The Things We Carry
Contributor
Written by
Ellen T. McKnight
November 2015
Contributor
Written by
Ellen T. McKnight
November 2015

Unlike personality, state of mind is constantly changing. But that doesn’t happen in a vacuum, not for people and not for characters. How we feel in any given instance is a complex interaction of who we are, what we face, and what we carry with us: our recent experiences, our relevant past, our concerns, our hopes and our fears. Progressing and expressing state of mind is critical to generating tension in fiction, as well as to forging an emotional connection with readers. However, simply stating how a character feels invites incredulity, and dumping a load of back story can undermine the forward action of a piece. Writers must look for more artful ways to convey what their characters carry.

1. Triggers for Memory

If your character was previously traumatized in a way that has significance for the present story, he or she will need to share those difficult memories, but only as they press upon the character’s mind. Relevance is key to maintaining tension. Events in the present, even images or smells, can be used to trigger a vivid recollection of the past. Such memories are best shared in scene, so that readers can experience them along with the character. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan is a good example of how even extensive secrets of the past can be revealed in ways that enhance rather than dissipate tension.

2. Wear the Scars

A character who was raped should act like someone who was raped, even if the readers don’t know it. Same with other wounds, both psychic and real. Ernest Hemingway was a great believer in leaving his characters’ past in the past, but they wear their scars in how they behave. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake has clearly been injured in the war, but we don’t know much more than that; still, we ache when we see him and Lady Brett unable to consummate their love and overpowering attraction. His stoicism makes it impossible for him as a character to share more or even complain, but that only makes us as readers all the more empathetic.

3. Invest the Past in the Present

In The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, the loss of the main character’s mother at the beginning is tied up with his clinging to the painting of a goldfinch. When he laboriously wraps it in duct tape in a sad attempt to protect it, we’re reminded of the bombing that almost destroyed it and took his mother away. The trauma in the earlier part of the book has been invested in something that’s part of the real-time story, so that the reader carries it forward along with the character.

4. Objective Correlatives

Objective correlative is a fancy term for saying that perceptions are colored by feelings. If your point-of-view character is angry, the furniture looks hard, the food tastes bad, and the weather seems bleak. If it happens to be raining, all the better; if it happens to be sunny, then it’s painfully bright. This holds true whether you’re writing in first person or close third: we see everything, even solid objects, through the filter of the character’s state of mind. Your choice of telling details also comes into this – what you include should be guided by what would be most revealing of the character at that moment.

5. Figurative Language

Imagery and metaphor can reflect a character’s state of mind and keep it present for readers going forward. Figurative language can even amplify and deepen a character’s concerns. InLet the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, the tightrope walker suspended impossibly high above them acts to unite the disparate characters, both literally and figuratively, as the reader grasps that in a sense they’re all walking a high thin wire. It is an aspect of state of mind that they share.

6. Intuition

Most important of all, writers need to use their intuition. (See Writing as a Full Body Experience.) They must internalize their main character’s state of mind to find the most real and honest reactions they can. We’ve all read books in which the main character seems to be suffering from sudden amnesia. If something big happens, it should impact the character’s feelings. We expect there to be cause and effect. To progress and convey the things that characters carry inside them, writers must first carry them inside themselves.

For more, please visit ellentmcknight.com.

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Comments
  • Ellen T. McKnight

    Thank you, Lisa! I love these books. So inspiring to other writers.

  • Lisa Thomson

    These are brilliant tips. Thanks, Ellen. Also thanks for using such great examples from famous authors!

  • Ellen T. McKnight

    Thanks so much, Stacey. It means a lot to me that other writers find this helpful.

  • Stacey Aaronson

    Excellent tips, Ellen! What a gift to all novelists and memoirists! Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. :)

  • Ellen T. McKnight

    My pleasure! Thank you for the kind words.

  • Irene Allison

    This is so useful, Ellen! I love the different techniques for deep POV, so good for deepening characterization and engaging readers too. Thank you!

  • Ellen T. McKnight

    Thanks, Laurie! So glad you found it helpful.

    Ellen

  • Laurie Prim

    Great article, thank you. I found Objective Correlatives especially helpful. : )

  • Ellen T. McKnight

    Thanks, Rose! That's great to hear.

    Ellen

  • Rose O'Connor

    Thank you Ellen for this terrific article. I've just shared your piece 'Writing as a full body experience" with my writers' group!

  • Ellen T. McKnight

    You're right on point about Running in Heels, Arlene. Thanks for the suggestion!

    Ellen

  • Arlene Mantek

    Anna Maxted's book "Running in Heels" is a great example of a main character whose wounds cause her to behave in a very specific way.  Also a great example of an unreliable narrator!

  • Ellen T. McKnight

    Thanks, Kristin! I'd be thrilled to have it featured. Thanks to you and She Writes for your support!

    Ellen

  • Hello Ellen! This was a great post! I'm going to feature it in an upcoming newsletter to our community. Thank you so much for being part of She Writes.

    -Kristin Bustamante

    Community Manager