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The Internist: Letting Your Reader Inside Your Protagonist

A few years ago, my dad wrote a non-fiction manuscript (all about science and politics and the manipulation of data and public perception) and asked me if I would take a look at it.  It was a fascinating read and my reaction was largely positive, but his reaction to my feedback was more or less “Well, crap, you called me out on all the places I was cutting corners. I have work to do.”

There are a lot of different ways we can be lazy writers.  We can fail to get our butts into the chair to write the book in the first place.  We can try to take short-cuts and cut-corners, looking for the writing equivalent of the easy way out when it comes to the hard parts of our manuscript.  Or we can fail to put our butts back into the chair and do the work necessary to fix our POS first draft when we’ve realized our short cuts aren’t going to fly.

Don’t be a lazy writer.  As has become a Ruby mantra: WRITE FEROCIOUSLY.  And revise ferociously too.  Decimate those short cuts.

Obviously fiction short cuts and non-fiction short cuts look different.  Today I want to talk about what I find to be some of the most common cut corners when it comes to romance manuscripts – glossing-over-the-good-stuff writing.  Shallow POV & generic characterization. That skating-over-the-surface style – which can be expedient in a first draft when you have plots to figure out – can be downright lazy in a final work.  (And I’m not just pointing fingers here, I’m just as guilty of lazy writing as the next scribbler.  But if we are aware of the areas we short-shrifted the reader, we are better able to add an extra level of shine to our finished works.)

Here are some tips to take your reader deeper:  (as always, these are just my opinions, your mileage may vary)

  1. Bring your reader INTO your character.  We’ve all heard about Show Don’t Tell, but I think truly engrossing writing takes it a step beyond even showing.  Don’t tell.  Don’t show.  Be.  Use language that talks about how it feels to be inside the emotion. To be the one who is happy or sad or lustful.  Not just the actions that demonstrate our emotion, but the sensations that come over us when we are overcome.

    For example, telling would be: She was happy.  Showing: She beamed at him, delighted.  Being: Her cheeks ached from grinning but she couldn’t stop. Those sensations can make your reader remember that feeling, empathize, and connect with your character from point of shared emotion, not just be happy for their happiness from the outside.  I think those characters we feel with are the ones we can’t walk away from – the books we can’t put down.

  2. Have you ever read a book or manuscript where the characters didn’t seem real not because their reactions were wrong, but because they were too right?  Sometimes we can forget that our characters are human (or human-esque aliens/shifters/vampires) with human flaws.  Letting your characters be conflicted (sure they do the right thing, but damn if they don’t secretly wish they could escape that hard choice) can add nuance and reality to the characterization.  The Perfect Pollyanna heroine is lazy writing, IMHO.

    What we do and what we wish we could do don’t always match.  Let your reader in on that dissonance.  Especially if a reaction isn’t a particularly PC one.  We don’t always react to things internally the way we should.  A flicker of spite that the character squelches before doing the right thing.  A tide of sympathy for a villain. Or maybe even relief when something bad happens because the other shoe has finally dropped – all of those can make the reader connect with your character because they are INTERNALLY honest at a time when we are externally PC.  We, as the reader, get to see the real, human side.  Not the tough face our character shows the world.  We connect with that weakness – and then admire the strength to overcome it even more.

  3. One way we can be lazy as writers is by going straight for crying, shouting or laughing.  We want our reader to see the extreme emotion our characters are dealing with, but resistance – trying not to smile, trying not to cry – can be much more powerful.  I am much more likely to cry when a character is doing everything she can to stop herself from crying than I am to cry along when she’s bawling at the drop of a hat.  When she is fighting not to, it’s almost like I have to.  Like oneof us has to let that emotion out and if she resists it’s gonna be me.  It’s the same with laughter.

    Those are the extremes of emotion the character doesn’t want the rest of the world to see, the things that are personal, intimate and internal.  Those moments when the character is trying to hide, trying to suppress what they feel, trying to master their emotions, are when the reader gets to truly see our protagonist.  From the inside.

Whether we employ these techniques to bring a reader deeper or look for other ways to strengthen our writing, we can’t be lazy.  We can’t gloss over and take shortcuts.  Our readers will know.  So get out there, butts in chairs, and revise ferociously.

What are some cut corners and short cuts you find in manuscripts? How do you overcome them?

30 responses to “The Internist: Letting Your Reader Inside Your Protagonist”

  1. Hope Ramsay says:

    This is a wonderful topic, Vivi. I see these kinds of short cuts in my first drafts all the time. And I see them in contest entries that I judge. I believe that learning how to write down deep in third person is one of those advanced writing skills that comes with lots of practice.

