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.


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