BY NANCY KAY CLARK
eidtor/publisher of CommuterLit
Copyright is held by the author.
The notion of writing your story from inside your protagonist’s head looking out came up frequently during CL‘s last ReWrite Workshop. It is central to my own writing process. Let me explain:
1. We all start from the outside
Even those of us who write detailed character sketches and a plot outline beforehand don’t really know the people we’re writing about when we start the first line. We only get to know them by the time we’ve finished the first draft. So when you begin to write the second draft — go into the process inside the head of your protagonist (and all your other characters). If anything seems false, because your protagonist wouldn’t say that, wouldn’t use those words, wouldn’t do that, change it. Even descriptions of settings or body language will differ depending on whose head you’re in.
2. This is true regardless of point of view
On the face of it, getting into your protagonist’s head should be easier if you write in the first person — and often it is However, sometimes first-person narrators start sounding like Barry Exposition from the Austin Power films — commenting about setting, backstory or plot points in much more detail than they ever would if they were real people living through the story.
Other times, because of the story you are trying to tell, third person restricted works the best. And that’s fine, you can still get deep into your protagonist’s head in third person.
3. Beware the walls you’ve built
It’s emotionally draining and traumatic to write about characters who do terrible things or suffer through terrible things. And, as I think we all take bits and pieces from our own lives and weave them with our imaginations, writing about trauma can also make us feel exposed. So consciously or unconsciously, we try to distance ourselves from what we are writing about — by using third person omniscient, or writing in a style or genre that is divorced from real life events, or by placing a story within a story within a story, or by being too arch, too poetic & too clever. But those defenses sometimes stop us from writing an effective story that will grab people emotionally. If you aren’t close to your characters — your readers won’t be either. You have to live through your story alongside your characters.
If, after I write a scene, I begin to tear up, or laugh out loud or get enraged, I’ve know I’ve managed to tear down the barriers and get inside my protagonist’s head.