ruthlessly. Personally I'm a lot more tolerant of political discussion in novels than most readers, but even my eyes glaze over if it extends beyond half a page.

4) if one side represents your own opinion, seek the input of someone from the other side to avoid caricature.

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Even between two people of similar ideologies, they can vary in the degree of "hardness" or "softness." Take two Reagan Republicans that I know.

One is right wing, and "tea party" down the line. The other has a way of occasionally "running left," e.g. by going on a radio show in 1988 as a "Republican for Dukakis."

One will accuse the other of "leaving the reservation." The other will respond by citing allegiance to "cloth coat" Republicans like Nixon and Reagan, and being uncomfortable with the aristocratic Bush.

There is another dynamic: The "true blue" Republican is a WASP. The Dukakis person is an "ethnic" and was swayed in part of by Dukakis' ethnicity (and reassured by the presence of Lloyd Bentsen on the ticket.

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