Monday, 15 October 2012

Characters Should Think Progressively

Written fiction allows access to a character’s mind in a way that no other medium can. What someone thinks often gives a new perspective on events, can reveal aspects you hadn’t considered, or add depth to the way you perceive a character.

Often this is presented as a snapshot of the character’s current state of mind. This is what’s happening, and this is what the MC thinks about it. But what makes a character interesting isn’t just who they are or what they do, it’s how they get there.

And while ‘it’s the journey not the destination’ may seem obvious, knowing exactly which part of the journey is the interesting bit may not.

Travelling from here to there is no more interesting in detail or summary, as show or tell, if it’s just a description of a man walking up a flight of stairs. It’s not the accurate description of events that holds the attention.

What’s important is the change along the way. How it’s caused, how it’s proceeds, how it’s received. If there is no change, if it’s just one step after the other, it's hard to hold a reader’s attention. The brilliant lawyer who wins the difficult case brilliantly isn’t much of a story. The washed up lawyer who’s offered a fortune to lose but doesn’t, is.

Seeing the struggle, internally as well as externally, is what pulls people into a story and  makes it worth following. But thought is not a static thing, and only in extreme cases do things pop into a person’s head out of the blue. Usually there’s a process of getting to a certain place. Reactions and attitudes are built on a progression.

If Lauren is waiting for Bill at the restaurant and she’s fuming, thinking angry things about him for standing her up, and then he come in all apologies, and she swears at him and walks out, you can follow that scene fairly clearly.

If Lauren hopes Bill won’t be much longer, and she tries to avoid the look on the waiter’s face that says he thinks she’s been stood up—so embarrassing. She checks the clock on the wall, then her watch, then her phone. He wouldn’t stand her up, not after he promised. The same as he did last time. And the time before that... The barman’s looking now. And the couple holding hands, whispering. She counts the number of times Bill has left her hanging, and the number is fourteen, which is definitely in doormat territory. What the hell is she doing? She should just go home. Cut her losses, all fourteen of them. No more! She heads for the door just as Bill walks in, smiling, waving, and she punches him in the face.

In both scenes it is clear Lauren is mad and why. But participating in the progression from hopeful to livid makes it much easier to get on board with Lauren, and so follow her into the next scene. Because letting us into a character’s head isn’t just so we get to know what they think, it’s so we get to know them.
If you found this post interesting, please give it a retweet. Cheers.

I'm publishing short stories on Smashwords as an experiment in self-publishing (blog post to follow on my findings). If you fancy reading one for free you can download it here. Any comments or reviews welcome (even bad ones).


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

We can't just tell people this is what they're feeling, we have to show them how they got there and why.
And very cool on the short stories!

R. Mac Wheeler said...


I'll repost. Deserves that *smile*

Libby said...

Hope the short stories work well. I had a good time doing the same!

LD Masterson said...

Very true. I love following a character's thought, especially in a mystery when he/she is trying to work through the puzzle.

Good luck with the short stories. I haven't been brave enough to try self publishing yet.

mooderino said...


@Mac-thanks very much.

@Libby-I'm going to do a blog post about my experiences. Should be interesting.

@LD-Makes for a more intimate read to be in a character's head.

Livia said...

Hey there! This is Livia again, from Yeah Write ( I was still wondering if you wanted to contribute one of your articles to our upcoming literary magazine--your advice is so great! Let me know--you can either go to or email me directly at this address. Thanks!

Jay Noel said...

Yup - gotta show and not tell. Otherwise, the story gets boring. It's not so easy sometimes. Telling is so much easier. I get lazy!

mooderino said...

@Liv-hi. sent yo a message.

@Jay-I think you can tell the reader what a person is thinking (although showing obviously has greater impact), making the thoughts interesting is the imposrtant part.

Bish Denham said...

Good luck with the short stories! And yes, it's all about the journey and what we learn along the way, in real life or fiction.

mooderino said...


Karen Cioffi said...

Great information and good luck with your stories. I've been procrastinating about getting my nonfiction books on Kindle because of the learning curve.

mooderino said...

@Karen-me too, that's why I decided to test the waters with some shorts in a genre I don't usually write in.

Nancy Thompson said...

Nice to know I'm doing something right. Always good advice, Moody!

mooderino said...


Emily R. King said...

Excellent advice. Great way to show how to demonstrate emotion!

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

OH I'll download one of your short stories tonight! I've been doing the same thing with short stories. I'm going to write a Halloween one and throw it up there sometime.

And this is a great post. I'll be sure to retweet it.

Lorena said...

A perfect example of this "progression of thought" is Revolutionary Road (have you read it?) You get to know Frank so well you even sympathize with him (even though he's an extremely flawed character). To me, it was fascinating to be in the head of a man and understand the reasons why he cheats, his motivation for being a bum at work and the small glimmer of hope he has to make his marriage/life work. When I watched the movie, his actions seemed random and didn't make sense. Also, in the film, April is a lot more sympathetic and I think it has to do with the fact that in the book, Frank is the main POV character, so we see April through his eyes.

mooderino said...


@Michael-Thought I'd get my feet wet, well, maybe a toe.

@Lorena-it's what books can do really well, and movies only awkwardly.

The Golden Eagle said...

I like your example--it illustrates how confusing a situation could be if a character's thoughts weren't properly explained.

Good luck with your short stories. Just downloaded a copy!

Botanist said...

Seems your example is a good illustration of the difference between seeing a scene, and living it. The better you can help the reader live the scene with the character, the deeper the impression it will leave.

mooderino said...

@GE-thanks very much, hope you like it.

@Botanist-If I'd said it like that I could have probably made it a much shorter post.

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