Does your character contemplate?
23 Monday Jun 2014
Written by J. Abram Barneck in Writing Tips
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In the best books, we really get to know the characters. We see ourselves in these fictional beings. We see our own hopes, dreams, sorrows and struggles. Identifying with characters is often the difference between a good book and a great book.
Do you contemplate? Do you contemplate write and wrong? Do you dwell on your choices (especially your mistakes) and rehash them in your mind over and over again? I do. People I converse with regularly do.
Does your character?
I think therefore I am.” –René Descartes
If your character doesn’t ever take a moment to delve into the depths of his/her own mind, can a reader ever really feel that character is real? I would answer no. For your character to be real your character should think.
Identifying scenes where characters should think
As you write/revise your novel, you can both find places where your character should think as well as find places where you character is thinking but probably shouldn’t be. If you find a place where thinking just feels wrong, but you have written it in, or it feels like your character should have a thinking moment but it is absent, ask yourself these questions:
- Is the character making an important choice? (Especially if the decisions has moral implications.)
If your character is going choose between a burger and fries, or a chicken sandwich and a salad, you better stop inundating the reader with useless paragraphs of careful contemplation about lunch because the reader won’t care. (Unless your character is struggling with obesity and a food addiction.)
The choice must be important!
If your book is a romance novel and the character has to choose to between two love interest, you might have a whole chapter of thoughts, contemplation, and memories before the reveal.
If your character is an aged dragon that has hated humanity for his entire life, but now finds a reason to join forces with a human, there better be some soul searching in there.
If your character is about to step in and give their life to save someone he/she hates because it is the right thing to do, there better be some awesome moment of mental enlightenment leading the character to be certain he/she is doing what is right.
- Is the character facing the results of one of his/her decisions?
You know when you’ve made the wrong choice and you think about it for a day or a week, or possibly you are still thinking about it thirty years later? Well, that probably should be happening to your characters in your book. If a character makes a choice and it affects him/her, then he better think about this choice. It better eat at him/her and dominate his/her thoughts. Otherwise, he/she is not acting like a real person. Your character needs to be real.
- Is the character witnessing something new and awe inspiring?
I have a scene where Jake’s eyes are suddenly enhanced and he can see Kendra’s spirit. And he goes off into thought:
Seeing her spirit somehow seemed important to me. There was doubt in the world . . .
Being able to see the life-force, the spirit if you will, of all things around you fits the awe inspiring test. I didn’t know when I wrote that, that I was properly placing a contemplative moment where it belongs. This scene just came naturally.
Some other examples.
If the character crests the peak of a mountain and has a view of the world?
If the character does something for the first time, some act bigger than the character has ever done before.
- Is the character about to knowingly risk their life in an action/fight scene?
Have you ever noticed that a lot of characters seem to hesitation before a fight. They think about it. They contemplate whether they will live through it. Whether they will survive and if their death is worth it. If their death wouldn’t be worth it but they have no other choice and they are risking their life, don’t they worry about how everything they’ve striven for could come to a sudden end and their lives would be for naught? If you character doesn’t do this, then the reader is going to have a hard time believing your character is real.
- Did the character just experience death or near death?
After either a near death experience or someone close to us dying, we all think about our life, our family, our friends. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be human. We wouldn’t be real. OK, if you main character is an android, maybe not contemplating would make sense. Otherwise, contemplate.
- Did the character just experience a wake up call
A wake-up call is similar to a near death experience except it might not involve death. The prime example is betrayal. For example, if a wife decides to surprise her working-late husband with dinner and find him in his office doing some naked hugging with the secretary, the wife is going to experience a wake-up call. She might find her love replaced with hate. She might wonder if her hate is evil or OK in this situation. She might delve into her memories and wonder if his cheating was her fault in anyway? She’ll wonder if she drove him to it. Whether a good or evil character, she’ll likely consider killing him, and contemplate how to get away with it. Of course, if evil, she might actually follow through on her plan, while if she is good, she will quickly dismiss that thought and start contemplating warnings signs in her marriage that she may have missed.
Yes, there are many forms of betrayal. After a betrayal is made known, there better be some contemplation.
- Is is some mundane thing that just frustrates the character
We all experience the mundane things in life. If a character in your book never experiences them, then the reader is going to sense something is off and have a hard time identifying with the character.
Imagine if your character is in a life or death rush and must pick up an item from a store, but on arriving at that store, find the store has just re-organized their isles and everything is in a different place. Would your character not contemplate why fate or the universe picked that day of all days for the store to reorganize it shelves? Probably.
In Fire Light, Jake twice is affected by road construction. He has to deal with being almost eighteen and not yet having his driver’s license. He has to deal with all his friends having cell-phones except him.
If the mundane is missing, and if his mental frustration and contemplation of such frustration is missing, the reader’s connection to that character will be missing as well.
- Does the character even have time to think?
If you wouldn’t have time to think in a certain situation, neither should your character.
Earlier I mentioned that there is a usually some thought that goes on before knowingly charging into a life or death situation. But little thought happens during the action scene.
Also, when a person encounters a life or death situation unexpectedly, there is no time for thought. If your character steps around a corner and unexpectedly gets smashed in the face by a mugger with a rock and all she can do is curl up in a ball and protect her head and vitals as he beats her senseless before taking her purse, then there better not be much thinking. (However, afterwards, she better do some contemplating because she may have just had a near death experience, right?)
If your characters are in the middle of a sword or gun fight, they are going to be acting on instincts. There will be little thought. At most you can get away with a sentence or two of thought about how to win or about noticing a flaw in the antagonist.
Identifying what characters should contemplate about
OK, if you don’t know what your character should be thinking about at a particular moment, then you probably need to flush our your character some more.
- What are your character’s priorities?
- Who are the most important people to your character?
- Why is the character contemplating?
- What is at stake in a given scene or the scene the character knows is coming?
If you still don’t know after answering those questions, then your probably should hang up your pen (or keyboard) and get a different career.
Some of the best and most meaning book quotes come from character contemplation. If you want your book to be the best, then have plenty of it, but make sure it is where it belongs. Missing moments contemplation and misplaced moments of contemplation can both be unwanted reminders to the reader that your story isn’t real; barriers to the reader connecting with your character and your story.
As you write or make another pass on your novel, look for the following:
- Find a place in your writing where a contemplative moment is missing. Answer the questions above first, then write it in.
- Find a place in your writing where a contemplative moment is there but doesn’t belong. Why doesn’t it belong?
- Find a place in your writing where your character is contemplating, but contemplating about the wrong things. What should the character be thinking? Fix it.
- Go to an awe inspiring moment in your novel. Does your character properly contemplate?
- Go to a moment in your novel before the knowingly character chooses to risk their life (or their heart or something similarly important). Does the character properly contemplate?
Christine Haggerty said:
June 23, 2014 at 9:51 pm
This is just in time for revisions! I agree with cutting out the extra thoughts during actions scenes, and I’ve done a lot with whole chapters of contemplation, especially when it involves objects/places. Great practical advice.