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.
For example …
Perhaps your main character was brought up in a family environment that teaches how Chinese people are dishonest and cannot be trusted. As your character grows up, he may have intellectually understood that this belief is wrong, but it is ingrained and lies dormant nonetheless. This latent racist attitude makes up part of the character’s internal voice. He may be consciously aware that this view is racist. Yet he may not even consider himself to be a racist. In everyday life, he probably says and does things that demonstrate to the world that he is not, in fact, racist. However, in any given situation involving interaction with a Chinese person, the character will be influenced, subconsciously, by his internal voice. The character would, probably, not say, “I distrust Chinese people.” However, he would interact in a way, perhaps subtly (or not so subtly), different from a character who did not hold the same beliefs.
You can see here how the backstory for this character can have him saying and believing he is not racist, but, when confronted by a situation with Chinese people, he could act in a way that shows himself to be racist.
You say one thing and do another.
All of the characters in your 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 each character’s backstory.
The backstory is the character’s life history. It is a summary of all the key events and modes of thought, which influence the character 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 an author then begin to develop the character’s internal voice. The more the author understands a character’s complex background, the more realistically can the author invent the character’s personality.
This process can be very daunting for an author, but it is important to understand that characters don’t need to appear fully formed in your mind.
Many experienced authors will start the writing process by jotting down a few notes about a character and the major influences in that character’s life. The author will decide on the character’s main views on the world and build a broad picture of the character. Some authors like to find pictures and images to represent the character. Some think of real people.
The end goal is always the same: to get inside the head of the character. As the story develops, authors 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 creating a character profile, you will face temptation to divulge this to your reader. It must be overcome! Under no circumstances can you share the character profile with your reader.
You will feel the temptation to TELL the reader about the character’s internal thought process and backstory. 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 onto the page. The internal voice is for you and your character. It is a secret the must not be shared.
You, the author, 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 understanding of the character. The reader will, instinctively, search to understand the character. (Remember what was said in the opening sections. Everyone’s 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 the reader’s 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 author’s secret weapon. It is the tool that will bring your characters to life.
It’s your Dr Frankenstein’s bolt of lightning.
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. The reader no longer needs to work it out. The reader no longer needs to fill in the gaps. The reader’s brain 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 backstory via the narrator, not in dialogue, the reader is pushed away.
Each time you give in to temptation and explain, the reader starts to turn off.
If a narrator is explaining the internal voice, then the reader is instantly passive. The reader is left in a position where he is no longer needed to lean into the story. They can sit back and let the story come to him. This reduces the space between the character and the reader, and no room is left for the reader’s mind to create its magic.