Characters – how close is too close?

I just finished a scifi space opera that could have been very good, but wasn’t. A big part of the reason was the author’s over use of internal monologue. I left a 3 star review, something I haven’t done in years, and a long explanation of why I felt the story only deserved a 3, but it’s still annoying me, hence this post.

For those who don’t know what I mean by ‘internal monologue’ it’s the character, talking to herself, but not out loud, hence ‘monologue’. In books, this internal monologue is usually shown in italics, to distinguish it from spoken dialogue.

When used properly, internal monologue is a powerful tool that betrays the character’s true feelings without the author having to say so. For example, I could say:

Jane smiled sweetly at her boss, but inside she was seething with rage.

Or I could make it more ‘show’ than ‘tell’ by changing it to:

Incompetent fool! Jane thought as she smiled sweetly at her boss.

The internal monologue of the second example provides an inside-outside view of the character that can be very powerful. Unfortunately, like all powerful tools, it should be used sparingly, and only when it actually serves a purpose. The story that earned my 3 star review used internal monologue almost constantly, for the most trivial of reasons. Something like:

Jane walked into the party and surveyed the crowd. Oh my. She was familiar with most of the party goers and did not like them. Then she spotted Tom. Thank god. Someone intelligent to talk to. etc etc etc

In the actual book, sentences like this were not exceptional. They happened with monotonous regularity, even during action scenes when the last thing you want to do is slow things down.

There’s another reason internal monologue should be used sparingly – a character with too many ‘warts’ is rarely likeable. Instead, they come across as whiny and self-obsessed, or arrogant smartarses. This can also happen with First Person POV – i.e. where the character tells the story from her own perspective saying things like “I did this” and “I felt that” etc.

In fairness I have to say that while I don’t generally like First Person POV, some of my favourite stories have been written from that very close perspective. C.J. Cherryh does it with the Foreigner series, and Audrey Driscoll did it with the Herbert West series. It can be done, and it can be done brilliantly, but First Person POV requires a mastery of the tool that far too many new authors do not possess.

The author of that 3 star story did not use First Person POV. Instead, the story is written in what’s called ‘Close Third’ – i.e. “She did this and she felt that”. There is distance between the character and the reader, but we get to see more of the internal workings of the character’s mind.

One of the tools used to create closeness is, of course, internal monologue, but it is not the only tool available to us. Describing a character’s body language can be a far more effective tool because it allows the reader to picture the scene and come to their own conclusions about what the character is doing or feeling. Showing the character from the perspective of another character is also very powerful because they can often see us as we really are instead of as we see ourselves…

-sigh-

And this is the point at which I have to say…’in my not so humble opinion’. I don’t often write process posts because I truly do not believe there is only one ‘correct’ way of writing a story, but sometimes I can’t help myself. This is one of those times.

Does this annoy anyone else, or am I being a ‘difficult woman’ again? lol Would love to know, but feel free to add any of your own pet peeves as well. πŸ™‚

Meeks

About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

79 responses to “Characters – how close is too close?

  • robbiesinspiration

    I don’t know many authors who use internal monologue except for Stephen King who does it very well. If it isn’t used well, I imagine it could be irritating as with any other poor writing technics. Thanks for making me think, Meeks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      Hi Robbie. Funny you should mention Stephen King. I don’t like horror so, although I read a couple of his horror books, I was never a fan until…drum roll…I read Dolores Claiborne. I don’t know how to categorize that novel, but I think it’s the best thing he ever wrote. It’s also the reason I paid attention to his book ‘On Writing’. πŸ™‚

      Like

  • roughwighting

    I’m with you on this. I’ve edited many a student’s writings that (to me) “fudge” it by writing what the character is thinking, and using italics to do so. No, no, no. That’s not good writing. It’s lazy writing. Internal monologue should not be necessary in a good active dialogue- and plot-driven novel. The character should SHOW us what she’s thinking, not TELL us in italics!! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  • Widdershins

    With that paragraph you highlighted, it read like the internal and external dialogue was reversed. An interesting choice if you were skilled enough to make it work, but alas, this author obviously skipped school they day they were teaching that. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      I’m actually a fan of internal monologues, but only if they have a purpose, or preferably multiple purposes – character development, inside-outside contrast, possibly even raising tension in the plot etc. Otherwise?
      In my own writing I’m forever asking “does this really need to be here?” More often than not, it doesn’t. I think a…dispassionate edit would have worked wonders.

