How to Keep your Story Moving and Your Character Believable

One of my biggest pet peeves in novels is characters who tend to ramble on introspectively, analyzing every emotion, every decision, every response to outside stimuli. It drives me a little bonkers. So I’m happy to welcome MJ Bush back to the blog, so she can give us some tips on how to keep our characters believable by not letting them be TOO self-aware.

self-aware-character

One of the most common characterization mistakes writers make is granting their characters too much self-awareness. That sly pitfall puts tension at risk, limits believability (I’ll tell you how), and inhibits the ability to show rather than tell. Read to the end to get some tools that will help you find the very things that your character won’t know.

How much self-awareness you give to your characters depends on the age and personality of each one. Older, introspective characters will be more attentive to the inner self than younger, extroverted ones. But even a geriatric guru won’t be aware of everything.

Out of your entire cast, the point-of-view character will be in the most danger of seeming too self-aware. You probably know that dialogue often has a problem with being too “on-the-nose” and saying exactly what it means. It’s true for inner dialogue, too.

Worse, inner dialogue in real life is often reactive—a response to recent events, rather than an ongoing running narration. We’re generally “nonconscious”, as a psychology major might say; we make most of our choices and actions without deliberating over them or analyzing them. So any inner dialogue must be carefully chosen. 

But inner narration isn’t the only self-aware practice that we sometimes overdo in our characters. Our characters should also be a little clueless about their flaws, their true strengths, or even their deepest fears and goals. As the character is forced to grow throughout the course of the story, these things come closer to the surface of consciousness, and self-awareness should bloom in the “resurrection” of the hero’s journey.

Things Your Character Should NOT Do

  • Think in terms of how he seems, as if from an outside perspective. (Here’s an example.)
  • Narrate the reasons behind actions that would just happen, especially in a tense scene. (See the example above.)
  • Label emotions. Most people won’t think, “I’m so sad!” They’ll be thinking about the reason they’re sad.
  • Examine the root reasons behind every fear and hope and emotion. Most of us don’t go digging around in our psyches on a daily basis.

Any time your character is being reactive, such as when they are involved in highly emotional or active scenes, self-awareness should be negligible. You can use a small amount of self-awareness in the “sequel” of the scene-sequel sequence. Just don’t have too much too often. Sparks and hints of a coming revelation are more enticing than pages of introspection without action. (And I don’t mean shoot ‘em up action, either.) As Kristen Lamb has said, “Most real people are not self-aware enough to realize they have problems…Real people need some outside event or person to create discomfort that makes us change.” That’s the kind of action I’m talking about.

If you’ve ever had a problem trying to figure out how to force a character to change, did you actively consider whether or not they were aware of it? And now that you have, how could you inch them toward change AND toward awareness?

Remember, It’s Not Just Flaws

Your character could be unaware of fears, flaws, desires, strengths, emotions, and reasons for actions or reactions. Self-awareness and introspection should be used sparingly. It gives them more oomph when they do come out to play.

How can you tell when your characters are being too introspective? Please share in the comments!

And when YOU want to find your character’s fears, flaws, desires, and strengths… You can get my collection of Brainstorm Sparks (specially designed brainstorming tools for character creation) delivered to your inbox over the next couple of days. Get your first Brainstorm Spark now!

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MJ Bush is The Analytical Creative. Her writing advice steps back to take in the whole picture, then dives in to grab the pearls of usable detail. She’s the founder of Writingeekery.com and a full time fiction coach, editor, and writer.

About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

This entry was posted in Characters, Guest Post, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to How to Keep your Story Moving and Your Character Believable

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  9. Great post!! Something to definitely keep in mind.

  10. Julie Musil says:

    Thanks, MJ! I usually vomit all this out in the first draft, and then several drafts later I’ll edit out what shouldn’t be there. It’s definitely a tough balancing act between leaving in what’s needed and ditching what isn’t.

  11. Elizabeth Foster says:

    Great post. I find that sometimes, just describing surroundings in a way that mirrors pov view characters’ inner states can be enough for the reader to intuit internal states – a more subtle way of handling it, and one which which I am hopefully improving at as I clock up the writing hours. Readers are smart – we shouldn’t underestimate them!

  12. PK Hrezo says:

    Great reminders! Thanks MJ!
    I like to go ahead and write the introspection and visceral reactions in the first draft to really get inside my MC’s head, then edit all the unnecessary ones out thru rounds of edits. By the fifth or sixth time I can see where I’ve gone overboard in places. 🙂

  13. Scott Keen says:

    Completely agree. I studied as a playwright, and to me, the inner dialogue of self-analyzation can sometimes just turn into a type of exposition. It’s akin to the Butler and the Maid coming out at the beginning of a play and giving all the backstory. And, I agree with you that it probably comes from not trusting the Reader.

  14. Terrific post full of excellent reminders. I really like the example she linked to. Thanks for this. I will be posting this link on my blog.

  15. :Donna Marie says:

    Yeah, I think it’s the “cluelessness” I’ll struggle with most, keeping it in the forefront once I’m writing, but will hopefully grab it during revision! Thanks, MJ 🙂

  16. Curtis says:

    Hmm … at a couple of places in my novel, I show the MC having arguments with himself: internal two-sided monologues. Now I’ll have to have a second look at those and see if I’ve overdone them (or, perhaps, how *badly* I’ve overdone them, haha).

    Very insightful stuff, MJ; thanks lots.

  17. Deb says:

    An excellent post to keep on hand whilst revising! Thanks for this…and for your Brain Sparks!

  18. I just read a book by another writer and it was difficult to explain why the book was so bad… but after reading this blog, I now realize what the problem was in his writing! Thanks for a lot of insight!

    • MJ Bush says:

      Thanks for illustrating the point, Richard. And may the insight you gain keep you from making the same mistakes. 🙂

  19. Excellent post. I suspect my characters are way too introspective and self-aware. Thanks so much! Will share.

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  21. Fiona, I couldn’t agree more in that this is an area of struggle for many writers. I think that we’re not used to thinking about our own thinking (if that makes sense), so when it comes time to show our characters’ thoughts, it doesn’t come naturally. And we end up with that rambling, over-analytical introspection.

    This is probably oversimplifying things, but for me, it helps to just focus on showing instead of telling. As I revise, I look for those areas where I have “told”; many times, I find this problem in the introspective passages, and by locating them, I’m able to revise to show, instead.

    Thanks so much for being here MJ!

    • MJ Bush says:

      I don’t think it’s oversimplifying much at all. Showing forces things into the realm of emotion rather than pure logic. And to quote my latest Writingeekery article, “Readers are able to add logic on their own if you get their emotions engaged. And that layer of thinking only intrigues them more.”

      And thank you for having me. 🙂

  22. Fiona says:

    I think this is a great post and something a lot of new writers are unaware of (and even some of the seasoned writers). It’s important to get a balance of awareness that is suitable and real for your MC, otherwise your readers won’t be able to connect. And I agree that long introspection can be tough for a reader to hang in there with. Great post and I look forward to seeing what everyone says!

    • MJ Bush says:

      Thanks, Fiona. And you add needed emphasis to the point that each character has a unique level of appropriate self-awareness. 🙂

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