The secrets behind the practice of good writing: Characters shouldn’t think too much

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, The secrets behind the practice of good writing, Tips for Writers

Capture.PNGDon’t let your characters think too much. It can be a cop out.

I had this discussion with a writer friend, who tries to avoid using “inner life” in his novels because “it feels like cheating”. He says it seems too much like explanation to him.

I know what he means. If your characters mean what they think, and if they’re in touch with their own feelings, then basically you’re using a “too easy” way of explaining your character to the reader. Writing well means that, wherever possible, you should find ways to avoid explanation.

Reading is an active process. It involves a sharing with the writer, who should allow the readers to pick up the cues and work out what’s going on for themselves. And would your character be thinking such fully a framed explanation of her feelings in that moment? Probably not.

Besides that, we know that few people are in touch with their own feelings and frailties.Your character feels sorrow. Hmm. The last thing you want to do is tell us: She felt great sorrow.

You have endless tools at your disposal, though: what does she do? Perhaps she climbs into bed. Perhaps she presses fingers into her eyes until she sees flashes of yellow and red. What does she notice around her? The first spring birdcalls or the last frost-bitten branches, blackened by a tough winter?

Perhaps she even dresses differently. I recently reread George Elliot’s Middlemarch and was again thrilled by her masterful treatment of characters.

When Harriet Bulstrode learns of her religious husband’s past misdeeds, she makes the decision to stay with him despite what it will mean to her: the loss of the life she has been so pleased with, and losing the companionship of neighbours. Before she goes down to join her husband…here’s the critical thing: she dresses differently. She gives up her frilly adornments and dons a simple black gown. Instead of sweeping her hair up, she brushes it down in a plain and unflattering style.

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My 2016 blogs will continue to try to uncover the secrets behind the practice of good writing.

Please join the discussion and if you have discovered something that has made a great difference to some aspect of your writing, please send it to me. I’ll share it on the blog and we can discuss it.

Each blog will deal with a secret that may have occurred to me through reading or mentoring other people’s work. Or they may  be lessons hard learnt through five of my own books. Many will be applicable to fiction and non-fiction, while some might refer to one or the other.  When you tackle a piece of writing, you always have a vision of the perfect work it will be. As you write, you become increasingly aware of how it falls short of the perfection you wish for it. Writing (and rewriting) is the process of trying to bring it as close as you possibly can to that vision. Here, I will try to share those little gems which should bring all our writing one step closer to the perfect piece of writing – one blog at a time. Some might tackle the process of writing or how to keep writing, while some will look at language, characterisation or story. Some might be more general, while others will be very specific. But each will be a piece of advice that I believe in and that I hope will help make us all into better writers.

Jo-Anne Richards
Jo-Anne Richards is an internationally published novelist with a PhD in Creative Writing from Wits University. Her first novel, The Innocence of Roast Chicken, was originally published by Headline Review in the UK, and has recently been rereleased as one of the prestigious Picador Africa Classics collection. She ran the Honours programme in Journalism & Media Studies at Wits University for fifteen years.
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