Woefully, “easier” doesn’t mean “easy.” Many writers could use more instruction on this, so let’s take a comprehensive look at the why and how of diving into your character’s head.
The Power of Close Perspective
All stories are about one or more protagonists: characters that readers can relate to on some level. Protagonists give readers someone to care about, and that makes caring about everything else in the story much more likely. Problems are more gripping when they threaten a protagonist; rewards are more satisfying when the protagonist personally benefits from them.
That’s why in almost all stories, most of the narration follows a protagonist. If the narration is in a limited perspective, the point-of-view character is generally a protagonist at least 80% of the time. Having the story told from the perspective of a protagonist allows the readers to bond with the character. They’ll know firsthand how the protagonist feels when they’re ambushed by assassins or rejected by a love interest. This makes these events feel more visceral and gripping.
In turn, the closeness of the narration determines just how strong that point of view is. Distant narration encourages readers to experience point-of-view scenes as though they were standing nearby watching the characters, as one would for a movie. Close narration offers an experience beyond what a movie can accomplish: living through the scenes as the character. When it comes to immersion, there’s no contest between distant and close narration. Being someone in a story is clearly more immersive than watching them go about their business. And that makes everything else in the story more meaningful.
So while there are certainly reasons in some stories to take a step back, close perspective is the bread and butter of most written fiction and something the majority of writers should learn to do well. However, few writers start by creating immersive prose. It takes thought and practice to get there.
Sticking With Your Character
The first thing that close perspective requires is active attention to the protagonist’s inner landscape. Narration that focuses entirely on what’s happening around the character, and never on what’s happening inside them, will fall flat. It will also limit a writer’s ability to include exposition, denying readers critical information or putting too much of a burden on the story’s dialogue to convey it.
Let’s say we’re in the first chapter of a story, and the protagonist walks into a tavern and orders a drink. Then a mean-looking warrior nearby holds up a wanted sign and declares they’re going to capture the protagonist and cash in. The protagonist runs out of the tavern.
Without any internal narration, readers may wonder:
- Did the protagonist know they were wanted?
- Is this something that happens to the protagonist a lot?
- Did the protagonist feel exhilarated or scared when they ran away?
Readers need the context provided by thoughts and feelings. Without understanding what the character is thinking and feeling, they won’t know what to think or feel either. That really puts a cork on the experience. Unfortunately, leaving out this kind of internal narration in key moments is a common mistake, particularly in unpublished manuscripts. I even did a critique of a short story with no internal narration, and the story is as emotionally flat and confusing as you’d expect.
Sometimes writers also do this at key moments on purpose. If you rob the readers of information the protagonist knows, you can deliver it later as a reveal. This pattern is tempting to storytellers because the reveal is always noticeable and often satisfying, but the damage done by hiding the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings is harder to identify and trace back to its source.
A scene from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars offers a great example of this dynamic. Two lovers, Nadia and Arkady, are on a mission to distribute windmills over the planet’s surface. The story is in Nadia’s point of view, but after she goes to check on a windmill, Stanley Robinson stops narrating her thoughts and feelings. Instead, readers watch her from the outside as she returns and says things like, “I can’t believe you did that. How stupid do you think I am?” Stanley Robinson does this, no doubt, to hold readers in suspense about what she found when looking at the windmill. To his credit, the scene isn’t confusing. However, while this trick invokes curiosity for a bit, once readers discover what happened, that curiosity dissipates.
Let’s pretend Stanley Robinson chose to stay with his viewpoint character. Nadia has recently fallen in love with Arkady, and they’re having a whirlwind romance during their cozy two-person mission. Then when she’s out alone, she discovers that as they’ve been distributing windmills, they’ve also been illegally spreading artificial microbes across the planet. These microbes were snuck inside the windmills without her knowledge, and her new lover is almost certainly responsible. She feels betrayed, and readers feel it with her. The confrontation with Arkady doesn’t invoke as much curiosity now, but it invokes a lot more emotion. Once Arkady vows he’s not responsible, other emotions surface: guilt that she thought ill of him or suspicion that he’s lying. It changes the tune of their relationship thereafter.
In storytelling, emotion is the strongest currency. It lasts longer than novelty or tension, and it makes the rest of the story more engaging. So in most cases, you don’t want to step away from your character in order to pull off a cool reveal. That said, it is possible to reveal things your character already knows to the audience without making your narration distant. However, it requires perfectly arranging scenes, so your viewpoint character just doesn’t happen to think about the things you don’t want the audience to know. That’s tricky to pull off, and when it’s done wrong, it’ll feel contrived, confusing, distant, or all of the above.
