Narrative Voice

What Are They Thinking?: Character Motives and Internal Dialogue

book-614836_1920I don’t think I’ve ever actually thrown a book across the room, but there have been times I’ve wanted to.

Sometimes the narrator (and by extension, author) just makes me so mad.

Here’s the thing. It can totally work for readers to be mad at characters–antagonists most of the time (that’s a given), but even protagonists at times. They all do dumb things, because in order for a story to be interesting, characters have to be in some kind of trouble and try to get out of it. Often the character causes the trouble themselves, or at least makes it worse in their attempts to fix it. That’s what creates rising action, as long as it’s done the right way.

So I have a few rules about making readers angry. There’s a difference between being angry at the character and being angry at the author. We can be angry and frustrated with the protagonist or supporting characters for awhile—deliciously frustrated, if it’s done right—but as long as the narrator is guiding us through it, we’ll maintain the hope that propels us through the mess. It’s when the narrator doesn’t do his or her job that I become angry with the author. And then the book is in danger of being hurled across the room.

So here are a few ways the narrator can drop the ball and incite the wrong kind of reader anger.

Withholding too much information for too long. I read a book once where the protagonist/narrator had a terminal illness that kept her from wanting to form attachments and prevented her from doing her job well. In addition, she felt guilty about something that had happened in her childhood, which cause an aversion to her hometown, where she had returned to work and where nobody knew about these secrets. But even the reader didn’t get to be in on either of these secrets until the climax. A whole book where we’re in her head but not clued in to why she feels the way she does. Just vague references to her guilt, to her weakness, to her limitations. So much potential for reader empathy wasted. Instead I was frustrated the whole time, feeling like I was being dragged along and not respected. Taunted and teased by vital information withheld. If you want to slowly reveal a backstory, fine by me. But don’t miss out on the opportunity to bring readers into the full emotion of the character because you turn it into a guessing game.

Being unclear about who knows what. I love the movie Groundhog Day. I could seriously discuss it like it was a literary masterpiece. But I have this problem with one of the very last scenes. The main character, Phil, has just lived the same day over and over for possibly 30-40 years, finally figured out the secret to being happy, and gained the attention of his love interest. She’s amazed by the change she sees in him and by everybody’s reactions to him, and wants to know what’s going on. He asks if she wants the long version or the short; she says “Let’s start with the short and go from there,” and then it cuts to a wide shot of the whole group and the scene moves on. I have never figured out if we’re supposed to think he doesn’t get the chance to explain, or if it’s implying that he tells her all about it before the scene moves on. It’s important to me! Is he completely honest? Does she get to know about everything? Or does she fall in love with him even without that knowledge?

So here’s the deal. (And this could be a really annoying paragraph to read, but stay with me.) If a protagonist knows something, I want to know that they know. Even if the narrator doesn’t let me know what they know right away, I’d like to know that they know. Like we don’t usually find out what Sherlock Holmes knows when he knows it, but we can usually tell if he’s figured something out. If a character—especially the protagonist—doesn’t know something, I need to know that, too. Don’t make me feel like I’m missing something as a reader, like maybe I spaced out when something important was mentioned. If they know that someone else knows something, that should be clear. If they don’t know if someone else knows something or not, they should wonder about it so that we as readers know whether or not the protagonist knows if they know. (Is there a better way I could have said that? I don’t know.)

Ignoring obvious problems or solutions. Readers are smart. Think of the solutions that a reader would think of, and address them. If there’s an obvious reason it wouldn’t work, just say it real quick. Sometimes we don’t know if our ideas are possible in the world of the book (rules of the fantasy world, rules of the character’s occupation, rules of their society, rules of science we may not know etc.), so you need to let us know. If the real solution is the obvious one, either (1) think of a more complicated solution, or (2) find a way to communicate the reason our hero is not seeing or executing that option at the moment. We need to understand their thought process. Which leads me to my last narrator pet peeve.

Going against their own morals with no justification/explanation/remorse. Every character has their own set of values and morals. Often, our protagonist will bend or break these rules to try to solve their problem or achieve their goal. It’s what causes conflict, and it’s entertaining. But it has to make sense in their mind, and usually, we need to see that, deep down, they know it’s wrong. Just a little hint of guilt, a little over-justification to self or others, or even a conscious decision to change their value system—a choice to change the way they judge themselves or the way they see the world. All of these make for a great dynamic character. But having a character lie unnecessarily, seek disproportionate revenge, or abandon a relationship without explanation, justification, or remorse will cut off a reader’s empathy pretty quickly.

Don’t get me wrong—you can play with a reader’s emotions by purposefully employing any of these tactics for a short amount of time and then redeeming your narrator, but be careful about how long you do that to us, or your poor book may end up mangled in a corner.

3 thoughts on “What Are They Thinking?: Character Motives and Internal Dialogue”

  1. This post reminds me of a few books which I had almost stopped reading. I have endured quite a few boring reads and have usually completed them because I never have a heart to leave any book unfinished. But sometimes it really gets tormenting.
    If you take Hunger games as an example. It was fast paced but I was fed up of Katniss’s dilemma over who she actually liked. It was alright for a time but when it was stretched for three whole books, it was too much.
    Then there was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It took me about three months to finish that book, mainly because I would get tired of it and stop reading for days altogether. I know that it was written way earlier when the societal norms and practices were different than what they are today and yes, there was also a great amount of criticism againt the treatment of slaves. It had quite a few twists in the plot and a lot of history which made the text rich but even if the author had wanted to depict the miserable conditions of slaves, her depiction of Uncle Tom as a devout Christian who was very selfless and resilient in disposition is a bit unrealistic. Not that he could not be any of those things but for a person who suffered regularly due to and on behalf of other, it is next to impossible to retain his sanity or faith in almighty. All I had wanted him to do was fight back for once, but he was determined to be a Gandhi for 600 pages.


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