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Claustrophobia—Don’t Imprison Readers in a Character’s Head

on June 16th, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on June 16, 2012

Have you ever been caught in a tight space, maybe where the air is stale and there’s not a lot of room to move or breathe and you’re sweating because the air is warm and getting warmer and the space is getting tighter and tighter and where the ceiling is moving down and the walls are creeping in and the floor . . . Well, where the floor is pressing up, pushing you toward that lowering ceiling?

Maybe it’s dark and you can’t turn around easily and so you can’t see what’s behind you and you can’t see what’s in front of you and you start tensing up and you feel light-headed . . .

Maybe you’re feeling claustrophobic, as if you can’t escape the tight, airless box you’ve found yourself in.

Or maybe you’ve merely been trapped in the head of a character in a book. Still a tight place. Still a place you can’t escape from. Still a confining space. But not as bad as a physcially confining space.

May I recommend that you, knowing what this feels like, don’t imprison your readers inside a character’s head.

What this means in terms of the practical is to give readers variety. Rather than locking them for pages inside one character’s thoughts, introduce readers to new settings and action and dialogue and even to the minds and emotions of other characters.

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We’ve all read books where we’ve become trapped within the mind of a character, forced to listen as he tells us what happened in his past to bring him to the present moment of a story, forced to listen to his (or maybe the author’s) philosophy, social statement, or worldview.

Forced to entertain his thoughts, which may or may not be exciting or worth our time.

Being locked anywhere without a way out is uncomfortable. Being locked in with someone who talks only about himself has got to be one of the circles of Hell.

Since you know how this makes a reader feel, refrain from doing it to your readers. Keep in mind that the only recourse they have when faced with page after page of tedious character thought that they can’t otherwise escape is to put your book down.

And none of us want readers putting down our books.

So instead, give your readers an out. Close them up in dark, hot, narrow spaces when you need to, when the story calls for it. But don’t forget to let them out. And do so fairly quickly.

Most real-world people need an escape from their own thoughts. Give your readers the courtesy of allowing them to escape a character’s thoughts.

Weave action and dialogue and description and different viewpoints through your story. Don’t allow one character to monopolize your readers, not even your first-person narrator.

Readers need a break from a character’s thoughts. They need to see action events unfold in front of them, not only listen to them being recited through the memory of a character.

Readers need setting details, and they need to see characters interact with that setting. They need motion and sense details. They need to hear the voices of several characters. they need to experience what’s happening outside a character and not only what’s going on inside.

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We’ve seen what happens in fiction when characters become talking heads, failing to interact with setting elements so that all the reader gets is two guys talking on their phones, seemingly detached from the world around them. We get no input from the senses, as if the characters are standing or sitting on nothing. We have no report of what they see or smell or hear as they talk. It’s as if the only thing left in the world is them, as if the apocalypse had taken everyone else away.

Yet, as is most often the case, once the phone call is finished, the rest of the world rushes back and we find the apocalypse was only wishful thinking on our part. After all, we were looking for some kind of explanation for the void into which the characters had just been dropped.

The same effect unfortunately comes to stories when writers leave us with only character thoughts for paragraph after paragraph.

Instead of weaving story elements, the writer presents them one at a time, as if characters couldn’t save the world and think at the same time. So we get long sections of action without introspection. Or long sections of dialogue without action. Or long stretches of thought without action or dialogue.

But characters can multi-task. They can handle many duties at the same time and in a variety of combinations. And a good writer can multi-task as well.

Take us into the dark or crazy or light-hearted mind of your lead character. But don’t leave us there. (Unless getting lost in that dark mind is the goal of the story, of course. But that won’t be true of the great majority of stories.)

Instead of letting a character run on for pages with his thoughts, break up those thoughts. Give us action. Give us dialogue. Give us the character’s physical reaction to a story event rather than sharing only his thoughts.

Or, every once in a while, give us no thoughts at all. (But a story with no character thoughts has its own problems, so don’t give us no thoughts. Go for a balance.)

Take the reader out of the tight spaces of a character’s mind and show him the story world. Let him see through a character’s eyes, feel through his hands and feet, and not always be locked into his thoughts.

Hearing thought after thought after thought can annoy readers; they simply need a break. You don’t want readers feeling that they’ve been blocked into a corner at a party by the world’s biggest bore, one who only talks about himself and his accomplishments and his dreams, and who won’t let them out to explore the other side of the room and the guests there or the open bar or the staggeringly heavy and loaded buffet table.

