Inside Your Character’s Head
I think it’s become generally agreed that the best books are those where the characters are three-dimensional people who are engaging, likable, and someone the reader really wants to spend time with. Reading is not just a time to spend with someone fictional, it’s when we can step out of our shoes and into those of someone much more interesting, exciting, or who lived in another time or place. We don’t just want to be with the protagonists of the stories we read, we want to become that person, even if it’s just for a short time.
So as writers, how do we create that experience? How do we bring a stranger into the life of our characters? By bringing them straight into our character’s minds. By writing in deep point of view. By showing the world of the story through our character’s eyes and letting the reader in on all that the character is thinking and feeling. Only in this way does the reader actually have a chance at becoming the character as they are reading.
In order to write our stories this way, through the character’s point of view, we need to be able to see and experience the world of our story that way. We need to thoroughly put ourselves into the character’s mind. In other words, for our reader to become that character, first, we must do so ourselves.
I’ve written here about Method Writing, and that is, indeed, a large part of how to write in deep POV, but in order to even get to the place where Method Writing is possible, we first need to know all about our characters. We need to explore their childhood, their history, their backstory.
We need to know what the character’s internal wound is. The internal wound is an event, or even just something said to the character, usually when they were young by someone who they respected and believed. Usually this is a parent, but it could also be a teacher or even a best friend. That person said something to the character about themself or their life that changed the way they saw themselves.
For example, the hero of the book I’m currently writing was given conflicting messages from his parents. His father, from the time he was a pretty young boy, told him that he would never amount to much. The child was a trouble-maker as many little boys are. His father claimed he was a wastrel who would never succeed in life, and he was ashamed that this boy was his only son because he would inherit his name, title, and property. He was sure the boy would drag the first two in the mud and lose the third. It’s the sort of thing that would affect a child for the rest of his life, a way to ensure that the boy does just what the father predicts.
But the boy’s mother, when his father was ranting and raving at his son, would cover the boy’s ears and then whisper to him that his father was just angry at himself or frustrated. She assured the child that he would succeed at whatever he put his mind to.
So, what is a young, impressionable child to make of this? Well, he was already a trouble-maker to begin with, so he continued with such behavior, proving his father right that he wouldn’t succeed. On the other hand, he also developed a contrary nature, one in which he, as he matured, reveled in a challenge and challenges he always won. If he was told he couldn’t succeed in business, he excelled. If a woman wasn’t interested in him, he waged an all-out charm campaign until she was ready to throw herself at him. He does both these things in the novel I’m writing. Of course, he realizes as he’s charming the girl that he’s just as much in love with her as she becomes with him—he gets caught in his own trap.
But the point is that not only have I developed a plot from the goals of my character, but from the way he views the world. His backstory influences his current story. The way he views the world and behaves affects his actions. I have developed a well-rounded person with good points and bad, and it all blends together to form the human being through whose eyes we experience his story.
It is impossible for us both as people and storytellers to separate out a person’s backstory from their current story. Their life’s history colors the way they live now. Their childhood experiences determine how they view the world and themselves. You, the author, need to know what that backstory is. You need to know how and why a person sees the world the way they do. And it would be best for the character to tell you this themselves. Put yourself into the role of therapist and ask your character about their childhood. Dig down deep to find out what they remember and why and how they allow these events to determine their behavior in the time of the story.
Your story will be richer, your characters more real, and both you and your reader will easily be able to slip into their shoes and live the story as if you were that character. Enjoy living your character’s life.