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(Most) Characters Can’t Read Minds

on September 25th, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on September 25, 2012

You may be writing paranormals and so, yes, you might have a mind-reading character or two in your fiction. But if you’re not and if you don’t, then it’s likely your characters are no better at reading the minds and emotions of other characters than any of us are at reading the 3-dimensional people in our lives.

How many times have you thought you knew what someone else was thinking when of course they weren’t thinking anything of the kind?

If we knew what those around us thought, our lives would be very different. While there might be less miscommunication, I have the feeling a whole lot more of us would be in jail for murder.

In fiction, our characters also don’t read minds. They’re also probably only as talented as we are at reading facial expressions and posture. So while our characters can guess what another character is thinking or feeling—

Wow, Mona’s face is really red. And she only flushes like that when she’s embarrassed. But I’ve never seen it that red before; she must be even more embarrassed than when her dress fell off at that fundraiser.

—it’s unbelievable to think a character repeatedly knows what another is thinking or feeling—

Mona’s face was really red. As if she were remembering that fundraiser, the one where her dress fell off.

Absent other clues, characters cannot repeatedly guess what other characters are thinking. How could they? A character can’t read minds simply because you need him to. Or because you think you need him to. Instead of creating a character skilled at mind-reading, you need to be skilled at laying out the details that allow the reader to guess what’s going on in a character’s head.

Cut back on character conclusions and instead lead the reader into possibilities. Plant clues rather than paint conclusions.

And definitely go light on the words as if and as though. The overuse of as if is a symptom of characters who mind-read. Imagine these phrases as the thoughts of one character toward another. They are not the thoughts of an omniscient narrator who might actually know such things to be true.

I saw Teddy reach for the gun, as if he’d remedy 25 years of grievances with one shot.

She crawled under the bed, hiding herself, as if thinking that doing so would protect her, as if she thought she could retreat to her mother’s belly.

He advanced toward me with confidence, as if he assumed I’d forgive and forget.

Might the characters who think these thoughts be right in their guesses? Of course. But they wouldn’t always be right. The truth behind these actions could just as readily be—

“What grievances?” Teddy asked when I explained my earlier assumption. “I saw the kids racing across the yard, heading toward us, and wanted to hide the gun before they ran into the room.”

“I hid under the bed, doofus, because it’s the only place big enough for all six and a half feet of me. You need to throw away those psychology textbooks and stop reading deep motivation into every little action.”

“Gotcha!” he said when he grabbed me. “Hold still. You look ready to bolt, but I demand a chance to ask for forgiveness.”

As for Mona, her face could have been red because a hot flash raced over her. Or because she caught sight of the man, the stranger, she’d taken to her hotel room last night. Or because she just realized she was late paying off the blackmailer and he’d release the video that would have her kicked off her party’s presidential ticket.

The conclusions the viewpoint characters came to in the examples are better suited to being their thoughts than those of another character. So if you’re trying to convey the viewpoint character’s thoughts, then by all means use such phrasings (with some adjustments, of course). But if you’re in the head and viewpoint of one character, you won’t want to have him making accurate guesses about the thoughts of other characters. People simply don’t read others so easily and accurately.

What I’m getting at is that one character cannot always know the motivations of another character. And even if the first character guesses at those motivations, she can’t always be right.

Could a character every once in a while guess correctly? Of course. And that could happen more often with characters who know one another really well. But to always be correct—repeatedly correct in the same story—in one’s reading of another stretches belief.

And would be noticeable to the reader.

As always, the purpose of writing fiction is to tell a story, not to get readers noticing the underpinnings of that story.

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Use as if to reveal the thoughts and motivations of the character making the assumptions rather than the motivations of other characters. That is, if as if and similar phrases reveal the viewpoint character, that’s quite valid. They just shouldn’t be used to consistently reveal, through the eyes of the viewpoint character, the inner workings of other characters. Not unless the observations are obvious.

Having one character so easily read another—and be correct every time—is a cheating way of conveying back story or the motivation of another character.

So while you could easily write—He lumbered after me as though he were a Japanese monster and I were Tokyo—it’s less believable to read—He streaked after me as if he thought Mrs. Lynn, our fourth-grade teacher, chased him with a ruler. How can the viewpoint character know what the other character is thinking or why he’s moving as he is?

The difference here is one of perspective. While the viewpoint character can use analogies and simile and metaphor from his point of view, to project himself into the head of another character—even one he knows well—is stretching his powers of observation. To do so repeatedly will have readers wondering about his psychic bilities.

The differences between revealing the viewpoint character and his reading of the mind of another character can also be subtle. It’s sometimes difficult to see just why there’s a problem with some of these phrasings.

But when a character is guessing at another’s motivations, simply clothing guesses in creative phrases doesn’t change the truth that people can’t easily read another’s mind.

Imagine your characters being wrong with each of their conclusions and you’ll see the drawback of using mind-reading as a way to convey back story or provide conclusions.

One more example—

I raised my brow at Arthur. He grimaced, as if mentally replaying the most recent argument with his ex-wife.

Yes, maybe that’s exactly what Arthur was doing. And it’s a reasonable conclusion if the characters had been talking about that ex-wife. (An even clearer wording to point out the connection if that had been the case might be—He grimaced, no doubt mentally replaying the most recent argument with his ex-wife.) But Arthur also might be grimacing because his underwear was too tight or he was tired of the repeated brow-lifting of the viewpoint character or because he was late for an appointment or because he had a headache.

This example definitely reveals the viewpoint character’s take on the grimace rather than Arthur’s. And that’s okay; it doesn’t purport to be a read of Arthur’s thoughts. If you’ve set the scene properly, this kind of phrasing will be effective and accurate.

______________

While I find such phrasings and conclusions sprinkled through published books, I’ve recently found this kind of wording used heavily in manuscripts. Writers seem to be using this construction to do two things—to present conclusions about a character who’s not the viewpoint character and to give readers back story or motivation for that character.

It’s filling in character gaps through shortcuts.

So we learn about the fundraiser where Mona’s dress slid down. We learn that Teddy had 25 years of grievances. We learn about a character’s past in a backhanded manner. And while adding info in ways other than throwing it in whole, in clumps, is to be applauded, it does need to be done in logical ways.

When a character too often guesses what others are thinking, the character drawing conclusions looks psychic. And he robs the reader of the chance to draw conclusions of her own, to enjoy that “aha” moment.

No one can always guess what another is thinking or feeling and always be right with that guess.

So a character could just as likely be squirming in his seat because of all the fiber he had for breakfast as he would be because he’s feeling guilty.

My recommendation is that you save the mind-reading for paranormals and sci-fi. Give the psychically ungifted the same handicap the rest of us humans have—we can’t guess what another is thinking, not with any accuracy.

At the same time, allow readers to make conclusions based on the details you’ve given them. Keep readers involved by making them work a bit. Don’t hand them story and back story and motivation and conclusion. Encourage them to draw some of these elements from your words. Make them move beyond passive reading. Push them to go deeper in order to divine meaning.

Plant some of your nuggets deep rather than laying them all out on the surface. Permit readers the joy of discovery, a discovery that costs a bit of effort.

Leave mind-reading to the psychics. Make your characters and readers read all the clues you give them, not only the conclusion of the viewpoint character. Rather than take out the guesswork, put it in.

Don’t allow characters to read minds. Do allow characters to read the signs you’ve designed for them and your fiction.

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