Inside my protagonist's head


I have just spent an entire week reading, analysing and summarising an extremely useful piece of work from the British Film Institute titled British Films 1927 - 1939 by Linda Wood. Useful for me because my protagonist works in the British film industry in the 1930s. The moment I discovered it, I was both excited and deflated: excited that there were an immense amount of facts in one place; deflated because I wish I had found it earlier (I am at the midpoint in my novel).

I need to understand what my character is thinking

Nonetheless, having read and scrawled notes all over the paper I knew I must do more analysis. Why? Because I need to understand what my protagonist is thinking during this period. To get inside his head. The story itself isn’t about the film industry, it’s about society and relationships and disappointment. But the movie backdrop provides opportunities for conflicts and sub-plots that lay a foundation for revealing my protagonist's personality and goals. What drives him and how he tackles problems can be played out – partially – through his experience dealing with industry executives, his relationship with movie celebrities and his frustration with increasing government legislation. Steven Amsterdam noted "A story is built on characters and reasons", and the two are indubitably intertwined.

At first I thought it would take me a day to capture all the information I needed. But as the week progressed, an A3 chart of companies – and how they all related to each other – emerged. This was one snapshot. But I also felt I needed a timeline, categorised according to issues. What’s fascinating is that these issues aren’t that dissimilar to any emerging industry today: hype around the latest innovation, many speculative investors wanting a piece of the action, and reactive legislation to address over-heating. Hubby would arrive home at the end of each day expecting to find me back to writing in Scrivener; but instead I’d be heaped over a pile of papers updating a PowerPoint slide and an Excel spread sheet.

I'm thrilled with the mess and unfairness in my protagonist's world

Now that I have finished this analysis and can take a step back I’m thrilled with the mess and unfairness in my protagonist’s world, and of those around him. As Thomas Perry observed "Reading a novel in which all characters illustrate patience, hard work, chastity and delayed gratification could be a pretty dull experience."

Okay fine, so I have a better understanding of how my character reacts to challenges in his work environment. But that doesn’t make up his whole self. There’s more to it than that. What else could I do to get inside my character’s head? Thanks to Jennie Nash for her advice to always ask these same questions over and over again when writing a scene:

  • Okay, but what does he think?

  • And so? Why does any of this matter to him?

  • What's his response to this?

  • Tell me why the reader should care about this?

  • What can you show about this moment?

The key is to understand what the character would say to himself – his inner dialogue. The voice inside his own head. Similarly, Sarah Fox has other suggestions, including shopping for the character, trying your character’s food habits, or learning a new skill that your character is good at. Melissa Donovan offers several fiction-writing exercises such as having an online chat with your protagonist (using a word processor) and writing a monologue in the first person from their perspective.

These all come with a health warning however, as CG Blake explains “letting the reader in on the main character’s deepest thoughts violates a sacred rule of fiction: show don’t tell”, and advice from Victoria Mixon of Writer Unboxed to limit the exposition to certain, special lines. It’s also true that too much time inside a character’s head can make for a boring read. The solution is to continue evolving the character arc and keep moving the story along.

For a while I become the protagonist – rage, fears, demons and all

My favourite advice is via someone called Jerry who posted on The Writing Bug. A friend of Jerry’s said:

“I rewrite the story in the first person. For a while I can become my protagonist – rage, fears, demons and all. Then, having uncovered the full emotive content on which the story rests, I turn around and rewrite it in the third person.”

It sounds like a lot of effort, but I see no point in writing at all if mediocre is the outcome. Stephen King once wrote “What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” I’d better get back to work…

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