Thinking and Feeling

What is it that’s so hard about getting into a character’s head? It’s a problem many of my writing friends and students encounter, and it happens all too often, or so it seems to me. I suspect in most cases it’s merely the author’s eagerness to finish the work. Lord knows I’m guilty of the very same need to be done.

The thing is, reader’s don’t feel that way. In most cases, they’re eager to know more. Why did she say that? What’s he thinking? Didn’t he realize doing that would hurt her feelings or make him look like a complete jackass? What prompted that? What’s behind this?

As writers, it’s our job to detect these moments and to supply the necessary detail. The trick, if there is one, is in finding those moments. About the only thing I can guarantee is that it’s a great deal easier to do when looking at someone else’s work.

Sadly, it isn’t just a question of locating spots in the text where one can take a momentary look into a player’s gray matter. One must also consider the pace of the story. If things are happening left and right, and the action is all important, a pause to find out what someone is feeling won’t work. At best it’ll reduce tension, and that’s the last thing a writer wants to happen during an action scene. It’s not enough for poor Sisyphus to roll that boulder up the mountainside; someone needs to grease the path, or the boulder. Or, if this is a Hollywood story, both. In any case, he doesn’t need to be ruminating about his spot on the bowling team.

If the action isn’t fast-paced and non-stop, there should be moments when the character will naturally wonder about events and their impact on him and those important to him. An alternative to such introspection is emotion. What does Anita feel as she sees a car slowly rounding the corner while her child, Bertram, is crossing the street? That could depend on a number of things: does she recognize the car? Does she know the driver? Does her child see it, too? Since there’s no sense of impending disaster, she has time to think, and if the issue is important to the story, she should think about it. What if it’s a loved one returning from overseas duty? That would get her pulse going.

But alter the situation just slightly, and have that car careening around the corner, and everything changes. Unless there’s something profoundly wrong with Anita, she’s going to react in a major way. It’s easy to show these actions, but harder to expose the conflict inside. It could begin with a sharp inhalation of breath, followed by a scream or a shout, followed by an attack of nerves or a short but profound mental blackout during which she is so narrowly focussed on little Bertie she’s unable to do anything but race toward him, oblivious to everything else.

The thing to avoid is a mismatch. If one of your characters thinks inappropriate things during chaotic events, readers will laugh at him. If you’ve done it intentionally, that’s fine. But if not, they’ll likely develop ideas about that character you’d rather they didn’t have. As suggested at left, this character is a complete idiot.

Please, don’t let your characters be idiots.



About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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7 Responses to Thinking and Feeling

  1. dorisreidy says:

    Hmmmm, I think I recognize myself. I seem to recall literary advice rendered thusly: Get. In. His. Head. Once again, you were right.

  2. Susanne says:

    Timely post and advice. I read one of my short stories at a workshop recently and several people commented they’d like to know more about the main character felt. But what about that old adage “Show don’t tell”?

    • joshlangston says:

      Good point. The answer is to do a little of both. F’rinstance: Odell could think of nothing else; either she made it, or she didn’t. He remained helpless, unable to alter the outcome. Do something, he told himself over and over. Yet, the best he could manage was to tear his straw wrapper into minute particles, roll them into even tinier balls, and stack them on the bar next to his gin and tonic.

  3. Vikki Yoder says:

    Interesting concept. I found last week in class that I was in my character’
    s head because I had lived the moment in the story. Funny thing, though, I didn’t tell those feelings; I showed them with the happenings. Loving these blogs…they really bring my thoughts to life. Thank you!

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