      Liked by 2 people

  • marianallen

    You’re not being “difficult”; you have as much right to your preferences as anybody else, girl! I have to say, though, I actually LIKE snatches of internal monologue like that. It’s like having a friend lift an eyebrow or give you the side eye so you know what they think during a meeting without passing notes. But that’s MY preference. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

    • acflory

      lol – I don’t dislike internal monologue per se, it was just the constant interjections that drove me crazy. I do take your point though, those little things do amount to a form of silent communication when friends know each other really well. I’d probably still go for the raised eyebrow though. πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€

      Liked by 2 people

  • equipsblog

    You are spot on. I don’t like ego-tripping whether it’s by characters, improv musicians, or narcissistic politicians. I also love the shout out for Audrey Driscoll.

    Liked by 2 people

  • D. Wallace Peach

    I struggle with “internal monologues” when they feel like info dumps, Andrea. Someone might think – yuck, I hate cleaning toilets. But rarely do they think – yuck, I hate cleaning toilets in this old house that I bought with my boyfriend last year. Lol. That said, I think those small interjections would distract me too. Internal monologue is hard to do seamlessly (thus I usually avoid them in my own writing).

    It also sounds like the author used lots of “telling” filter words – “felt, did, spotted (saw)” which create distance. Those are problematic regardless of first or third person. They raise red flags for me if there are a lot of them. I don’t mind first person at all, and I do like the closeness to the character. But the “show don’t tell” rules of writing still apply! Great post.

    Liked by 3 people

  • MELewis

    I enjoyed this post too, Meeks, especially as I’ve been struggling with related issues in my own writing — and reading. My WIP involves a close 3rd person POV with quite a bit of internal dialogue. It’s interesting to read your perspective on that, which makes me feel like I need to be sparing with it. The other point that resonates is your review of another writer’s work. I was thinking a lot about this yesterday as, slogging my way through a book that had come highly recommended by another blogger but just feels badly written to me, I thought about posting a critical review, then backtracked. Although I’m not a published author (yet, hopefully!) I know these things can come back to haunt you. Then I wondered: can writers really publish objective reviews of other writers’ work? A google search led me to an interesting debate on the topic. It seems the general consensus among writers is that you have to stay positive, and remain silent if you really have nothing nice to say. Which is ironic, as aren’t writers the best critics? We understand what makes stories work, and also not work. In this case the shifting point of view, heavy-handed use of literary devices and language, was driving me bonkers. If I cared enough about the book or its author I suppose I could contrive a middling review with a few hints at what was wrong, but it feels like too much work for what it would bring. Interestingly, though, reading other writers’ mistakes can be highly educational. Anyway, a long ramble to say thanks for this interesting post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • acflory

      I’ve always been in the ‘say something nice or don’t say anything at all’ camp, but this story was so close to being really good, I just had to say something. I know he won’t see it that way, but at least I hope he recognizes that I was trying to be constructive. Plus the poor guy didn’t have any reviews at all so I hoped a heartfelt 3 would be better than nothing.
      There is no right or wrong way of writing a story, Mel. If your story /requires/ lots of internal monologue then use it. It’s a very powerful tool. My only advice would be not to…trivialise it as my 3 star author did. Carrying the reader along is the whole purpose of story. So long as the reader is immersed and happy, everything else is extraneous. And there I go spouting process again. This time though, it comes from Reader-me. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 2 people

      • MELewis

        You are so right! Carrying the reader along is what it’s all about. Thanks for your insight! πŸ™

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yorgos KC

        Yeap! I’m also fond of the “either say something positive, or remain silent” way. That – just to be clear – doesn’t mean flatter, or lie. My main reason for this is the belief that something I hate another might love.

        Now! That being said, what you did is, on its own, was a good thing. You thought this would be a great book and you offered an advice.

        Fact is, that, it might not be the most pleasant thing for the author, but:
        a) A review is more helpful than a no-review. And yours isn’t a bad one.
        b) If they agree with you, it will be easier for them to spot the problem in their writing and avoid it in their future books. Hence, their writing will become better, or,
        c) If they think that’s exactly what they want in their writing they’ll be happy they managed it, even if you didn’t like it. [Not for internal dialogue, but I have received a negative critic about something I didn’t include in a story and I was so very happy I failed to satisfy that person, whom I know personally and have a good relationship with, by the way.]

        Now, as about the how close is to close question, that’s subject to opinion, I think, and there isn’t a right, or wrong answer. Depends on how the author uses it, whether it’s a firs person, or a third person narration. A significant amount of my word count is quite often this kind of thing and, in my not so humble opinion (because I needed to copy your expression πŸ˜‡), I don’t bore the readers. So, yeap! Personally, I love it.