    There are a couple of things I do when it comes to seeking out and destroying lazy characterization. 1) I look for words like “he saw”, “he felt”, “he smelled”,
    he touched”. All of these constructions are a dead giveaway that you could do better. They are all indications of telling instead of being. 2) I spend a lot of time thinking about the way a character sounds. How she or he speaks. The rhythm of their words, as well as any geographical, or age-related markers. When I write in the POV of an eight-year-old, I use different words to express feelings, than I do when I’m writing the POV of an adult. The voice changes between a woman and a man. I recently had an English character in one of my books and I had to listen to a lot of BBC America to get his POV right. This was something I really WORKED at. 3) I am also extremely careful about how I describe facial expressions. For example, if I’m in Lord Woolham’s POV I almost never say that he raised an eyebrow, because I don’t believe that he is actually conscious of that little tick of his. He only knows that he’s surprised or annoyed or disgusted. So when I talk about Lord Woolham raising his eyebrow, I’m always in the POV of the person on the receiving end of his disdain. Smiling may be the only place where I will break this rule, because I think we know when we smile. But other kinds of expressions not so much.

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    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Such a good point that facial expressions aren’t often conscious, Hope. Though I’ve had a character or two who would raise an eyebrow consciously just to piss off another character. It’s all about the intention, baby.

      I did once trip across a contest entry where the author had her hero doing things subconsciously while we were in his POV. Totally threw me out of the story. Just like her subconsciously acting hero, she probably didn’t even realize she was doing it. Thank God for second drafts. 🙂

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    • Leslie says:

      Thank you, Hope **tucking nugget into my toolbox**

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  2. kelly fitzpatrick says:

    So true. Raising hand. I’m lazy. That’s why I think it is so important to get eyes on your manuscript. Not the eyes of someone who thinks you can do no wrong, but a writing buddy or an editor. I just had an editor call me out on my laziness and make me dig a little deeper. I think my story is all the better for it.

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    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Exactly, Kelly! My mom reads all of my manuscripts – but she’s useless when it comes to calling me out on laziness. A pair of sharp, critical eyes are invaluable.

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  3. Vivi, I love how you make the distinction between telling/showing/being. The difference in the emotional impact of telling vs. *being* is huge.

    I’m lazy when it comes to descriptions. I tend to gloss over things like setting the scene and I find it very hard to remember to describe my character’s clothes. I need to be more detail oriented about stuff like that because I know it brings the scene to life. I would just much rather focus on other stuff. 🙂

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    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Hmm. This is interesting to me because I sometimes gloss over descriptions of setting and clothes intentionally – because they don’t interest me as a reader and tend to bore me right out of a story. Some of my favorite books never even describe the protagonist, but those characters can still feel intensely real because I know them – from the inside, rather than out. Unless I’m making a point with my appearance, I rarely think of what I’m wearing so it would feel forced for me to describe my clothes in my POV. Perhaps whether or not you describe setting and clothing has to do with how observant of those things your characters are? Oooh, this is interesting to think about. 🙂 Thanks, Cynthia!

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      • Shoshana Brown says:

        Descriptions of setting can be really boring, but I love it when they’re filtered through the POV character–gives me extra insight into what they’re thinking/feeling and makes me feel like I’m right there. For example, from Match Me If You Can by Susan Elizabeth Phillips:

        The Python’s office was the color of money: lacquered jade walls, thick moss carpet, and furniture upholstered in varying shades of green accented with bloodred pillows.

        To me, it subtly emphasizes that the heroine (POV character) is intimidated by the hero’s money and his power.

        Loved the post, Vivi–especially #1.

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    • I’m with Vivi on this. However, if the setting or clothing plays a role, that’s different. I make a big thing out of an outfit my heroine is wearing early in my one manuscript because the camoflage it later provides saves her life. Later, however, gowns have color, because the hero notices (of course), but few details. The reader wants the story, not a TLC program.

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  4. Rita Henuber says:

    Great post. we all need reminders about this.
    I take the characters strongest trait and poke holes in it. I start out be defining a character. One of my heroines is strong, independent and always professional. The hero does something that rattles her, breaks through her tough crust and she blurts out a response that is uncharacteristic and for her embarrassing. She adjusts her collar attempting to cover the flush moving up her neck. Glances around to determine if anyone else heard what she said. Fidgets. If I’ve set the character up I don’t need to say anymore. The reader knows she hasn’t blushed since she was in high school. She is the boss and says what she wants and she is practiced at keeping her body quiet so as not to give anything away.

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  5. Great post, Vivi. You’re so right about emotional impact on the reader being stronger when the character is fighting the emotion.