Give your readers variety. Tell your characters to shut up every once in a while. Let someone or something else have center stage.

No lead character is so exciting that his thoughts alone can support a novel-length story. Readers need more. The story needs more. That lead character himself needs more.

Points to Remember

**  If you’re using first-person narration, be mindful of the amount of time and page space you give to a character’s thoughts. Think variety and balance.

**  Don’t allow pages to pass without dialogue or action.

**  If a character’s thoughts are common and trite and boring, without conflict or tension, cut them out.

**  Do make thoughts exciting or enticing. Put them to work for the story to reveal character and advance plot.

**  With first-person narration, make sure all sentences don’t begin with I. Nor all paragraphs either. It’s not always about what the character is doing or thinking—I watched my wife float down the stairs in her borrowed gown. Instead, take the narrator out—Elyse floated down the staircase in her borrowed gown.

**  Don’t be hesitant about locking readers into a character’s thoughts if you’re doing so for a purpose or to create a menacing tone or creating that claustrophobic feel on purpose. Remember, however, that you’re not giving the reader a life sentence. Let him out when the tight feeling of being locked within a character’s head has done its work.

**  Make sure characters and readers interact with the whole of the story world. Think setting, props, other characters, dialogue, and action events. Give readers the full fiction experience.

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Stories are written for readers; make the reading of your stories an experience the reader will remember.

If you want to sell more than a first book, make that experience one that readers will want to repeat.

Give readers more than thoughts. Give them good story.

Write them great fiction.

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11 Responses to “Claustrophobia—Don’t Imprison Readers in a Character’s Head”

  1. Vero says:

    Love this post, Beth!

    You make very good points as to the temptation (and ensuing claustrophobia) of getting too deep into the POV character’s mind and staying there.

    It’s very jarring to read a first person POV through-out book, if that character is focused more on himself and his reactions that on what’s actually going on.

    I’m a fan of multiple points of view, because they offer a much better perspective on the story-world and story-problem for the reader. But I also love the intimacy and immediacy of the first person POV. So I write them both, in the same book. My protagonist benefits of first person POV (thought not only thoughts and feelings and all that suffocating privacy), while everyone else makes due with third person. I find that the only compromise I can make, to the advantage of story and reader. I hope it to work. :)

    Thanks a lot for the pertinent explanation of why deep POV throughout an entire book is not as good an idea as it sounds.

  2. Pete Aldin says:

    Very helpful! Thankyou.

  3. Pete, I’m glad this one was helpful. Have you been locking readers in your characters’ heads?

  4. Vero, I find that a lot of first-person manuscripts, typically if they’re a writer’s first novel-length story, lock readers inside a character’s thoughts for far too long.

    I love your method of mixing first and third. I’ve done that one myself. Here’s hoping you’re successful beyond measure with that approach.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

  5. Hi Beth. Thought provoking post. I’m not a fan of bouncing around POVs, but I agree that the view from the main character’s eyes only can get stale. I like to mix descriptions, dialogue, and a normal 1st or 3rd person POV, then add deep POV as a change of pace. The goal is to keep the story going, but offer some stylistic diversity in the process.

  6. James, I agree. It’s the elements working together in a pleasing balance that make stories work.

  7. Lianne Simon says:

    What an informative post, Beth! A number of good points.

    Certainly each POV type has its potential pitfalls. The things you caution against can ruin a story told in third person as well as in first, but perhaps the temptation is less. Or the task is easier when there are multiple POVs.

    Perhaps part of the problem with the overuse of character thoughts is the reliance on them as an easy way to achieve depth of POV. I agree with you. Cut as much as you can. But you should still be able to maintain depth of POV with what’s left. How the narrator feels–what she believes–all of it affects the story. It comes out in her observations of the world around her. In how other people react. In the dialogue. It’s no more fun to have character thoughts tell the story than it is for the narrator to tell the story. Show the reader. But don’t give up your pursuit of emotional depth just because you’re cutting out the excess character thoughts.

  8. Excellent advice. No one wants a soliloquy anymore.

  9. Lianne, each POV does have its own pitfalls. And it’s funny you used that term because that’s something I’d written just recently in an article I’m working on. I love the coincidence.

    Thanks for your other insights as well. Good stuff for writers to know.

  10. You speak the truth, Julie. They certainly don’t want one the length of a novel.

    Thanks for letting us know you were here.

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  1. [...] Karen Woodward talks about creating conflict through the needs of your characters, while Beth Hill warns against imprisoning your reader in a character’s head. [...]