Showing the Internal Landscape
So we know why we should show what’s happening in our protagonist’s head, but how do we do that? Unsurprisingly, the key is to show instead of tell. Telling feels distant and doesn’t provide the same emotional pull. However, showing and telling are vague concepts that can mean many different things. What does it mean in this context?
Showing the emotion your character is feeling
Avoid naming emotions. You can’t tell your readers to feel an emotion by naming it. They need the context that creates the emotion in your character.
Telling: Shame coursed through me.
Showing: How could I have betrayed my friends that way? My parents had raised me to do better. They’d all trusted me, and I’d let them down.
Telling: He was still angry at Ashley for leaving him behind.
Showing: Only two days ago, Ashley had left without a word, cutting him out of her life, leaving him to worry. Now she wanted his help? She could forget it.
Telling: Fighting against their nervousness, Morgan walked up to the podium.
Showing: The call came out for Morgan to take the podium. They stepped into the spotlight, trying not to look at the dark landscape of faces watching their every move.
For showing emotions to work, there has to be something in the scene that’s worth getting emotional over. Your task is to illustrate those things in detail, so your readers feel the impact. But you can’t make mountains out of molehills; the reader must agree that the content is scary, upsetting, or whatever other emotion you want to express.
Readers should witness your character reasoning and coming to conclusions, rather than simply hearing a summary of their thought process.
Telling: That’s when she realized the dragon didn’t want to eat her.
Showing: That was the third time the dragon had gone out for a tasty bite of sheep instead of eating the convenient maiden at home. It must have kidnapped her for some reason other than eating her.
Telling: I questioned the logic of going into the woods without protection, but I knew we had no choice.
Showing: The captain’s assurances that the dryads wouldn’t attack us contradicted every report we’d heard from the villages surrounding the wood. But it would take weeks to forge the armor necessary to resist them, and by then we would be too late to save the sovereign. We had to go in unprotected.
Telling: Riley wondered how long the artifact had been locked in the safe.
Showing: How long had the artifact been locked in the safe?
Describing sensory perception
People rarely think about how they are seeing or hearing things; they just experience a sight or sound. So for most cases, there’s no reason to mention your viewpoint character when doing sensory description.
Telling: They heard a shout from across the field.
Showing: Someone shouted from across the field.
Telling: He saw Raven poke her head through the doorway.
Showing: Raven poked her head through the doorway.
Telling: I smelled cinnamon as I walked in the door.
Showing: Warm wafts of cinnamon greeted me as I walked in the door.
For all of these categories of showing vs telling, it can help to ask yourself whether you’re narrating about your character instead of narrating as your character. While there are occasional reasons to narrate about them even in close perspective, this should be a conscious choice.
Using the body to express emotions
While you’ll want to develop what’s happening inside a character’s head and through their eyes, it’s also okay to describe character actions, body language, and physical sensations. This can be a great complement to internal narration. I’ll take my examples of showing emotion above and add a little of that in.
I bowed my head, my gaze coming to rest on the grass. How could I have betrayed my friends that way? My parents had raised me to do better. They’d all trusted me, and I’d let them down.
Starting with description of body language or physical actions is a good way to transition the narration to focusing on your character after narrating about something else.
Only two days ago, Ashley had left without a word, cutting him out, leaving him to worry. Now she wanted his help? She could forget it. He stomped out of the room and locked the door behind him.
Putting the action at the end makes it feel like the result of the character’s thoughts and decision-making.
The call came out for Morgan to take the podium. Stomach fluttering, they stepped into the spotlight. They tried not to look at the dark landscape of faces watching their every move.
With internal sensations in particular, it’s important to use a light touch – otherwise it comes off as melodramatic. Take these examples of “organ torture” from a couple of my critiques. First, from Sword of Shannara:
A sudden feeling of terror raced through Flick’s mind, trapping it in an iron web as it strained to flee the fearful madness penetrating inward. Something seemed to be reaching downward into his chest, slowly squeezing the air from his lungs, and he found himself gasping for breath.
Above, Flick is just looking at a scary flying monster. Nothing is grabbing him or squeezing his chest or anything. Below is an excerpt from Maze Runner.
Thomas backed into the corner once again, folded his arms and shivered, and the fear returned. He felt a worrying shudder in his chest, as if his heart wanted to escape, to flee his body.
Thomas is in a situation that could be genuinely frightening, but this over-the-top description of his heart certainly doesn’t help it feel that way to readers.
Just say “no” to organ torture.
Keeping Narration Consistent
Readers will pick up on the perspective you’re using, and that will set their expectations for what they will and won’t see going forward. If you accidentally write a sentence in a different perspective or just change your distance too fast, it’ll feel jarring to them. Unfortunately, working on your narration style can create a bumpy ride. Old habits are hard to break even when we’re trying our best.
