In this lesson, we will examine internal voice, discover why backstory is important and touch on the role of viewpoint.
All characters (and real people for that matter) have a set of unspoken beliefs, which are a combination of all their life experiences. This is the ‘voice’ inside their head that not only provides a constant dialogue but will also influence a character’s (or person’s) reaction in any given situation. These thoughts are unconscious.
For example …
Perhaps your main character was brought up in a family environment that teaches how Chinese people are dishonest and cannot be trusted. As your character grows up, he may have intellectually understood that this belief is wrong, but it is ingrained and lies dormant nonetheless. This latent racist attitude makes up part of the character’s internal voice. He may be consciously aware that this view is racist. Yet he may not even consider himself to be a racist. In everyday life, he probably says and does things that demonstrate to the world that he is not, in fact, racist. However, in any given situation involving interaction with a Chinese person, the character will be influenced, subconsciously, by his internal voice. The character would, probably, not say, “I distrust Chinese people.” However, he would interact in a way, perhaps subtly (or not so subtly), different from a character who did not hold the same beliefs.
You can see here how the backstory for this character can have him saying and believing he is not racist, but, when confronted by a situation with Chinese people, he could act in a way that shows himself to be racist.
You say one thing and do another.
All of the characters in your book need a well-defined internal voice. You must map out the key influences on your characters. Therefore, the starting point to creating an internal voice for your characters is to create each character’s backstory. This backstory is the character’s life history. It is a summary of all the key events and modes of thought, which influence the character in a major way. In its simplest form, this is a list of beliefs the character holds, and, perhaps, the events that created these beliefs.
Only by understanding a character’s background can an author then begin to develop the character’s internal voice. The more the author understands a character’s complex background, the more realistically can the author invent the character’s personality.
This process can be very daunting, but it is important to understand that characters don’t need to appear fully formed in your mind. Many experienced authors will start the writing process by jotting down a few notes about a character and the major influences in that character’s life. The author will decide on the character’s main views on the world and build a broad picture of the character. Some authors like to find pictures and images to represent the character. Some think of real people. Ultimately, the end goal is always the same: to get inside the head of the character. Then, as the story develops, authors will elaborate and expand on this picture. They will add in smaller details, allowing the character to grow and breathe.
This character profile is an essential part of the writing process, but here’s the big secret: it’s a secret. The character profile is created for your eyes only! It is NOT part of the novel.
Once you have spent time and effort creating a character profile, you will face the temptation to divulge this. It must be overcome. Under no circumstances can you share the character profile with your reader.
You will feel the temptation to TELL the reader about the character’s internal thought process and backstory. You will want to explain to the reader why a character is acting in a certain way.
Let’s face it. You’ll want to show off and TELL the reader why your writing is so clever.
If you do, YOU LOSE.
You must resist. At no point should the internal voice of your character spill onto the page. The internal voice is for you and your character. It is a secret the must not be shared. The author must understand the reasoning behind every word and action of your characters, but you must never explain this reasoning to the reader.
When self-editing this presents a small problem. Since you wrote the novel, you will understand the character’s backstory. This means that even if the writing is giving away too much of the backstory via narrative summary, it is easy to miss when self-editing. This means that, as a self-editor, you must be on the constant look out for a situation where the backstory spills into the narrative. If editing other people’s work, this is actually pretty easy to spot. In fact, it is a good exercise to offer to editor another writer’s work, if only to get into the habit of dealing with internal voice, when presented in a way other then via words and action.
The ultimate goal is to create a space between the character and the reader. You want your characters to speak and act in a way that is both truthful and logical but never explained by the narrator. It is in this space that the reader will fill in his or her own understanding of the character. The reader will, instinctively, search to understand the character. (Remember what was said in the opening sections. Everyone’s brain is trained to give meaning to words and actions; it just can’t resist.)
