Connective Threads

Many authors, when requested to add interior monologues for a major character, tend to panic. The person giving the advice makes an innocent suggestion like “Pick up a great novel you like. Study how that author does it.” That’s fine until you actually start reading. Then you realize that the reason you like the novel is because the character can ramble on about their private thoughts for pages at a time. How in the world are you supposed to do that?

Luckily, the goal of achieving penetration into a main character can be accomplished on a number of levels. One technique is simple to insert and surprisingly effective. It is the memory of a previous incident inside the book. For illustrative purposes let’s say: Lenny sees a black-and-blue mark on the back of Nathalie’s arm. He asks her about it and she finally admits her husband, Arthur, is sometimes too rough with her. The first thought inserted into Lenny’s head might be: That’s terrible. Arthur must be a cruel man. This immediate reaction then becomes the foundation of later remembered thoughts. 

In order for the method to work, the first memory needs to be separated from the next memory by a span of pages. One good follow-up place is at the beginning of the next chapter. Lenny is driving with Nathalie, and he glances over surreptitiously to check if he can still see the bruise. He remembers when she told him and his initial reaction. Right away you are drawing the reader deeper into the narrative. The reader remembers at the same time Lenny does.

The next bead on this string might occur 20-30 pages later. Lenny meets the husband, maybe during a chance encounter while Nathalie is grocery shopping. No matter what Arthur says, Lenny is thinking: this guy manhandles his wife. As a reader, by now I am wondering if Lenny is going to blow his top, knowing that secret about the guy. I’m involved, because Lenny tells me how he is going to react. Again, further penetration. 

A single memory can cause the reader to anticipate. She is inside Lenny’s head. This entire run of interior thinking stems from a mark on Nathalie’s arm. By continuing to remember it, letting it build each time, you can make it the basis for your protagonist’s ongoing interior reactions.

Exercise: A modification of this technique can be achieved by layering new information on top of the memory. Another 20-30 pages later, Lenny notices that Nathalie is downcast. She admits that because she has been spending so much time with Lenny lately, Arthur flew into a jealous rage. That’s all she says; she’s too ashamed to tell any more. But Lenny, because he remembers, can jump to all sorts of conclusions. He’s ready to confront Arthur. What was inside his head is now ready to play a role in the plot.


Beyond Sociology

In my practice, I have a preliminary phase in which I read a manuscript and then give an author overall comments that form the groundplan for the projected edit. Among the most common of these remarks is advice to add more personal material about the lead character. That’s what publishers (and readers) want: an engaging protagonist. 

What I frequently get back is a series of comments about what socioeconomic forces the character is facing, rather than thoughts and viewpoints coming from within the character. This usually occurs when an author feels his personal experiences cannot inform the inner life of a character. 

Let’s say the heroine is a hard-bitten Detroit detective. Rather than personal experiences within her bleak upbringing, I find descriptions that read like research. I learn more about Detroit in the years leading up to its bankruptcy than I do about Crystal’s sometimes dangerous evening runs home from the corner grocery store.

Many authors do not have harrowing backgrounds. That does not, however, preclude them from imagining what the character that interests them must be like. The secret in creating identity is not magic. It’s the hard work of facing yourself. Anybody can read and copy down research. Yet even diligent researching will only yield a stack of notes. You then have to pick out one person within that milieu and imagine you are him. 

Think about the circumstances. Now insert yourself. Have you ever been on a lonely city street alone, late at night? What did it feel like? Did you find yourself hyper-vigilant? Did you check behind your back every few seconds, just in case? Did you feel prickles dancing on your shoulders? In other words, if you are willing to do the work of identifying with your lead character, you will either remember or you will seek out experiences that can fill him up from the inside. 

Research provides only the surroundings in which action is situated. Your character is not one of hundreds; she is the only one you’re writing about. So she’d better be you, to a very large extent, or the personal details are going to feel distant to the reader. 

Exercise: One large difference between your notes and a book you’re researching may be the examples within the book. Nonfiction books are usually filled with individual examples that illustrate the thematic points. Examine the personal details from those examples. Do the real-life stories give you any good ideas? 


Deadly in Earnest

Bad things happen to the best of us. When enough of them happen to you in real life, you may be motivated to write a novel about them, in order to capture the run of bad luck. The logic behind this impulse is impeccable. We all know that a string of obstacles keeps readers entertained. So far, so good.

As you write down these incidents, filling out the book, you may find yourself adding in occasional embellishments. You decide that the hero needs a sour-tongued older sister, for instance, even though you’re really writing about an older cousin. What really happens to the brother seems, now that you are chronicling it for posterity, not that interesting, so you make up some stuff that makes him sparkle a little more. Yet even these garnishes to the bowl of truth don’t seem like enough. By the time you finish, you may have a nagging sense of unease that the whole affair isn’t as interesting as you thought it was when you started. This doubt is fortified when you start receiving a pile of rejection slips.

What went wrong? You know the story is good: you’ve told it to a number of people and they all were shocked/outraged. Before you start lamenting how unfair life can be, you might want to consider several facts. It helps, for starters, to realize that all novels feature a series of untoward events. Whether they are based on a real story or made up out of thin air doesn’t matter as much as whether the reader can participate vicariously in the incidents. 

Second, “based on a true story” implies a momentous step in the novel-making process. Unless you have the writing chops of Norman Mailer, and an extreme “character” like Gary Gilmour, you need to heighten the drama. That usually means exaggerating the qualities of the main character. He can’t be you. The outrage that you felt at the time will probably not transport readers to the same heights. We all know that lawyers are slimy, that the system of justice in this country can be perverted. Isn’t that what happens in every crime drama we read?

Above all, you need to remember that readers like a main character who is flamboyant, larger than life. The shit hitting the fan only serves to bring out in all their stinking glory the provocative attributes she originally brought into the book. A good character is always trying to outsmart her opponents, or is so disconnected from reality that she does stuff that makes readers want to scream: “Stop! Cease and desist this instant!” In other words, you can have all the right ingredients, but if you don’t think of your character first, you merely have one more story waiting to be told the right way.

Exercise: Identify a true-life character and write down the most interesting incidents that have happened to him. When viewed down on the page, are they that interesting? If not, think of the most outrageous stories you have ever heard. Would any of them work if you slipped the character inside them? Should you change your character so he has more of the moxie shown by the guy in the crazy story?

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.