Do you notice that people rarely answer each other’s questions directly? In real conversations, people slide around the real point, come doggedly back to their favorite topics repeatedly, and spin a minor point of the conversation into a major one.
Consider the following examples:
Excerpt from "Prism" by Yaasha Moriah
“That was too close!” Jem shouted above the roar of the engines of the Vesuvius. “Where were you?”
Jem begins by asking a direct question: “Where were you?”
Rather than answering the question, Will introduces a topic of his own. “Did you see that? Backflipped right over the barrel!”
Jem’s answer ignores Will’s topic and simply makes a judgment: “Man, that was stupid!”
Again, Will brings the topic back to himself, and Jem’s response ignores Will’s topic.
Neither man addresses the other directly. Rather, they are both absorbed with their own perspectives on the situation: Will with his half-terrified exuberance at outwitting his pursuers, and Jem with his annoyance at Will’s disregard for caution.
Excerpt from "The Dry Queen" (working title) by Yaasha Moriah
Hupo sighed, placed his elbows on the table, and rubbed the bridge of his nose with both hands.
In this scene, Hupo makes an observation: “I should know better than to talk politics.” His wife addresses his feelings, rather than his statement: “It wasn’t your fault.” Hupo slides the topic away from his feelings, instead dissecting the reason for the family tension. Pua again shifts blame away from her husband, and Hupo abruptly ends the conversation: “Great banyan trees! I’m so sick of it all.”
Throughout the conversation, Hupo focuses on his misery at the family disunity, while Pua focuses on diverting responsibility from her husband. Neither is really having the same conversation.
Experiment with “oblique conversation” in your own stories and watch your characters’ personalities come alive.