One of the best things about writing is that it gives you an opportunity to explore the world from different perspectives. Getting inside the minds of your characters can lead to a richer understanding of what it’s like to be someone else, living in a different place or time or body.
And sometimes, a character’s mind is just a fun place to be. Many writers have that one character who’s a particular joy to write (for me, it’s Mitch from The Misfortunes of Oscar Goldberg. Basically, the inside of his mind looks like The Lego Movie) so why not escape into someone else’s brain for a while?
But sometimes, even when writing in first person, it’s more effective to take a step back and focus on a character’s actions or surroundings rather than their thoughts and feelings. So when should you get inside a character’s head? Here are some thoughts on when to do it and when to avoid it.
To generate empathy. Characters don’t always have to be likeable, but readers should be able to empathise with them to some extent, and get a sense of why they do the things they do.
If your protagonist makes some pretty questionable decisions, it’s important to show the thought processes, feelings and backstory behind those decisions. In the case of an antagonist, getting inside her head can make her more of a complex adversary and less of a pantomime villain who does bad things because she’s bad.
When most of the action is inside your character’s head. There are plenty of brilliant novels where not much happens at all. Classics like Pride and Prejudice (about a man changing his manners and a woman changing her mind) prove that you don’t need car chases or sword fights to create a thrilling story.
But if it’s light on action, there needs to be a lot going on behind your characters’ eyes and your readers need to know about it. The emotional drama needn’t be overwrought and soap opera-ish, but it should be complex and sincerely felt.
When someone is in an unusual situation. Sometimes, a character gets into a situation that isn’t easy for a reader to relate to. This is particularly common in Fantasy and Sci-Fi. When weird shit hits the fan, a reader might not know how to react. Is this a dangerous situation? A whimsical detour?
You can give the reader cues through tone and pacing, but one of the most effective ways of helping a reader relate to a weird situation is by getting inside the character’s head and showing what they think and feel about it.
To show that a character’s mind works differently. If your character has an IQ of 152 or 45, his thought patterns may differ significantly from the average reader’s. The same is true of characters with other kinds of neurodivergence like autism, ADHD, or mental illness.
If a reader only sees the character’s behaviour, they may find it difficult to relate to. But give them a chance to see inside the character’s mind and they are much more likely to understand. If you’re writing about someone different to you, remember to do your research!
When a character needs to keep a secret from the reader. Sometimes, to avoid spoiling plot twists, your character needs to keep things hidden. In a murder mystery, for example, your character might figure out whodunnit some time before it’s revealed to the reader.
In this type of situation, it’s important not to spend too much time inside a character’s head. It’s just not realistic to have a character with a huge secret who never thinks about it.
During action-heavy scenes. If there’s a lot of action going on, cutting away from it to explore a character’s mental or emotional reactions can be distracting and slow the pace.
This doesn’t mean action scenes can’t be emotional – many of the best ones are intensely emotional. But it’s best to keep the emotions of an action scene simple and primal, e.g. shock, fear or rage. Hold off on exploring a character’s more complex reactions until the aftermath.
When you want a character to remain ambiguous. Mysterious characters are great for keeping readers on their toes. If you want an aspect of a character – their morals, their loyalties, their past – to remain shadowy, it’s best not to spend too much time inside their head.
I hope these tips were useful. As always, feel free to add your own!