I had a client recently who was wrestling hard with the concept of getting inside her character's head. When editing her pages, I kept highlighting giant chunks of text -- including chunks of dialogue, descriptions, conclusions -- and asking her the same questions over and over again:
- Okay, but what does she think?
- And so? Why does any of this matter to her?
- What's her response to this?
- Tell me why the reader should care about this?
- You're telling -- what can you show us about this moment?
This went on for several weeks -- and it goes on with most writers, whether they are writing fiction, memoir or even a passage in a nonfiction book about their own experiences. It's all too easy to skate along on the surface reporting facts the way a camera might record a scene. Most of us need someone to remind us to be more generous, to let the reader in more, to go deeper to the next level, because without it, we'll write the easy, obvious thing, and that's not what any reader wants.
What I love about coaching writers is that I get to see their progress on a really intimate level. After weeks of writing the same kind of surface-level stuff, the client I was guiding turned in pages where everything was on the page in glorious detail -- and the scene she was writing just leaped off the page. It was as if an entirely different writer had stepped in to do the work.
"What did you DO?" I asked -- because I wanted to be able to tell other people to do this thing, too.
Her answer constitutes a simple and powerful trick for getting inside your character's head:
"I used to believe that getting inside my character's head was like sitting down and having a cup of coffee with her," she said, "but I figured out that wasn't it at all. It was tuning into what the character would say to herself."
Which is, of course, a very different thing entirely. You know that voice inside your OWN head? the one that chatters all day long, sometimes saying irrational and ridiculous things, sometimes contradicting what is happening right in front of you, sometimes urging you on to great bravery, sometimes sabotaging you, sometimes getting stuck like a broken record, but always, always there? That's the voice we are talking about here.
- If you need a visual of this voice, go watch Pixar's Inside Out, which I thought was one of their worst movies but one of their coolest concepts -- all the voices inside our head personified and duking it out.
- If you would like a more profound exploration of this concept, go read The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer. It's a deep and moving book about the "witness" inside us who watches everything, and how getting OUT of our own head and into the place of the witness can bring peace and calm.
The point is that everyone has these voices inside their head -- and the person you are depicting on the page (a fictional character; a depiction of yourself during a certain stage of life in memoir; the narrator in nonfiction) needs to have it, too. Just like us, they can't turn it off. And the reader wants to hear that voice so that they can feel what it's like to be in someone else's mind as that person makes sense of their world and the decisions they face.
Here's an example from Trevor Noah's memoir, Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood.
Noah is writing about how he loved to blow things up and cause mischief. He tells a tale about using a firecracker as a flamethrower, and in this tiny bit of dialogue, he begins by simply narrating the physical events -- which is the kind of thing you might hear when you sit down to coffee with a friend. At the bolded part, however, he lets us hear that voice inside his head. Notice the gap between what he thinks and what he says in that moment -- that's where the power lies:
The whole thing exploded, throwing a massive ball of flame up in my face. Mlungisi screamed, and my mom came running into the yard in a panic.
I played it cool even though I could still feel the heart of the fireball on my face. "Oh, nothing. Nothing happened."
This is a great little snippet of dialogue, and a less accomplished writer would perhaps leave it at that. Describe what happened -- the surface level, physical events -- then give a sense of the gap between the character's thoughts and the spoken words to let the reader inside that character's head.
But after this scene (which ends when he goes and looks in the mirror and sees that he has burned off his eyebrows and has therefore been caught in his rather obvious lie), Noah goes one step further, taking us deeper into what was going on in his mind. It is when he shares this deeper insight into his actions -- when he shares what he was really thinking -- that Noah's writing turns from pedestrian to something far more resonant:
"From an adult's point of view, I was destructive and out of control," he says, "but as a child I didn't think of it that way. I never wanted to destroy. I wanted to create. I wasn't burning eyebrows. I was creating fire. I wasn't breaking overhead projectors. I was creating chaos, to see how people reacted."
That is the description of a child with a sharp, observer's mind -- a writer and a comedian in the making. Noah was courting chaos so he could study people. It's a beautiful description of an otherwise simple event, and it draws us deeper into the narrative, because now we want to know how this is all going to turn out. What is going to become of the boy growing up in a country divided by hate who loved to create chaos?