Get Inside Your Character’s Head

At the start of a story, I like to be very deep inside my character because I hope my readers will empathize with the character and come along for the story journey. I practice seeing through his eyes. Depending on how my character is doing emotionally, a walk in the woods can be a peaceful commune with nature or nerve-wracking trek haunted by scary noises. Through most of the story staying as close as possible works well.

But if my hero is going to do something less than honorable or a character is going to suffer a devastating loss, it could be helpful to pull back a little so the reader sympathizes, rather than empathizes. It’s as simple as moving from “Grandpa” to “Jack’s grandpa,” just a bit of distance.

By moving in and out, the writer can control how much the reader needs to feel to stay connected.

Look at the Big-Picture Story Journey and Don’t Leave Emotional Gaps

(When you write a subhead that wordy, you almost don’t need to expound, but here I go anyway.)

For character arc, we consider the whole story, but for handling emotions effectively it often helps to focus on the scene level. We know that in every necessary (to the story) scene, a change takes place between the beginning and the end of the scene.

  1. What is the emotional change in this scene? Example: Jack is anticipating a happy experience. At the end of the scene Jack is furious.
  2. What are the major emotional/intellectual changes from start to finish?

Note: the following is just an example, not an exposition on what must make up a certain emotion. Specifics will always vary (So thankful for that!)

Example:

  1. Anticipating a happy experience
  2. Hopeful (planning, remembering similar good experiences)
  3. Assigning a high priority to the event and its necessary precursors
  4. Physical involvement
  5. Time involvement
  6. Uncontrollable circumstances involvement
  7. Annoyance
  8. Irritation
  9. Helpless to control
  10. Angry
  1. Considering that emotions consist of mini-emotions and distant-cousin emotions, thoughts, beliefs and values break down each emotional step and list it in order.

Example:

  1. Anticipating a happy experience
    1. Glee
    2. Up feeling due to increased adrenalin
  • High expectations (a powerful tool cuz you can dash them so low)
  1. Hopeful
    1. Planning, getting ready, trying different fun things
    2. Remembering similar good experiences
  • Mentally rehearsing expectations or hopes
  1. Assigning a high priority to the event and its necessary precursors
    1. This is going to be as good as _______
    2. I’m even willing to give up ______, so I can do or have or experience _______
  2. Physical involvement
    1. Willing to spend energy and work
    2. Effect of having spent energy–consequences
  3. Time involvement
    1. Willing to spend time
    2. Effect of having spent time on this, not that–consequences
  4. Uncontrollable circumstances involvement
    1. Accumulative effect of consequences
    2. Other people
  • Other events
  1. Weather
  2. My own fickle mind
  3. Agenda of other characters in this scene (A rich field to plow.)
  1. Annoyance
    1. Concern
    2. What I think should happen aka Shoulding on other characters
  • What really happens (May be perceived as lack of respect or care from other characters)
  1. Beliefs—I know how this ought to go. Nobody is listening to me. Being the queen of the world, those guys should just do as I say. If only they…
  1. Irritation
    1. Self congratulation—I’m not going to let anyone see I’m annoyed
    2. I know how to keep my mouth shut
  • OMG—the silent treatment is not working
  1. I can’t believe he just…
  2. Dislike
  1. Helpless to control—there’s nothing I can do about this
  2. Angry
    1. It’s not my fault
    2. I gotta blame someone
  • I’ll never come here again
  1. I’m gonna get even
  2. How did I let this happen to me?

Now, the character won’t experience all those emotions and thoughts every time, but the writer’s task is to pick out those action/reaction pairs that most clearly involve the reader and display what the character is experiencing.

If any steps are missed, the reader may experience the scene as “somehow off” without knowing exactly why. But if all the marks are hit—in a fresh and interesting way—the reader experiences the emotion along with the character and is eager to turn the page.

Show, Don’t Tell

Merely naming an emotion reads like some invisible author pronouncing from on high: “This is what character feels. Feel it whether you feel it or not!” Not a real turn-on for most readers.

