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