All the Little Decisions

One practical step toward character immersion is: slow down. This might be likened to the progress of a turtle (no, not Steinbeck’s). Turtles move slowly, but they have plenty of opportunity to take in all they see.

The first step is: don’t automatically link characters’ thoughts to plot events. That is a major reason you’re not connecting mentally with the character. Instead, you need to imagine the plot event you’re about to write—and then ask yourself: what is my character thinking at each step of the way, second by second? This is difficult because, by and large, the character is doing stuff you’d never do. So how are you going to work up an interior monologue about issues you know nothing about? 

First, focus on little decisions we all make every day. Pick an issue related to a character that is close to Molly. Let’s say her husband has always had an insider track, guy with guy, with her middle son, Phil. They have an instinctive connection that makes Molly feel left out in the cold, even though Phil needs her so much in other ways. If that sort of notion appeals to you, you can write out Molly’s gripes and/or acceptance in a paragraph. What do Phil and his father talk about? Why does Phil need her? That might lead to her thoughts on their other children, or with her brother- and/or sister-in-law. If they are models for characters in your book, Molly’s thoughts would serve at the very least as a good opening description of them. 

By writing about what you know, you’re wedding the mental loops you think about every day to your story. Your training to capture the neurotic chain of stuff you know very well can, in time, lead to spinning out thoughts related to material you don’t know a thing about. That’s because by that time you’re used to writing down what skips around in your mind.

Exercise: As you walk around the house, or shower, or lie awake in bed at night, have a pocket notepad or phone handy to take down a chain of nattering thoughts. You’ll probably only be able to capture the first sentence or two before the wellspring runs dry. But you can save that start for your next writing session. Then see if you can unspool out its natural coil to a paragraph or two.



Live in the Moment

The distance between an author and their lead character(s) is revealed most clearly during scenes containing heightened action. Possible sources of the drama have a wide range, from bullets flying to a family member caught in a lie. No matter what your choice is, an action scene is often a missed opportunity. Told from a distance, it can be a hurried account in which the exciting events seem to fly by. Yep, they happened, but they didn’t grab the reader, because the author didn’t put enough details down on the page where a reader can experience it.

Let’s take an example, featuring a female PI in a graveyard. When the villains show up, they are summarily dispatched: “She swung out from the side of her headstone and felled the boss ape with a double tap to the heart. His partner took aim at her and blew a large chunk of marble from the stone she’d ducked behind again. She rolled to the other side and took him out with two headshots.” 

Now, as a reader, how am I able to participate in that? I have no idea what the woman is feeling as she peeks her head out from behind the gravestone the first time. I don’t sense that she fired her gun twice—don’t guns recoil, for instance? Although I was told previously that the villains shined their pickup’s headlights in her direction, I don’t sense that she sees the villains in silhouette. Plus, what’s her reaction to the chunk of stone flying off the headstone? Doesn’t any of it hit her? And how does she know to appear on the other side of the stone? Do they teach that in PI training camp? In other words, I’m left out of the proceedings because the author is imagining That Person Out There rather than inhabiting her lead character.

When you have heightened action, you want to dwell in it. You want to record every second that passes. I mean that literally. Among all the options, think of what she is hearing—because she can’t look to see very often. She knows she has to fire her gun. How does it feel in her hands? How many clips does she have, and could she take the time to reload? In other words, focus down on the moment. 

In the same fashion, record all those fleeting thoughts of the lead character that bring us inside his head. How did these guys know how to find him in a cemetery? Where did he screw up? Who was he talking to recently? Plus, research fight and flight reactions. Or, step back and think about what such a crisis could reveal to the character about himself. 

That paragraph in the cemetery? I would expand it to 3-4 times its present length. Think about all the details that could have been included. The longer the reader lives within the tension, the more emotional impact it will have. So, take your time once your knives are sharpened.

Exercise: Using all five senses can help in fully creating an action scene. Too much emphasis is usually placed on sight, and that might be considered last. I mentioned sounds before, but smells can also provide telling details. The intimate details of touch and taste, such as dry mouth, can bring the reader right inside the character. Write down a list of four types of sensations other than sight. 


