When many aspiring fiction writers think about the novel they want to write, they often think in terms of their proposed linear plot. This happens, then that happens, which causes the next thing to happen, and so on until the end of the book. In short, they piece together a credible story and if they’ve done a good job of piecing their story together, the book gets published.The writer has succeeded with his or her book on the story level. That’s good. Those books can sell like crazy.
But in my ongoing attempt to pinpoint what I prefer in a novel, I’ve come up with yet another way to describe this notion of going beyond the storytelling level and entering into the “felt life” level that Henry James championed. This new way is to suggest that just as a reader likes a book he or she can successfully follow (track) on the plot level, so too do most readers like a novel that allows them to track the inner life of the novel’s characters. (Without realizing that’s what they’re doing, of course).
The plot is what is happening in the story. But how are those events affecting the characters? I don’t mean does the fact that Joe dies in chapter one mean that we are then told that his widow Sally is sad (or happy) about his passing. That too, can just be something described on the basic plot level by giving us Sally’s facial expressions, dialog, and/or actions.
But to fully enter this next level of character development (that I crave as a reader), requires more than description, dialog, and actions. What more is there? you’re probably asking. And this is where it gets dicey. The truth is that it’s hard to infuse your fiction with this second level of “life.” Hard do describe and hard to do. It’s especially hard to do in such a way that the reader is tracking the character’s inner life on an intuitive level, not a linear level.
To be honest, I’m not even sure this aspect of characterization can be taught at all. But maybe it can. So in that hope, I’m going to offer some suggestions.
1. First of all, make sure you understand what I’m after. If you don’t get it, stop reading this blog entry and come back next week when I’ll be on to another topic. It’s not important that every writer understand this. I’ll settle for only a few.
2. Lack of an inner life in your characters may be simply because you don’t know them well enough. I’d suggest interviewing them about their past, their future, and how they got in this present predicament that is your novel. Most good characters are very forthcoming about their life. Some need coaxing, but it’s quite worth it when you get them to finally open up. Be advised that it’s often the interview questions that have nothing to do with the novel that are the most revealing. Ask lots of those.
3. Describe your characters, one by one, to a friend. Perhaps someone in your writers group. Let them come up with interview questions for your characters.
4. Read published fiction that has succeeded on this deeper level. And when you sit down to write, take a few minutes to warm up by typing word for word a few paragraphs from the book you’ve chosen. Particularly paragraphs that are themselves revealing of a character’s inner life.
5. One hint that your character’s inner life is boring is if their emotions are predictable. For instance in my example above (Joe’s death and his wife Sally’s reaction) the predictable response is sadness at the death of a spouse. But for a woman to be happy at her husband’s death suggests either something about Sally or about Joe that is worth exploring.
6. Find ways unique to your writing that will help you set on paper the words that will open up the inner life of your characters to your readers. When you find something that works, let me know or post it in the comments section. This process of tracking a character’s inner life is one of the most mysterious aspects of writing fiction that I know about—which is why few seem to attempt it and yet fewer succeed when they do attempt it.
If you have a finished novel that hasn’t sold, maybe this one single thing is what you need to do to break through and capture an editor’s heart. Go back through the book that you’ve completed on the primary plot level and this time write strictly to the second level–the deeper level. Ask yourself: is my character’s inner life worth tracking for the reader? If not, you need to do another rewrite and make it so. Just be very careful that this is all done invisibly…subtley…silently.
And even if you do master it, as I said earlier: Deepening the inner life of your characters may not help you sell your book to an editor—in fact, it may be a hindrance. Still, I want you to do it anyway. It will make me happy. 🙂