        Nonetheless, I’ve read books where it becomes boring, even for me. D. Wallace Peach gave a good example, and a valid point on the second paragraph of the message. The example you gave, alone, wouldn’t be boring, but, indeed, shows the use of lengthy and detailed explanations which, if it’s an often occurrence is a bad thing, for my tastes.

        So, in short, you are not difficult, you are the sweet you, and you did a good thing! πŸ˜˜πŸ’–πŸ˜

        Liked by 1 person

        • acflory

          You’re absolutely right, Yorgos, and Marian said something similar – we all like different things and respond positively or negatively to different things. A lot of people say, “don’t use adverbs” but every now and then I think they are absolutely fine. To me, adverbs become a problem when every sentence contains one [or more]. Seriously, I once read a story that was so full of words ending in ‘ly’ I couldn’t get past the first page. 😦
          Then there’s the passive voice. According to modern writers, it’s a no-no, but I grew up reading classical literature, so I think the passive voice has a place as well.
          Imho…-big grin-…technical devices are like salt and pepper, or perhaps chilli flakes – a little enhances the flavour, too much kills it. πŸ˜€

          Liked by 2 people

  • ChrisJamesAuthor

    Really good post, you should do more posts describing your writing process if you feel us, your readers, might enjoy them (clue: we would :))
    I agree that internal monologing – like so many fiction shortcuts – needs to be used sparingly, and your examples are great. My pet peeve is overuse of the exclamation mark (!!!) – more than one every 30 pages and I am totally out of the story πŸ™‚
    When I’m a bit stuck to convey a feeling in my own writing, I find myself having my characters actually mutter out loud to themselves, because it’s something I think a lot of people do in real life when alone (I talk to myself all the flippin’ time), and it can give an opportunity for a little light relief in a stressful situation.
    Keep up the great work and stay safe! (!!!) πŸ™‚

    Liked by 3 people

    • acflory

      LMAO! I’m an exclamation mark tragic. See what I did there? lol I do kill a lot of them before the final polish…them and the word ‘just’. It’s like there’s tap in my head and it spews those two things the instant I look away. :/
      And yes, the odd mutter is good, esp. if it gets the character odd looks from passersby. πŸ˜€ I like mine to ‘fiddle’ with things, especially if there’s some kind of visual connection between the emotion and the object – e.g. a knife and anger. But again, do that too often and readers catch on.
      -looks angelic- moderation in all things, m’dear.

      Liked by 2 people

  • anne54

    I am not sure I have really thought about this before. I suppose I get irked by the sloppiness of the writing, rather than thinking about why I was annoyed with it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • acflory

      You and Chris have hit the nail on the head. Chris called them ‘fiction shortcuts’ and your sloppy fits right in with that. It’s a kind of…laziness? Most of us can put up with less than perfection if the story grips us strongly enough, but if it doesn’t…:/

      Liked by 1 person

  • Audrey Driscoll

    I agree–internal monologue is one of those things that’s best used sparingly, like a spice.
    And when you mentioned first person POV, I thought gulp–I love first person, but thanks for saying I do it well!

    Liked by 2 people

  • Jacqui Murray

    I hadn’t thought about internal monologue that much. I read your post with great interest and find I agree. “whiny and self-obsessed,”–yes, too much of those internal thoughts would seem whiny. I don’t use it much, nor have I read many stories that use it a lot. Maybe that tells me something!

    Liked by 2 people

    • acflory

      lol – hi Jacqui. You’ve probably read/written close 3rd using all the other techniques available to us. When they’re all working together we don’t even notice they’re there. It’s just us and the story, the way it should be.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Gradmama2011

    A similar thing happened to me recently. I read a true crime fiction story which the author’s sister (a friend of mine) had asked me to read. At first I felt positive about the novel, which kept a decent pace and some measure of suspense.

    The main character prepared bacon and eggs for her boyfriend one morning…ok, the detail added a bit of color to the end of a chapter. Then on another morning the woman fixed french toast and sausage, which her guy consumed with satisfaction. But then when the waffles and blueberries made their way to the end of Chapter Four, it started to be annoying….and by the middle of the book I really didn’t give a flying fig about the menu—or the novel.

    Unfortunately, the original relatively clever menu update became hackneyed and then annoying; and in effect ruined my enjoyment of the book.