Inward, Not Onward

As the old adage goes, a person’s true character is revealed in a crisis. That’s a boon for a writer, because a novel is a highly compressed period of crises in a character’s life. The plot events are designed to demonstrate the person’s qualities (showing, not telling). All of these statements are uncontroversial matters of fact. Yet you have to ask yourself: are you getting the maximum impact from the crises you devise?

I’ll focus on the most common crisis in fiction, a death. A hole in the novel’s universe is ripped open and it must be repaired. Many beginning writers are industrious about weaving plot threads that spin off that event, trying to create red herrings and the like that keep the game of reading delightful. What they neglect to their peril, however, is how the crisis affects their lead character.

Why do you think so many of the murders in fiction happen to close relatives of the protagonist? The death opens a portal into a hero’s emotions. Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one knows that grief strikes in inexplicable waves of sorrow. The bereft one feels the black hole as an almost tangible entity, the gap of nothingness that will never be filled. He remembers times he shared with the deceased person, how good they were.  

So, before you trundle off on your merry schemes that could just as easily unfold if sorrow didn’t occur, you might want to ask yourself: how am I going to get the reader to identify with my heroine in her time of crisis? After all, identification with a lead character is a huge part of what sells books. You might want to write a few background stories that involve her and the dead person, filtered through the glass of grief-stricken reflection. You might want some spots of deep funk when she really doesn’t want to get out of bed. We are not Energizer bunnies, so why should your protagonist be?

When a lead character is not related to the dearly beloved, how is a crisis constructed for him? Usually what you find is that he has a personal issue of another sort, one that plagues him throughout the novel, such as a terrible past deed. Again, that conundrum opens a window into his feelings. We can crawl through that opening and nestle inside. Rather than a bunny, he is a lumbering bear prone to bouts of melancholy. In other words, just like us. 

Exercise: Take advantage of what you know about times of sorrow in your own life. One reason Tolstoy’s novels are so great is that both of his parents were dead by the time he was nine years old. You too have suffered losses, and you can likely transfer your personal experiences to create character depth.


Answering the Why

As a writer starts a story, objective facts tend to emerge first. A passage can describe how a teenager gets from here to there: say, hurrying from the front door to the family car and out the driveway. While the details may be precise, such as the slate front steps, the facts don’t evoke how the character experiences what he is doing. Instead, you need to focus on the why.

Start by examining what facts are being told. Rather than describing how the teenager walks, opens the car door, etc., focus on the situation. A teenager hurrying to a car is not operating in a void, but within a context of his relationships with other characters. Why is he hurrying—in personal terms? Is he afraid that his mother will appear at the front door and countermand her permission to let him use the car? If so, what does that say about the mother? Is she overly strict? Do his friends always laugh at him because she is so strict? And what about the dad? Why does he allow the mother to browbeat her son? You could, of course, turn the question on its head. What has the teenager done in the past with the car that makes her afraid of his driving it that night?

All of this information can be imparted by using this seemingly trivial scene as a way to show what the character is like. The walking, opening the car door, etc., is flat. The need to get the hell out of the house is involving. 

If the boy is afraid of his mother’s changing moods, you can anchor what type of relationship they have by describing her. Is she wearing a business suit or a housecoat? Is she drinking gin or herbal tea? What about a sentence to describe the father, standing in the background of the mother-son interchange? You can move on, once the young man is settled in the car, to describe his get-up for his night out. Is he wearing an alligator shirt or a badge of Megadeath? What, since appearances are so important to teenagers, does he feel about his clothes? How much has his mother allowed him to get away with?

You are taking objective facts and imbuing them with subjective value. Clothes do make the man, so you can take advantage of that. Transform a pedestrian description of getting from here to there to charge the narrative with interpersonal dynamics. And, by the way, skip all the words describing the here-to-there. You’ve entered a new realm entirely, the one where novelists live.

Exercise: Begin by finding long paragraphs in your manuscript. Those are the ones ripe for converting from outward to inner. Do you see a lot of physical descriptions? Pick out one or two and ask: why is the character doing this? What meaning can I derive from the way the two major characters react to each other in the passage? Can I draw out meaning that has lasted for a long time? Stop for a short paragraph to tell us why they have never gotten along.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.