“I didn’t get a sense of the characters” is a criticism I received on two short stories I submitted some time back. Despite being told one of my strengths was the depth and complexity of characters I’d created over the years, I realized this criticism had some merit. I was relying a lot on physicality, dialogue, and perhaps not enough feeling/internalization.

I also realized I’m probably not the best suited for short stories, since I actually use a lot of internal monologue in my older novels.

In simple terms, headcasing is the gestalt process of internal monologue and indirect thoughts/introspection together. I don’t think about this myself too often. For example, in a novel I wrote/am editing for a voice update, the main character has the ability to anticipate and think at inhuman capabilities. He uses 110% of his brain power in that inane cliche about the brain’s capabilities. In game terminology, he’s like the Pointman from F.E.A.R. . His reflexes and mental processing are at such a level the world slows/everything processes at blinding speeds. In one scene, he breakdowns how he’s going take down his adversary, executes it the next paragraph, and adjusts when his initial plan doesn’t work. What does this illustrate? It illustrates his flexibility and mental acuity, while also interlacing his own internal thoughts about this opponent, who is his best friend.

This is how you create the internal world/persona of a character. Now, if the reader hates this, I can’t make them love the character. Sorry. But there is a good reason why POV characters need to be fleshed out, especially if the story’s other characters are filtered through their POV. POV characters’ feelings, relationships, and emotions characterized the other characters in a novel.

This is why omniscient POV is still powerful. If you give the thought process/feelings of all characters, you can reveal a web of feelings and relationships at odds, etc, with each other.

Internalization/introspection is how you give your characters, especially in third person limited, life and personality. That’s all good and dandy, but…

I often see too much headcasing in popular fantasy and sci-fi novels where the character retreats into their head at awkward or inappropriate times. If you’re in the middle of a siege, and the POV character starts thinking about kittens, how they loved Mr. Whiskerbottoms down by the river…When he was young, a wee boy of five seasons, he found…and then he got stabbed because he wasn’t paying attention. True, this is a subjective assessment, and some people, for the life of me I can’t understand why, enjoy this non-sequitur characterization.

Headcasing the right thought, the thoughts true to the character you’ve created, their worries, in that particular moment? That’s when it works. If you’re fighting in a blood-soaked, mud cragged field against hundreds in a chaotic murderfest, and POV soldier is thinking about kittens and rainbows on the river, I’m going to characterize them as a lunatic or an idiot. Maybe you designed them that way, maybe they are that way. That’s where the personal comes in, and, once again, you can’t make a reader love them. It’s a gut check, I either dislike this character or I enjoy them, or any other number of reactions.

It’s also a matter of word economy. I guarantee you, if you go deep into a character’s head, along with your five other POVs, your novel will balloon anywhere from 2-10k words. That’s a big difference when it comes time to edit/revise/cut time.

Finally, there’s a power of implication when you don’t go too hard into a character’s POV. Leaving it up to the reader how a character feels, you know, the read between the lines thing, creates character in the absence of the explicit “I LOVE YOU” kind of writing.

Adequate internalization and introspection are absolutely necessary to make readers connect with, whether positive or negative, your characters. But at the end of the day, economy and subtlety/ambiguity still have a power that explicit text lacks. If you want to create a complex character, leave blanks/weave subtext/irony, etc, into your POV characters.

 

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