    Liked by 2 people

    • acflory

      lmao! I’m a foodie but even I would find that incredibly irritating. As soon as something becomes a gimmick, it loses both its appeal and its effectiveness. I feel for you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Gradmama2011

        My question? Should I have said to the author “hey, I found your book very interesting, but the repetitive breakfast report was so annoying that it ruined it for me?” That would hurt the author’s feelings, but would it also be doing her a favor? I would be horrified, and in my inherent weirdness would be haunted forever as a writer. 😒 But still…

        Liked by 2 people

        • acflory

          Moot point. When I published Miira, I received a 1 star review complaining about how the reader couldn’t find the story and that it was boring. He only read the first 6%.
          I was shocked yes. Then I was angry. Then I shrugged it off as a difference in style and expectations, but eventually I re-read the first chapter, multiple times and decided that yes, there was a little self indulgence in there, a little bit of me trying to be ‘arty’. So I cut a few things. Most people probably wouldn’t notice, but I now think it’s a better opening scene because of that criticism.
          If the 3 star story had been poorly written all the way through, I would not have reviewed it at all.

          Liked by 2 people

      • Gradmama2011

        I could turn stepping on an ant into a hand-wringing moral dilemma. πŸ˜‰

        Liked by 3 people

  • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    I don’t even have to say anything – you like it the way I like it. The actual internal thoughts need to be limited sharply – you don’t want stream of consciousness ever time you go inside a character’s head.

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      Exactly! And thanks for pointing out that it /is/ stream of consciousness. Never liked it when James Joyce used it, and still don’t like it. Self-indulgent springs to mind. :/

      Like

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

        It’s alienating if you don’t think that way, and I don’t.

        Self-indulgent would be my description, too. Not willing to make coherent sentenced – leave that to the reader?

        As a reader, I’m not interested.

        Liked by 1 person

        • acflory

          Yes, every time I’d start to get into the scene, there’d be this dratted observation, sotto voce. And the truly sad thing is that so much else in the story was excellent – well written, strong world building, history, politics, tech that mostly seemed plausible. And then the ticks…the ticks…the ticks….

          Like

          • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

            Well, obviously that writer writes in a way you can’t read. So that’s that, because the author isn’t going to change something they like, and you don’t want to change. There are plenty of other books in the sea if you aren’t willing to change for these.

            I had a similar problem with All The Pretty Horses. The author, Cormac McCarthy, has decided he doesn’t like quotation marks – or indeed ANYTHING – to mark dialogue. Yup. Pages and pages and pages of blocks of text with no breaks.

            The only reason I finished it by skimming through most of it, and stopping when I saw something interesting, is that it included the Mexican Revolutionary War as background, and, having grown up in Mexico, I wanted to see what he had to say.

            Really not worth it to me – and I won’t read anything else by him. Have some mercy on the reader! If he was too lazy, the editors should have – but they didn’t.

            I guess he has enough readers without me.

            Liked by 1 person

          • acflory

            I’ve never read anything by Cormac McCarthy, but I suspect I would hate that particular ‘style’ too. Does he write like that all the time?

            I guess how you write is as much about who you are as what you write. Sounds as if McCarthy was on a bit of an ego trip. Did he get away with it because he was already famous?
            I’ve no idea, but someone once said that the author should stop butting in and trying to be one of the characters…or words to that effect. πŸ˜€

            Like

          • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

            He’s famous and award-winning. They’ve made movies of his books. I don’t care – one was enough for me. It’s a statement, because an editor could have taken care of the mechanics.

            Liked by 1 person

          • acflory

            Yes, a statement, definitely. I suppose once a writer gets to be famous he/she can insist on doing things their way. Having said that, I suddenly realised that Indies do precisely that as well; we take creative control of our work, but we also tend to run it past beta readers before hitting the publish button. lol Does that make us more humble?

            Like

          • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

            I have not idea of his history; just of that book, and that he has written The Road, a post-apocalyptic novel that was supposed to be good. I could go look…

            Like

          • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

            We indies are conscious of trying to follow standards (those of us who want to sell), because we have the stigma of the self-published unwashed tribe already, and don’t want to give readers more reasons to not try us.

            Liked by 1 person

          • acflory

            You’re right, there is that stigma to overcome, but…I’ve noticed that the writers I enjoy reading the most are all of a, shall we say, certain vintage?
            We’re all perfectionists, and we’ve spent a lifetime caring about spelling and punctuation and grammar. I sometimes worry that we may be the last.

            Like

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