Characters Should Think Progressively
Written fiction allows access to a character’s mind in a way that no other medium can. What someone thinks often gives a new perspective on events, can reveal aspects you hadn’t considered, or add depth to the way you perceive a character.
Often this is presented as a snapshot of the character’s current state of mind. This is what’s happening, and this is what the MC thinks about it. But what makes a character interesting isn’t just who they are or what they do, it’s how they get there.
And while ‘it’s the journey not the destination’ may seem obvious, knowing exactly which part of the journey is the interesting bit may not.
Travelling from here to there is no more interesting in detail or summary, as show or tell, if it’s just a description of a man walking up a flight of stairs. It’s not the accurate description of events that holds the attention.
What’s important is the change along the way. How it’s caused, how it’s proceeds, how it’s received. If there is no change, if it’s just one step after the other, it hard to hold a reader’s attention. The brilliant lawyer who wins the difficult case brilliantly isn’t much of a story. The washed up lawyer who’s offered a fortune to lose but doesn’t, is.
Seeing the struggle, internally as well as externally, is what pulls people into a story and makes it worth following. But thought is not a static thing, and only in extreme cases do things pop into a person’s head out of the blue. Usually there’s a process of getting to a certain place. Reactions and attitudes are built on a progression.
If Lauren is waiting for Bill at the restaurant and she’s fuming, thinking angry things about him for standing her up, and then he come in all apologies, and she swears at him and walks out, you can follow that scene fairly clearly.
If Lauren hopes Bill won’t be much longer, and she tries to avoid the look on the waiter’s face that says he thinks she’s been stood up—so embarrassing. She checks the clock on the wall, then her watch, then her phone. He wouldn’t stand her up, not after he promised. The same as he did last time. And the time before that… The barman’s looking now. And the couple holding hands, whispering. She counts the number of times Bill has left her hanging, and the number is fourteen, which is definitely in doormat territory. What the hell is she doing? She should just go home. Cut her losses, all fourteen of them. No more! She heads for the door just as Bill walks in, smiling, waving, and she punches him in the face.
In both scenes it is clear Lauren is mad and why. But participating in the progression from hopeful to livid makes it much easier to get on board with Lauren, and so follow her into the next scene. Because letting us into a character’s head isn’t just so we get to know what they think, it’s so we get to know them.
BTW, I’m publishing short stories on Smashwordsas an experiment in self-publishing (post to follow on my findings). If you fancy reading one for free you can download it here.Any comments or reviewswelcome (even bad ones).
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