Give Your Protagonist More than Just Words – Part 1

The depth of characterisation comes from how well your write your characters. Their personality, their flaws and their unique characteristics, coupled with how they behave, how they act and react to other people and situations, and importantly, what they say, provides more for characterisation than just the words they speak.

Characterisation isn’t just about what your character says or how they say it. While dialogue is important, it’s also important to give them more than just words. As writers, you can give them more, and to do that we give our characters inner dialogue, or inner thoughts.

Inner dialogue refers to the internal thoughts of your character. It’s his or her deep thoughts and feelings, which the reader is privy. This provides the reader with insight into the character which can’t be gleaned by actions alone – because often what the character really feels on the inside is very different to what they do or say on the outside, seen by everyone else. So in a way, inner dialogue can reveal a level of truth, emotion and motivation that help the reader truly understand the character.

But inner thoughts aren’t just there to simply establish the way your main character thinks. They can be used to increase the emotion or tension of scenes. For instance, a character might tell another character everything is going to be alright, but his inner thoughts convey the dire nature of the situation – the truth is much worse than the white lie he has just told. This hidden emotion not only builds on characterisation, but it adds tension to the scene, because the reader will know that awful truth, too, and will feel how conflicted the character is.

Another thing that’s useful to your characters is motivation. While they might be motivated to act in a certain way, those actions all come from thoughts – what goes on in our heads drives our behaviours and our actions, and our thoughts motivate us to act and react the way we do. You can show true emotions or sentiment – behind a character’s smile, devious or malicious thoughts might hide. Behind the hard-faced exterior of your hero, there might be a vulnerable and frightened person. Our words and actions often belie what we truly think and feel.

Such inner thoughts are a private moment between your protagonist and the reader. They should be heard whenever you need to reveal snippets of information, when you want the reader to be in on something that the rest of the characters won’t know, or when there is an important scene that demands deeper insight.

Character revelation depends on the deeper stuff that goes on in your character’s head. The reader gets to see the facets of your character’s personality, the things that make them tick, that are normally hidden. Writers also use their main character’s thoughts to advance the story. What they think, rather than what they say, can push story strands in different directions (as long as those strands remain connected to the plot), which provide lots of layers to the story. In other words, we show the reader what we think they should know at that moment in order to move the story forward. We are constantly manipulating the reader.

Words give the protagonist more than just a presence, just as inner thoughts give them more than just words. The silent words they think can be very powerful. We don’t have to hear their every thought. Instead, choose the right moment to reveal them; make them count, build the emotion, the tension, and weave the story strands.

To summarise, inner dialogue can:

• Establish the way a character thinks.

• Reveal characterisation.

• Show emotion and tension.

• Provide motivation.

• Advance the plot/build on story threads.


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