The solution: write a five-part action/reaction nugget. Write about Jack*—fast and free without constraint:

  1. What happened? What could you see, hear, smell, taste, touch?
  2. What immediate physical response did Jack have? Describe what it looked like. If you had to testify in court, what evidence do you have that Jack had a physical response?
  3. What emotional response did he have? Without naming it, show enough evidence the reader understands what Jack felt.
  4. What did Jack think?
  5. If a dilemma arose, show how he thought about the dilemma.

Note: Between scenes, we need a Step 6:

  1. When it’s time for a decision, show what he decided about the initial happening.

Try these Tools for Showing:

  • Internalization— e.g. I should have figured out the examples before I started this dumb list.
  • Facial expression—e.g. …but Jack gave me the one-eyebrow-up stink-eye.
  • Body language—e.g. He adjusted his glasses on his nose with a less-than-ideal finger.
  • Dialog
    • Tone—sarcastic, syrupy, bored
    • Pace—fast, slow, comatose
    • Volume—non-cliché equivalent of ear-splitting, barely audible
    • Changes in the way a person speaks. If a writer highlights that something specific has changed, the reader will be drawn in and figure out what the change means. This partnership between reader and writer is psychologically satisfying.
    • Subtext

Use Subtext to Involve the Reader

When dialog between two characters is written so that every exchange is spelled out, the reader remains outside the story watching two characters go back and forth—until the reader gets bored and puts the book down. This style is sometimes called on-the-nose writing. The words on the page say exactly and only what they mean. The writer does all the work.

When the writer uses subtext, the reader is drawn into the story and figures out the meaning himself, and the experience is emotionally involving.

Here’s an example of on-the-nose writing:

Jack and Amy are in the kitchen. Jack is at the table, and Amy is looing into a cupboard.

Jack: “Are you going to the store today?”

Amy: “If I don’t get a cup of coffee soon, somebody’s gonna die!”

Jack: “What are you going to buy?”

Amy: “I’m going to buy coffee.”

Jack: “We could wait and go together tomorrow.”

Amy: “This is my second day without coffee and my head hurts.”

Jack: “I’m sorry to hear that.”

No matter how many times we go back and forth, this pathetic passage doesn’t perk up. The characters must be secretly reading off index cards. The reader will likely fall asleep before Amy returns with the coffee.

Here’s the same scenario in subtext:

Jack sits at the table behind the newspaper, and Amy rummages through the cupboard next to the stove.

Jack: “Are you going to the store today?”

Amy: “If I don’t get a cup of coffee soon, somebody’s gonna die!”

Note four improvements:

  1. The exchange is shorter, which is appropriate for the subject. In general, the more important a story event is, the more space on the page it should get.
  2. All the same information is provided—Amy’s going to the store to get coffee, and she’s been without for a while.
  3. Amy’s line conveys a lot more emotion, let’s us know more about how strong her personality is, how comfortable she is with letting Jack know her needs, and how she speaks more colorfully.
  4. In this short version, the reader is required to fill in the missing steps—yes, I’m going to the store. I’m going to get coffee. I’m used to having coffee and haven’t had any for a while. Thus the reader is more involved in this second version. It is more psychologically satisfying.

Avoid Clichés

In a first draft, I allow myself to wallow in cliché muck because I just want to get words on paper, emotions out of my head and heart and conveyed to the reader. But those clichés have got to go. Those clichés have got to go. They are story killers.

Rewrite each cliché considering your point-of-view character’s world. Use elements of the character’s life to get the same meaning. Or use the cliché and twist it with an element from your character’s world.

The idea is to keep the first part (the setup) of the cliché, then use material in the character’s environment, situation or personality to add a twist to the second half.

For example, in a first draft, poor Jack is sorry, sad, and sloshed. He thinks misery loves company. Upon rewrite: Poor Jack is sorry, sad, and sloshed. He thinks misery loves the company that sells Jack Daniels. Not award winning, but it’s a step.

 

*In fifth through seventh grades, I was madly in love with Jack, so I always practice my emotional writing with him in mind. No scoffing please, until you’ve tried it. Is there a Jack or Jane in your young past?

log-mission-possible-header1024

Your mission, should you choose to accept it is:

Pick a couple of clichés from your work-in-progress and twist them. Post them here. Or take one or two these tired old sayings and twist them for your characters’ world.

  • Make hay while the sun shines
  • Better safe than sorry
  • Not my first rodeo

 

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