Distant limited narration is often disappointing, but it’s still better than narration that’s dreadfully inconsistent. Given that, it’s worth thinking through which projects you’ll write in close limited and which you’ll leave be. A new short story is a great place to start working on a new perspective, because you can start fresh and take more time with fewer words. The novel you’re close to completing may not be a good place to start. I have an old novel in past tense that I made the mistake of outlining in present tense. Nine drafts in, I’m still trying to get all the pieces of present tense outta there!
To help you stay consistent, let’s go over some of the basic differences in close and distant narration that can clash with each other.
ExampleScrew that, Jordan thought. There’s no way in hell I’m going out there. He’d been afraid of the woods ever since he saw a spook among the trees when he was eight. So he stubbornly remained indoors while his friends ran off on their exciting adventure.
The biggest thing to remember is that in distant point of view, character thoughts and the general narration are two separate things. We are not inside Jordan’s head, and Jordan is not narrating for us. Jordan’s thoughts are basically dialogue, and they have to be labeled so we know what to expect. In my distant example, his thoughts are set off in italics and attributed just as dialogue would be. Often, just one of those two things are used rather than both.
Besides how the narration is telling rather than showing Jordan’s feelings, it is clearly not in his head because he is unlikely to think of himself as stubborn or of his friends’ actions as an exciting adventure. Instead, there is a narrator with a separate personality, though in many cases this narrator is bland.
ExampleScrew that; there was no way in hell Jordan was going out there. Those woods were haunted – he still shivered at the memory of the gaping eyes and clawed hands he’d barely escaped from when he was just a kid. If his friends wanted to risk their necks, that was their choice, but staying inside was his.
In close point of view, thoughts and narration are essentially the same. Thoughts don’t sound as much like dialogue – in this example, notice that the first line is no longer in first-person present tense; now, it’s in third-person past tense just like the rest of the narration. Because it isn’t any different, italicizing or attributing it is unnecessary.
Then Jordan’s fear is shown rather than told, and everything is described the way Jordan would describe it. His friends aren’t running off on an exciting adventure; they are risking their necks. You may also notice the tone is a little more casual and conversational. This will vary from character to character and narrator to narrator, but close narration should feel like it’s in the character’s natural voice, and most characters won’t sound very formal.
Frightening Chimera Narration
ExampleScrew that; there’s no way I’m going out there. Those woods were haunted – he still shivered at the memory of the gaping eyes and clawed hands he’d barely escaped from when he was just a kid. So he stubbornly remained indoors while his friends ran off on their exciting adventure.
Now we have jarring distance changes. Most obviously, the first line is using a different pronoun and tense. However, even if that were taken care of, the assertion that the woods are haunted and that Jordan is being stubborn clash with each other. The tone also changes between the last two lines.
Now I’ll fix my chimera with a minimum of changes. First, I’ll put it in distant.
ExampleScrew that. There’s no way I’m going out there. Jordan was sure those woods were haunted – he still shivered at the memory of the gaping eyes and clawed hands he’d seen when he was a kid. So he stubbornly remained indoors while his friends ran off on their exciting adventure.
I’ve italicized the thoughts to set them off from the rest of the text and added “Jordan was sure” to make it clear that the idea of the woods as haunted is his opinion, not the narrator’s. Because Jordan is named immediately after the thoughts, in this case saying “Jordan thought” is probably unnecessary.
I left in the showing of his fear; that’s good regardless of the distance. It’s just more required for close narration than distant narration. However, I changed “barely escaped” to “seen” to suggest a more neutral summary of what happened to him years ago and removed “just” before “a kid” to make it less conversational.
Now let’s see it in close.
ExampleScrew that; there was no way Jordan was going out there. Those woods were haunted – he still shivered to think of the gaping eyes and clawed hands he’d barely escaped from when he was just a kid. Stubborn or not, he was staying indoors while his friends ran off on their supposed adventure.
You might notice I’ve been switching the punctuation of that first line a bit. This is because when people speak, the rhythm and phrasing is often best represented by a semicolon. A semicolon joins two sentences together with a pause between them that’s the length of a comma instead of a period. However, semicolons often look sort of stuffy and unnatural in dialogue. So when his thoughts are basically dialogue, I’m using a period instead.
To make the chimera consistently in close perspective, I’ve changed the tense and character references of the first line to match the rest. The last line has been modified to fit Jordan’s viewpoint better. He recognizes that he’s being stubborn, but he doesn’t care. “Supposed” is added to clarify that his friends think this will be a fun adventure, but he does not. The tone of the first line and last line now match much better.
It’s possible to aim for close narration but not quite get there. That’s okay, it’s part of the learning process. Do the best you can, and then when your story is getting close to the finish line, concentrate on making your perspective consistent. Then hire a good copy editor to help you smooth out the rough edges.
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