How to Keep Your Character Engaged

You’ve probably seen Chuck Palahniuk’s quote before. He prefaces it with “One of the most common mistakes beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone.” I have to add that the second most common mistake beginning writers make is to have their characters actually fall asleep in front of other characters. This invariably occurs during a long drive of some sorts where the characters are in close quarters—a car or a coach. The POV character will have a long internal monologue, then fall asleep.

I know that a few of my friends and clients will read this and think I’m talking about them. I am. But because I’m seeing it so frequently, I’m addressing everyone who feels tempted to (1) give the POV character an entire scene in his or her head, and (2) have that character fall asleep while in the company of another character.

Let me start with #2 first: Don’t do this. Unless something amazing and earth-shattering is going to happen while the POV character is asleep—he awakes to the apocalypse or she grows pointy ears while she snoozes—don’t do it. Just don’t. There is no valid reason. If you need to illustrate the passage of time, use a scene break instead. Take the characters from the events of one scene and put them in the next. We don’t need a transition during which nothing happens but snores, snorts, and drool. Dosing your character with a sleep aid is a missed opportunity. It doesn’t advance anything, doesn’t solve anything, doesn’t provide any insight.

But back to Palahniuk’s remark about leaving characters alone: this also is missed opportunity. Whenever your character is alone, nothing is happening, so it’s best not to leave them alone. Granted, there are times when you have no choice because of the plot, but try not to leave your character alone in his head too long. Leaving them alone results in a long, dry experience for your reader.

Here’s a list of “alone” times, along with their alternatives:

* The POV character is alone or with another, describing the setting.

Usually, this is the author’s attempt at “putting the character in the setting” while deluging the reader with description. If this is a paragraph or two, that’s not too bad; but if this involves in-depth description of absolutely everything, then you need to rethink what you’re doing.

First, understand what “putting the character in the setting” means. For instance, instead of having the character walk into a library and describe it—floor to ceiling shelves, heavily draped windows, dim lights over reading tables beside cozy padded chairs—have the character walk into the library and use it. POV character finds the book he wants three shelves over his head, barely within reach of his fingertips. He wiggles out the copy of Tom Sawyer from between The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Prince and the Pauper and strolls across the plush carpet to an overstuffed chair beside a ceiling-tall window {and so on.}

Once you realize how to put the character into the scene, use all five senses to help describe it. The more you rely on sight, the more you’re describing instead of advancing the plot.

Let’s go back to the library. What if I said, The door at the other end opened with a hydraulic swoosh and closed with a thunk, would that change the image in your head? That alone carried you from whatever you had in mind to—what? The Enterprise?

There are all sorts of tricks and techniques to plop your reader dead-center into your setting. Use them. Cut out a lot of the description so you can get that other character into the room and get the story moving.

* The POV character is with someone who is the source of her problems. 

Newbie authors usually preface this with a description of how each character “falls silent,” then dives into the POV character’s head. All the things that the two should be discussing together are trapped inside the mind of one.

If they have issues, argue them out. They don’t have to be solved, if finding a solution isn’t in your plans, but let the characters discuss them. The dialogue can provide far more tension than a monologue. Their reactions to each other’s statements can lead to delicious confusion and misinterpretations. Allowing your reader to watch the dance between what’s intended and what’s actually said enhances the reading experience. All sorts of twists and turns can occur when the two personalities discuss what’s on their minds.

* The POV character is actually alone, but the other character dominates her thoughts.

This isn’t always a bad thing, depending on how long you leave your reader in her head. If she’s engaged in some activity requiring her to concentrate and she finds she can’t because of the other character taking up her thoughts, that can be fun. Ever use cayenne when you wanted cinnamon?

But if your character’s need to rehash events requires long periods inside her head, then find her a buddy instead. A BFF. A bartender, a priest, a psychiatrist. Someone with whom your POV character can enter into a dialogue. Whoever this sage is can help your character figure out her problems—or worsen them. Whatever you require in this respect would be far more fun to read than delving into the character’s head for paragraph after paragraph, page after page.

Because you want to advance the plot. Everything you do should advance the plot. If your plot requires that your character be alone, that’s fine. But if you’re leaving your character alone for the sole purpose of rehashing her emotions or whatever, then rethink your plan. There are better, more engaging ways to show your reader what’s on your character’s mind.


About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
This entry was posted in write tips, Writing, Writing Tips and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How to Keep Your Character Engaged

  1. Gay Ingram says:

    Glad you brought this up, Linda. I’ve read content where the storyteller is so focused on making sure the reader sees the setting, they forget to move the story-line forward. “Everything you do should advance the plot.” – very good advice.


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