Friday, January 16, 2015

Expressing Character Emotions – Characters’ Thoughts

A character’s thoughts are referred to as internal monologue or interiority. They provide a direct window into the character’s mind. Many editors prefer internal monologue to physical reactions. In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole says, “Writers try to ‘show’ with a character’s body all the time, but it often starts to read like a medical chart that details the status of her internal organs, or a dance number that chronicles what her limbs are doing. I don’t care about your character’s oddly detached body parts.” By showing a character’s thoughts, writers can avoid clichéd butterflies in the stomach, blushes and meaningful gazes.

On the downside, interior monologue can read like an info dump when the writer tries to convey extra material to the reader. At a writing workshop, Carolyn Coman reminded us to “remember who we’re talking to.” In most cases, the character is talking to himself, not the reader. Interior monologue is not a place to stash backstory.

On the upside, internal monologue is an excellent opportunity to develop a character’s voice. Consider the word choices a character uses when thinking. They may be different from the way he talks to his friends, relatives or teachers. Internal monologue may reveal the character’s most secret desires, or show how the character deceives herself. By expressing a character’s thoughts, the writer has an opportunity to convince the reader that the character is unique and interesting.

Leslie Connor writes about the difficult life of twelve-year-old Addie in Waiting for Normal. Addie and her erratic mother live in poverty in a tiny trailer. Addie is given a respite from her worries and responsibilities when she joins her mother's exboyfriend and half-sisters for a brief vacation. She’s old enough to know that the fun cannot last.
“… it wasn’t anything in particular that happened while I was there, but while I was at the inn, I started feeling like a Tootsie Roll Pop. On the outside I was having a shiny-good colorful time. But I could feel my chewy, gooey center squishing and squashing inside me.”

This simile veers close to the physical reactions Mary Kole warned against, except it works – extremely well. Conner exquisitely contrasts “a shiny-good colorful time” with “my chewy, gooey center squishing and squashing inside me.” Her perfect depiction of Addie’s voice brings the character to life. Readers relate to the shared experience of good times ending.

In Kathi Appelt’s brilliant midgrade novel, The Underneath, she describes the developing friendship between the calico cat and Ranger, the old hound dog.
“Cats are famous for purring. And this is what the calico cat did as she curled up next to Ranger’s massive chest, safe and soft. Until he heard it, Ranger had not realized how much he needed this sweet, friendly sound. How much he needed someone to settle in next to him. He didn’t know that he needed to not be so solitary until at last he wasn’t. So many needs in one old dog.”

I cannot imagine a more moving depiction of companionship. Appelt’s word choices exude coziness: “curled up,” “safe and soft”, “sweet, friendly sound,” and “settle in next to him.” She pulls the reader into this moment of security and love. The last seven words break the reader’s heart and carry the rhythms and flavors of the Deep South where this novel takes place.

We write fiction to tell a story. We read fiction to share characters’ experiences. A good writer addresses both these needs. As readers, we want characters who are interesting enough to take up some of our busy lives. Characters become interesting both through their uniqueness and their commonality with us. Readers relate to emotion when they find similar experiences in their own memories.

Expressing character emotion posts:
Characters’ thoughts (here)


Ruth McNally Barshaw said...

Yes, yes. More, please.

TimInMich said...

Interesting posts, Ann. They are thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Ann Finkelstein said...

Thanks, Tim and Ruth. It's hard to give a craft workshop in the same week in practically the same town as Donald Maass. I'm feeling some trepidation about my talk next Saturday. Hey, there's an emotion I could write about.