The View from Inside
In “Happy to Be Here,” Garrison Keillor tells how, when he started out, he hoped to write a novel every two years.
To facilitate this outpouring of the spirit, I had trained myself to think the novel, mentally narrating passages of my daily life in fictional fashion. . . . When the telephone rang, I’d think, “He hesitated inwardly – a barely perceptible moment of doubt that, as his fingers touched the cold metal, was overcome by his need to talk with someone, even a complete stranger.” I turned my life into one long interior monologue, putting myself through the wringer in order to make my novels more realistic than my own life happened to be at the time in comparison to novels I had read.
Clearly you can pay way too much attention to your characters’ inner lives. But how much is enough? When do your characters come across as flat or mystifying because your readers have no idea what’s going on inside them? When are you indulging in so much self-reflection that, as Keillor put it a little later, you’re motivating your characters right into the ground? How do you tell the difference?
One thing to watch for when you’re deciding how much to dwell on your characters’ inner life is, what’s your story about? What’s the conflict that you resolve at the end? If you’re going for straightforward action, something that resolves because of things your characters do, then you don’t have to pay quite as much attention to what’s going on inside their heads. In fact, too much internal life can cost you momentum at key moments. James Patterson’s characters go pages, sometimes chapters, without any reflective interior monologue, which is one reason his stories flow right along.
On the other hand, if your resolution depends on things your characters feel – if the key to your ending is a character’s growth or redemption or a breakthrough in love — then you’ve got to put your readers inside your characters’ heads. Your readers need to see your characters reacting to events, to think their thoughts with them, to feel their feelings. Even action novels aren’t harmed if the characters grow a little bit by the end. Your characters need an inner life.
But it’s easy to go too far – as Keillor found out. So how do you get the balance right?
First, make sure your characters’ inner life doesn’t distract from the action. Thoughts happen a lot faster than we can either write or read about them, so having your characters get caught up in complex internal deliberations in the middle of a conversation or a tense moment can throw off the pace. I suspect one reason Patterson’s characters are not very self-reflective is so he can keep up the momentum his stories are famous for. Naval gazing would be a distraction.
Also, remember, it’s your characters who are self-reflective. They shouldn’t get lost in mental digressions unless it’s in their nature to do so. And the reflection should be part of their lives throughout the whole story. When they only get reflective when you need to reveal some information, readers are going to notice.
And when your characters get lost in thought, the thoughts themselves need to be interesting.
Someone who does this kind of internal life remarkably well is Alexander McCall Smith, particularly with his Isabel Dalhousie stories (The Sunday Philosophy Club series, for those of you keeping score at home). Isabel is a professional philosopher (and how often do you hear about one of those?) and the editor of the journal Review of Applied Ethics. It’s natural for her to spend her days thinking about how people should get along with one another. Here she is, from The Right Attitude to Rain, greeting Cat, her niece, who has a habit of falling for inappropriate men. Cat has just observed that her life is settled – or stuck – in Edinburgh, where the series is set.
Isabel speared an olive with her fork. “Not necessarily,” she said. “All sorts of things can happen. You might . . . “
Cat looked at her. “Yes? I might what?”
Isabel had been thinking of marriage. That was the obvious thing that could change Cat’s life and get her out of her rut, if that’s what she thought she was in. Marriage had changed Isabel’s own life – for the worse, but not every marriage did that. One would have to be massively cynical to see marriage in that light. Were most marriages happy? Somewhere she had read that with increased participation by women in economic life – as more women began to have their own careers – so the levels of happiness in marriage went down. Women in Sweden and countries like that, where women were free and independent, were apparently less happy in their marriages than women in those countries where they had less power and participated less in the working world. Well, if that were the case, she thought, then that meant that there was something wrong with conventional marriage, rather than something wrong with freedom.
She could not tell Cat that she had been thinking of marriage, because she was not at all sure whether Cat wanted to get married. So many people no longer bothered, but just lived together, or left it for years and years before doing anything about formalities. But was that what Cat really wanted? Or did she want somebody to come along and make a public commitment to her, as people used to do with marriage, as she had done with John Liamor?
“I might what?” repeated Cat.
“You might meet somebody,” said Isabel.
That’s a lot of space between a question and answer, even given that Cat noticed the gap. But Isabel’s digressions work because she has an interesting turn of mind. They’re never trite, mundane, or boring.
Fiction is the only place aside from, possibly, brain surgery where you can let your readers into your characters’ heads to watch as they think. I don’t know of a better way to show your readers who your characters really are. It’s no wonder this interior focus can be overused. But used right, there is no better way to draw your readers in.
So whom do you know who gets interior monologue right? More interesting, who gets it wrong? How have you dealt with your own interior monologue problems?
About Dave King
Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.