“Let’s talk about me!”
Generally speaking, that’s not good advice for handling yourself in social situations. Better is to listen and ask questions. Being interested in others is the way to make friends and influence people. (Smile too. That helps.)
In bonding readers to characters on the page, though, the reverse is true. We open our hearts to those whose hearts are open to us. For characters’ hearts to be open to us they must talk to us quite a bit about what’s going on inside them.
Effective narrative voices are essentially an awful lot about “me”. I’m not advocating for first person narration. Third person can draw us deeply in too. It’s less about the choice and more about how narrative voice is handled.
In many manuscripts, whether written in first or third person, the main characters do not disclose very much. Often they simply report what’s happening, a dry play-by-play conveyance of the action. As a reader one longs for color commentary, if nothing else. Even better would be some self-reflection but authors frequently hold that back.
Even witty, ironically detached first person narrators—the default voices of YA, New Adult and Para-Everything fiction—aren’t necessary revealing. Ironic tone can be used to avoid true intimacy with readers. Detached literally means unengaged.
Literary writing isn’t necessarily more honest, either. It can mistake imagery for emotional engagement, as if somehow the right words will, of course, evoke strong feelings in readers. It’s actually more effective when it works the other way around, with strong feelings giving rise to the right words. Plain language can easily trump pretty images, as Hemingway proved.
Why are authors stingy with their characters inner lives? Fear of self-disclosure is one reason but more often its fear of getting characters’ inner lives “wrong” or not knowing exactly what to do with them. That can be especially true in late stages of breaking in when emerging authors, having invested so much in their writing ambitions, are worried that small missteps on the page will ruin their chances.
The truth is that there is no “wrong” in opening up characters’ inner lives and emotions, the bigger problem is “not enough”. That said letting characters simply gush on the page doesn’t actually produce dynamic engagement with readers, either.
As I’ve said before, putting obvious emotions on the page doesn’t cause readers to feel them, just the opposite. Secondary emotions, especially when deeply explored, can both ring true and create space in which readers own emotions play. Emotional engagement is two-way. Readers feel involved not because characters are emotional but because they are.
In my post The Meaning of Everything, I discussed how anything on which you select to focus in your fictional world can have powerful meaning for us all. In Pin Connections and the Two Journeys, I showed how to dig out the personal meanings, for your characters, of plot events. Today let’s find out how the most absorbing subject of your characters’ inner deliberation can be themselves.
[pullquote]Effective narration not only brings us inside a protagonist’s head, mind and heart, it also raises questions and concerns about that inner world. Even as it invites us in it makes us uneasy. You can see this readily in any voice that welcomes us.[/pullquote]
Effective narration not only brings us inside a protagonist’s head, mind and heart, it also raises questions and concerns about that inner world. Even as it invites us in it makes us uneasy. You can see this readily in any voice that welcomes us.
Just recently I happened to catch up with Charles Martin’s Where the River Ends (2008), a Nicolas Sparks-like tragic literary romance. Its opening is a rule-breaker, a big no-no: pure backstory. It starts this way:
I don’t have good memories of growing up. Seems like I knew a lot of ugly stuff when I shouldn’t. The only two things I remember as beautiful were my mom and this riverbank. And until I knew better I thought they’d named the river after her.
Overtly, everything is wrong with these opening lines. Nothing is happening. There’s no story promise. The narrator is full of self-pity. He’s weak, helpless and without agency. It’s all interior, backward looking and reflective. So why does it engage?
It’s pure backstory but it’s also pure emotion, specifically the narrator’s love for his mother. He doesn’t say, “I loved my mother.” That’s too direct, a killer of reader feelings. Rather he evokes that love and for us, his readers, all the love we have for our own mothers, and how much we miss them now, has room to come flooding in.
I think there’s an even deeper level on which this passage is working. It tells us something about what this narrator, Doss Michaels, desperately needs in his life. Love. He later finds that with his wife, Abbie, but on an even deeper level Doss is afraid of losing that love…which—guess what?—plays out as Doss and Abbie, who is dying of cancer, make a final canoe trip down the St. Mary’s River in southernmost Georgia.
That’s a big load for a couple of lines to carry but they shoulder it easily. Looked at more simply, Doss Michaels is saying “let’s talk about me!” He does, honestly, artfully and emotionally. Our emotions in turn are stirred and thus we’re hooked. But not by the plot. What plot? We are hooked emotionally.
[pullquote]When we say, then, “let’s talk about me” what we really mean is let’s talk about what I need and specifically why and how I’m either getting that, or not, right at this moment. Me-centered narration is self-centered, yes, but it’s also reflective, questioning, conflicted, anticipating, hoping, fearing and fighting with itself. It’s interior but not flat. It’s indulgent but also dynamic.[/pullquote]
When we say, then, “let’s talk about me” what we really mean is let’s talk about what I need and specifically why and how I’m either getting that, or not, right at this moment. Me-centered narration is self-centered, yes, but it’s also reflective, questioning, conflicted, anticipating, hoping, fearing and fighting with itself. It’s interior but not flat. It’s indulgent but also dynamic. It’s not about changing plot but about changing self.
Let’s try this with the scene you’re working on right now. If your protagonist is the POV character that’s great, but any other POV character will do. What is the outward action in this scene? What does your POV character have to do, seek or avoid? What does he or she need to get or to accomplish right now? This is commonly called the scene “goal”.
Now let’s shift the focus. What does your POV character need inside? What does he or she hope to feel? That’s the emotional goal. Now write down the following: Is what’s happening in this scene bringing “me” (the POV character) closer to or farther away from what he or she needs inside? How, exactly? Why, specifically?
Now dig further down. Ask your POV character more questions. This emotional need…is it good or bad to have that right now? Why? What would be better? Wanting this feeling says what about who I am? The experience of not getting the feeling that I want feels like what?
More questions to have your POV character answer: My inner experience in this moment could be described how? I would short-hand my emotional state with what words? I am afraid of my own need why? On the other hand I’m justified in it because–? The way I am going to feel later on is–? What surprises me” about what I feel right now, though, is–?
Even more: This is exactly what I need because–? This is exactly what I do not need because–? I accept what I am experiencing right now because I must, and I must because–? Who I am right now is changing…how? That’s awful because–? That’s beautiful because–? More than anything else what I hope will come out of this is–? Instead, what will probably come out of it is–? This is so characteristic of me because I am–? The me that will replace me after this is–? I cannot possibly go on because–? I will absolutely keep going because–?
Okay, that’s probably enough raw material to work with. Now take your notes and craft a passage in which your POV character expresses, says and/or acts out his or her internal state. Tell and show us all about “me”, specifically the “me” that exists right now in this scene.
Take your time.
There. The “me” you’ve captured won’t be the same “me” that we would encounter in any another scene, right? That’s because you’ve explored “me” with precision. You’ve captured “me” in a moment in time.
None of us stay the same but to get that kind of dynamic personal evolution down on the page means measuring “me” against who one has been in the past and who one will become in the future. That’s purely emotional work and, really, it matters as much as conveying changes in the plot.
Think about it. When we talk about our days we first explain not what happened but how we felt. “It was a good day” means that we felt good. “It was a bad” day means that we felt bad. Good means we feel hopeful and forward-looking. Bad means we feel bleak and as if we are being pulled backwards.
Let’s talk about “me” means let’s talk about how “I” feel, in detail. When your characters do that for us, we in turn feel that they’re actually speaking about you and I. And that’s what we want.
How is the POV character in your current scene talking about “me”? Share!