Monday, October 31, 2011

The Psychological Thread, Part IV by Nancy Rue

Hey writers, Annette here. Did you know: Every word out of a character's mouth has the potential to reveal her psychology? Whether you have a character in therapy and include the counselor's POV (as in Nancy's Sullivan Crisp novels) or not, this Mixing-it-Up Monday series will help you with characterization. Want to know how to avoid writing "skimmable" introspection? Read on!

The Psychological Thread, Part IV
by Nancy Rue

Every time I stare at my outline for a new novel, I choke on the same question: How in the WORLD am I going to bring this character to life on the page? It’s the scariest thing in life, next to snakes.

But once I get past the Ican’tdothisIcan’tdothisIcan’tdothis phase, I remember the three things that will weave that psychological thread into the reader’s imagination, the same three things I learned in high school English. (From old Mrs. Norris, who has probably passed on to that heavenly place where every student cares about such things).

What the protagonist thinks. In first person, that’s a no-brainer, but it’s just as important in third person. To pull that off, simply stay in the protagonist’s head, so that you naturally share those thoughts. Just be sure to make them a part of the forward-moving story, rather than save them all for one big reflecting-while-sipping-tea scene. If a train of thought goes on for longer than about five lines, you’re giving your reader a reason to skim ahead to the action. An example from Healing Waters:

The empty kitchen met me with its arms open. Arms that beckoned with promises of comfort, and in spite of the hope that Sullivan Crisp could help me with Bethany and Sonia, I still had such an empty place to fill.

Notice that it isn’t: I feel empty inside, she thought.

In the third person, being inside the brain looks like this:

Dr. Sullivan Crisp didn’t know what he was doing. But then, that was his basic MO these days.

There’s no need for I don’t know what I’m doing, Dr. Sullivan Crisp thought. I’ve taken you straight into his head.

What the protagonist says. Every word out of a character’s mouth has the potential to reveal her psychology. So does the way she says it, as well as what she doesn’t say. Attitude, pauses, the body language attached–you have limitless options. If you’ve dialoged with your protagonist in the journaling phase, this’ll be like reporting a conversation you’ve overheard.

(Sully) “You have buried some things, some very hard things, deep inside you where you won’t have to feel them. How am I doing so far?

(Lucia) She nodded.

“But they aren’t dead things. They’re still alive, and because you’ve buried them alive, you have to feed them.”

“Because if I don’t, they come out and scream at me.”

“What does it feel like for you?”

“Like I’m going to explode. Like if I don’t get myself numb, I’m going to burst open and land like confetti all over the place.”

What the protagonist does. Disobey the show-don’t-tell rule at your peril. Every move your character makes is his psychology in action. Again, if you weave the thoughts into the action, you avoid those tea-sipping scenes of silent reflection or conversations about things we already know. Going back to the Lucia-in-the-kitchen scene:

I licked the salt off of the first chip, softening it to dissolve like a Communion wafer in my mouth. As it turned soggy, I added another one and another one, until I had to gulp to swallow them. A few more and the pain would disappear and I could stop. I ate the next twenty without ritual, faster, with the fear that they wouldn’t fill me up.

After about the first page, I forget to be scared about writing a psychologically satisfying novel. Finally, after all the planning and puzzling, this is the fun part, the rich part. Enjoy, my fellow writers. Enjoy.

Nancy Rue is the author of one hundred and ten books, including nine novels for adults, seventeen for teens, and sixty for tween readers, as well as two parenting books, thirty-two non-fiction books for tweens and teens, and the features for the FaithGirlz Bible. Her Lily Series, published by Zondervan, has sold well over one million copies. Her ability to relate to a wide audience has made her a popular radio and television guest and an in-demand speaker and teacher for writer’s conferences across the country. Her latest titles include The Reluctant Prophet and Unexpected Dismounts for adult readers (David C. Cook) Limos, Lattes, and My Life On the Fringe (Zondervan) for teens, and That Is SO Me (Zondervan), a year-long devotional for tweens, in addition to a book written with her husband entitled What Happened To My Little Girl: A Dad’s Guide to His Tween Daughter. A student of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, sponsored by the Upper Room, Nancy continues her own spiritual journey even as she writes and speaks for mothers, daughters, and would-be writers about theirs. For more information, visit her website at