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.
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!
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.
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.