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  6. Beth Langston says:

    one of my shortcuts, I’ve discovered, is to surround my MC with stereotypical minor characters. If MC is talking to Feisty Granny, I can get through that scene a little more mindlessly.

    One way to get around it— I read back through the scene inside the minor character’s head. They let me know when I’ve been too lazy to give them a real personality.

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    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Oooh! Excellent point, Beth! The just-to-move-the-plot-along stereotypes that wander around next to our protagonists are perfect examples of areas we can sharpen up our second draft.

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    • I have the opposite problem, Beth. I write foils for my secondary characters. The problem? They keep trying to take over the scene! One in particular, is so vivid, I have to watch her constantly lest she steal the limelight from the hero or heroine. Every contest that manuscript has seen has come back with the judges leaving at least one remark about how they love her.

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  7. Diana Layne says:

    Love this. I also love to have a character say one thing and think another. I first saw this used successfully in a manuscript I judged in Golden Heart eons ago. Unfortunately it didn’t final and as this was before Internet, I couldn’t google it and try to find the author to beg to read the rest of the manuscript. (I suspect it didn’t final b/c at the time it dealt with some quite um…controversial stuff.) I still remember that manuscript (which is saying a lot given my memory these days).

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    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Wow, that sounds like quite a memorable book! I do love that disconnect between what we think and what we say. It can also be a great form of comic relief – thinking the snarky thing even when you smile and say the right thing.

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  8. Vivi, such a great point regarding telling-showing-being. I’ve been trying to make “just be” my personal motto this year, trying to live in the moment more…it’s tough! But I never thought about using it for my characters (probably because it’s so tough-LOL). I’d like to think I’m working on deep third POV with my characters, but I know there are places where it’s not happening. Especially, like you said, when you’re simply trying to work out the plot points. I’m looking forward to the next round of edits and working on the characters more. Thinking of it from your perspective (“being”), will help me be less lazy. 😉

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    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Just being is tougher than it ought to be, isn’t it? 🙂 Good luck with your next round of edits and nailing that in-the-moment-ness for your characters.

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  9. Love this post, Vivi. I’m what I call an immersion writer: When I write, I’m in the character’s head throughout the scene, seeing, smelling, hearing etc., what he or she does to the extent going back through the scene is necessary for balance. Emotional overload can be exhausting. The reader needs a break. One of the best examples of this is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; without the comic relief Mr. Martini provides, that book would have been debillitating.

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    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Sounds like you naturally gravitate toward “being”, Gwyn. 🙂 That immersion is so excellent, but I wonder – do you have to pay particular attention to pacing to make sure your reader doesn’t get overwhelmed by the sensory?

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      • Not really, Vivi. No matter how vivid the immersion, one sense tends to take the lead, so to speak, just as it does in life. So while awareness is there, it is that lead sense that dominates a scene. Does that make sense? It’s so normal for me, I don’t think about it except in the context of the time it takes to transport myself there—which precludes writing in fits and spurts. Editing doesn’t require transportation, however, because it’s like reliving a memory. Oh, dear, this sounds so unhinged, but there you have it.

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  10. Wow!!! What an amazing post, Vivi! I couldn’t agree more. I read a book once where the protagonists were always laughing. Like, the writer would say, “He barked out a laugh,” or “She doubled over, laughing so hard her eyes watered,” and, well, what happened just wasn’t that funny. It might induce a smile or a light chuckle, it was humorous enough for that, but to double over with laughter? It was just so awkward and it kept happening over and over. Needless to say, I didn’t finish the book, but to me that was the epitome of lazy writing. Instead of actually making the scene funny, the writer decided to just make the characters laugh so we would know, “Oh, okay, that was funny.”

    Such a bizarre book.

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    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Yes! Exactly! If your character is dying of laughter and your reader isn’t, you’ve just put a HUGE distance between your reader and your character. Emphasizing the disconnect, mega no-no.

      I like a little snort of laughter or a repressed smile the best. Sometimes the things we throw at our readers can be so inappropriate, I think it helps to give them a little character smirk so they know its okay if they are laughing too. Especially when it’s that “I should so not be laughing at this” kind of laugh.

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Oh, yeah…I hate that. I also hate when the hero thinks to himself how witty the heroine is when the remark she’s just made is dull and cliched.

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  11. Elisa Beatty says:

    I love the advice about avoiding having characters cry….it’s really true that if the character is fighting it back, the reader starts breaking…

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  12. […] The Internist: Letting Your Reader Inside Your Protagonist (Ruby Slippered Sisterhood):  ”That skating-over-the-surface style – which can be […]

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