So Serious

Except for those authors wishing to be satiric, characters in a novel pursue their aims purposefully. A writer wants to mount tension in a romantic scene, or aims for discouragement after an untoward plot event. Yet what happens if, while you are reviewing the manuscript, the lead character feels dull? I know that while I’m editing, I can find myself thinking: “This character is so earnest.” 

If you experience that, you need to ask: how you would react in real life? Except in the most dire circumstances, don’t you find yourself thinking, or commenting sotto voce to a friend, some humorous remark that you know is totally inappropriate? You can cry or you can laugh. Life is a beach. A sardonic observation or two will not undercut a serious subject to the extent that it is damaging.

You can consciously employ this attitude while exploring what your main character(s) is thinking. Instead of a dutiful recitation of how verbally abusive your father was when you were sixteen, write the passage from an ironic point of view. Poke fun at your memory. Try to insert a few wry observations, as though you were retelling the story to a close friend. Your friend isn’t going to put up with you taking yourself so seriously. Plus, you want to be entertaining, even if the memory is truly painful. 

So you make light of it. After all, everybody knows that the more grueling an experience is, the better the story it makes later. Why aren’t you doing that when you write? Aren’t you trying to entertain the reader? 

Better yet, use multiple points of view during the telling. We do it all the time. I can’t tell you how often I catch myself thinking: “You’d better not . . .” when the “you” refers to myself. I have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Why can’t you employ that from inside a character’s head? Tell us what you fired back at your father, but then insert a wry comment of how you’d feel if your daughter fired that back at you. 

You see, the problem with earnest is that it’s a barrier between you and your character. You’re trying to depict what George down there on the paper is doing, and that’s serious business. But don’t you think George knows that? Does George sit around all day quoting Kant to himself? Lighten up. And watch your character sparkle with all the contradictory stuff bubbling inside you.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for interior monologues that are at least a paragraph long. Read the material through a first time, not allowing yourself to write anything. Then go back through, looking for places to inject commentary, just the way you would if you were bantering with your best friend. Don’t overdo it; a little goes a long way. Then the next day, see if you feel you’re connecting better with the character.

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