All characters (and real people for that matter) have a set of unspoken beliefs, which are a combination of all their life experiences. This is the voice inside their head that not only provides a constant dialogue, but will also ‘influence’ a character’s reaction in any given situation. These ‘thoughts’ are unconscious.
Perhaps your main character was brought up in a family environment that teaches them Chinese people were dishonest and could not be trusted. As your character has grown, they may have gone on to intellectually understand that this
belief is wrong, but it is ingrained and lies dormant. This latent racist attitude makes up part of the character’s internal voice. They may be consciously aware that this view is racist. They may even consider themselves not to be a racist. In fact, in everyday life they probably say and do things that demonstrate to the world that they are not, in fact, racist. However, in any given situation, involving interaction with a Chinese person, the character will be influenced, sub-consciously, by their internal voice. The character would, probably, not say, ‘I distrust Chinese people.’ However, they would interact in a way, perhaps subtly (or not so subtly), different from a character that did not hold the same beliefs.
You can see here how the back-story for this character can have them saying and believing they are not racist, but when confront by a situation with Chinese people, they can act in a way that shows them to be racist.
You say one thing and do another.
All of the characters in you book need a well-defined internal voice. You must map out the key influences on your characters. Therefore, the starting point to creating an internal voice for your characters is to create a character’s back-story.
The back-story is the character’s life history. It is a summary of all the key events and modes of thought, which influence them in a major way. In its simplest form, this is a list of beliefs the character holds, and, perhaps, the events that created these beliefs.
Only by understanding a character’s background can a writer then begin to develop the character’s internal voice. The more complex the writer’s understanding of a character’s background, the more realistically can they invent the character’s personality.
This process can be very daunting for a writer, but it is important to understand that characters don’t need to appear fully formed in your mind. Many experienced writers will start the writing process by jotting down a few notes about a character and their major influences. They will decide on the character’s main views on the world and build a broad picture of the character. Some writers like to find pictures and images to represent the character. Some think of real people. Ultimately, the end goal is always the same, to try and get ‘inside the head’ of the character. Then, as the story develops writers will elaborate and expand on this picture. They will add in smaller details, allowing the character to grow and breathe.
This ‘character profile’ is an essential part of the writing process but here’s the big secret… it’s a secret. The character profile is created for your eyes only! It is NOT part of the novel.
Once you have spent time and effort in creating a character profile you will face temptation. It must be overcome! Under no circumstances can you share the character profile with your writer.
You will feel the temptation to TELL the reader the character’s internal thought process and back-story. You will want to explain to the reader why a character is acting in a certain way.
Let’s face it, you’ll want to show off and TELL the reader why your writing is so clever.
If you do – YOU LOSE!
You must resist… At no point should the internal voice of your character spill out onto the page. The internal voice is for you and your character. It is a secret the must not be shared.
YOU, the writer, must understand the reasoning behind every word and action of your characters, but you must never explain this reasoning to the reader.
The ultimate goal is to create a space between the character and the reader. You want your characters to speak and act in a way that is both truthful and logical, but never explained by the narrator. It is in this space that the reader will fill in his or her own understanding of the character. They will, instinctively, search to understand
the character. (Remember what was said in the opening sections. Your brain is trained to give meaning to words and actions, it just can’t resist.)
This forces the reader to engage, to become part of the story. As their understanding of your characters grows, via their words and actions, the reader will start to gain a deeper meaning. It is this deeper, emotional truth, which will lift your novel to the next level.
The internal voice is the writer’s secret weapon. It is the tool that they will use to bring the character to life.
It’s your Dr. Frankenstein’s bolt of lightening.
Yet the space you create between actions and meaning is dark and fragile. By exposing this internal voice to the light of the narrative, the magic is broken. As soon as a reader is TOLD how a character acts, the reader is pushed onto the back foot. They no longer need to work it out. They no longer need to fill in the gaps. Their brains can shut down.
Each time you TELL the reader a character is happy or sad, rather than SHOW via actions, the reader disengages a little more.
Each time you TELL the reader a nugget of the back-story via the narrator, and not in dialogue, the reader is pushed away.
Each time you give into temptation and explain, the reader starts to turn off.
If a narrator is explaining the internal voice then the reader is instantly passive. They are left in a position where they no longer need to ‘lean into’ the story. They can sit back and let the story come to them. This reduces the space between the character and the reader, and no room is left for the reader’s mind to create its magic.
Back Story Worksheet:
- Political views: