Everybody’s Favorite Topic: Themselves

KeenInSuitHow much do your characters talk about themselves?

Recent scientific research suggests that in everyday life we talk about ourselves a lot:

“If you’re like most people, your own thoughts and experiences may be your favorite topic of conversation.  On average, people spend 60 percent of conversations talking about themselves—and this figure jumps to 80 percent when communicating via social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook.” Read the full text at: The Neuroscience of Everybody’s Favorite Topic: Scientific American.

Just because current science says we talk about ourselves around sixty percent of the time doesn’t mean we absolutely need to check our manuscripts to see that our characters match that standard. It might help the storytelling be more “realistic” if we do so, but “realistic” is not really an aesthetic standard so much as a concept to be balanced among a large number of factors in a given narrative. Science-says need not be Simon-says.

However, tracking self-referential dialogue can be an interesting notion to play with, especially in story that is dialogue-driven. It is potentially useful to go through your play script, for example, and label each line of dialogue as 1) self-referential, 2) neutral or n/a, and 3) reflective of external concerns or others. From this data, one could build a simple chart and determine approximately how much of a character’s expression is about himself and how much is referring to people/things/ideas outside himself. Using 60 percent as a standard baseline, we have a benchmark to see if characters are behaving naturally, at least according to the study cited above. Finding that one of your characters talks about himself far above or below the average might reveal something you hadn’t consciously crafted into the character. Either an overabundance or a paucity of self-referential dialogue might be reinforcing the actions a character is taking, or might be undermining them, both of which can be interesting choices, but generate divergent audience responses.

This kind charting as a tool is, to some degree, subjective to the author’s intent behind the individual lines. And it is tempered by an author’s control in generating subtext that obviates the surface expressions of the lines; any given snippet of dialogue may seem outwardly directed but actually intended to have a subtext that is self-referencing, or conversely, seem selfish but actually meant to be selfless. To be as accurate as possible, generating a chart of a character’s self-referential dialogue should track what a character means — what an author intends, and the meanings she is capably placing underneath the character’s words — more so than the literal surface of what a character says. Plus, as a further caveat, even if a character talks about himself only 15% of the time, it is not an ironclad guarantee he is less self-centered. Actions not reflected whatsoever in a given character’s dialogue can outweigh everything a character says, of course. Even so, while it is apparent that there is a deal of latitude for interpretation in tracking how self-centered any character’s dialogue is, charting how often a character talks about himself is potentially a valuable tool.

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