This forces the reader to engage, to become part of the story. As the reader’s understanding of your characters grows, via their words and actions, the reader will start to gain a deeper meaning. It is this deeper, emotional truth, which will lift your novel to the next level.
The internal voice is the author’s secret weapon. It is the tool that will bring your characters to life.
It’s your Dr. Frankenstein’s bolt of lightning.
Yet the space you create between actions and meaning is dark and fragile. By exposing this internal voice to the light of the narrative, the magic is broken. As soon as a reader is TOLD how a character acts, the reader is pushed onto the back foot. The reader no longer needs to work it out. The reader no longer needs to fill in the gaps. The reader’s brain can shut down. Each time you TELL the reader a character is happy or sad, rather than SHOW via actions, the reader disengages a little more. Each time you TELL the reader a nugget of the backstory via the narrator, not in dialogue, the reader is pushed away. Each time you give in to temptation and explain, the reader starts to turn off.
If a narrator is explaining the internal voice, then the reader is instantly passive. The reader is left in a position where he is no longer needed to lean into the story. The reader can sit back and let the story come to him. This reduces the space between the character and the reader, and no room is left for the reader’s mind to create its magic.
Before we move on, here’s a note about viewpoint, since the viewpoint you are using will make this process either more difficult or easier.
If you are writing in first person, then you are at the biggest risk of telling, not showing. Since the narrative voice and the character’s voice as the same, it is very easy to slip into just having the narrator/character TELL the reader what they are thinking. To an extent this is OK. The key is to not slip into explaining why they are thinking a certain thing. For example, you might have a character who hates dogs. It is OK to have your narrative voice/character voice think something like – God I hate dogs. What you must avoid is explaining why, having the character think – God I hate dogs, because when I was a baby I was bitten, is a big no, no. You are no longer showing and have slipped into TELL.
If writing in third person you have two scenarios. If using third person subjective, then you are not using any internal voice and, therefore, can never slip into narrative TELL. However, if writing in limited or omniscient you need to be a little more careful. Since you may well be using internal thoughts, the same rule should apply as to first person. It is OK to show the thought but never explain.
When self-editing it is essential that you fully understand the viewpoint and its impact on the narrative structure. The editing process is the chance to chance these mistakes. If editing a third person subjective novel then always be on the look out for stray thoughts that need to be removed. If editing any other third person viewpoint, then watch for thoughts that are passing backstory about either the plot or characters. The thoughts should be linked to the moment of the story, not used to filter information (show, not tell).
For example, the following is OK…
The boy walked into the street. He stopped and looked up. A head stood a large, black dog. God I hate dogs, thought the boy.
The boy walked into the street. He stopped and looked up. A head stood a large, black dog. God I hate dogs, because when I was a baby I was bitten, thought the boy.
Exercise – Create a character profile.
This is a simple, but essential process. For each of your main characters, create a separate document. In this document, record every major opinion held by your character. You only need to list the opinions that are relevant to your story, but the better detailed you make this document the more ‘real’ your characters will appear to the reader.
Remember that, at no point, will the reader see this document. This is just for your referenced (writer/editor). The aim of the document is to give you a tool that you can use to determine a character’s reaction in any given situation.
For example, let’s say that you have decided your character hates cheese. Not the biggest plot point, but something with which you can have fun. Knowing that your character is a cheese hater means that you can manipulate the way they speak and act in cheese related situations.
One enjoyable part of self-editing is that you can start to develop character traits that you might have missed or underdeveloped in the writing process. Take the cheese example, as an editor you might decide that you will develop this point. This means that as you self-edit, you will be looking for moments in the story that can be used to expand the cheese thing. Say the character is invited to a meal and the first draft of the novel has a simple scene where they order burger and fries. As an editor, you might flag this section as somewhere to expand the plot point. You’d make a note, perhaps with a comment such as ‘expand these scene. Have the main character order a plain burger and they deliver a cheeseburger.’ Then, on the next rewrite you can put on your writer’s hat and start messing with your main character.