In Your Character’s Mind

For authors, the practice of delving into the thoughts, feelings, and processes of our characters is extremely important. The depth of this process for each character is dictated by the level of focus a story maintains on the particular character. NPC-types don’t need much, if any, exploration into the internal except for a lark. Protagonists and antagonists need the most as they are, by chosen role, the central focus of the story.

Lists, no matter how long, of traits and stats won’t lead a writer to fully understand a character. You know the kind (birth date, eye color, what are their hobbies, quirks, etc.). This sort of information only gives external views on the character in what other people might notice and labels that might be given during a socio-scientific analysis.

The common “Interview Your Character” exercise mistakes external observation as understanding a character. While these lists and exercises are good at developing consistency and comparing characters to one another, it is next to useless when it comes to building character internal systems. At best, they serve as potential inspiration for subconscious application.

Developing the mind of a character is to search for meaning within them and your work. Not for the sake of checking the box next to characterization on the To-Do list, but to develop an extra dimension of understanding why the story exists and where you should wrangle it going forward in future writing.

This internal character development can inspire a writer to sense and describe narrative in a way that technical prose cannot easily accomplish on its own. Successful development offers creative suggestions for decisions characters might make upon reaching obstacles, interactions, and for dialogue. It can influence the way sentences are structured and how the world is presented to readers. A fair amount of writers allow the subconscious to do this work, taking the creation process for granted and remaining unaware of why a character operates in a certain manner.

Internal character development tends to be the moments when writers explore their inner actor. The most intense (and possibly insane) writers go full-on method with certain characters and embody their own creations specifically to further shape the clay that is the fictional character in their imagination.

It’s much more than see, hear, taste, touch, smell, etc. Such description is embodying the setting, when the author becomes a traveller and visits experiences to inform those senses. A character’s perspective is more than this paint-by-numbers instruction manual of which senses to go through (yet another checklist).

No list could ever encompass a fully fleshed out character because it isn’t the subjects shared with the reader, but the way in which they are presented with emotion and experiential perspective constructing their appearance. The understanding of not only physical/sensory surroundings, but also the intangible depths that truly define a complete experience.

It can be dangerous to sincerely research the internal depths of some characters. With especially strong characters, a writer’s actual moods can be altered in the same way that intense dreams might influence a person. This might depend on how a person interacts with dreams and the like. Personally, the impact of dreams, as well as exploring certain character minds, has effects that can last for days to weeks.

Mind and heart in contemplation, impacted by imaginary mindsets built within the individual brain during an attempt to create the illusion that this character-mind exists apart from yourself is a way to discover perspectives that might otherwise be ignored. As authors, we bring our creations into reality as much as we can through tools of manifestation. It’s important to do this with gratitude for the ability and with a mature attitude towards the responsibility of the task – for the sake of readers, characters, and for your own sake.

Neat and good protagonists usually aren’t tough to develop in this manner unless they have certain past developments that require unsettling thoughts. Same goes for run-of-the-mill side characters since they aren’t included in the narrative for long.

But exploring villain minds can be taxing. The more evil of the lot can derail writers.

Villains went through a popular wave in the last decade with a lot of industry types and fans wanting to talk about them, analyze them, define exactly what they are while at the same time leaving ambiguity for the concept to include archetypes that aren’t sincerely villains (simply antagonists).

I define villain by their evil, antagonist or not. A villain can fill any role or archetype in a story and evil comes in many shades, but it is still evil just as good is still good. Developing the internal mindset of pure evil is, by definition, disturbing to the sane mind.

This might be why many villains end up becoming anti-heroes or actually-good-but-got-hurt/traumatized types. It might be why so many villains seem shallow or only thought out in the sense of trait-lists and/or step-by-step background development. And it might be why some writers who, instead of avoiding this side of development, actually delve into villains seem to get lost in writing extremely dark versions of their genres, eventually glorifying evil in their worlds.

And perhaps this is also why some writers treat the good guys as simple-minded heroes. Because anything that easy to figure out in the imagination has to be simple and something hard to understand has to be the objectively complex one of the two options. But complexity in heroes doesn’t always need to be expressed through internal evil or doubt within them – essentially, creating an inner villain for the hero to struggle with (essence of darker anti-heroes). Good has as much depth as evil, but in modern-day fiction, heroes are rarely developed as much as villains or given sincere chances to gain audience’s admiration compared to how villains get the best songs, the best mood lighting, the best…. and on.

Often for many writers, the answer for why a hero is a hero is because it is in their nature to be good. Compare this to the movement towards villains being complex and imagine the response to the concept that a villain is a villain because it is simply in their nature to be evil. Neither is enough when it comes to internal development for either archetype, especially in main roles of the story. It can work for NPCs and side characters, fleeting moments of hero/villain, but if they are meant to be the central focus then development needs to extend further than that.

Writers who revel in torturing their characters and laugh about killing/hurting fictional versions of real people in their stories: They don’t know evil. They don’t know pain. Or they are suppressing acknowledgment of these things.

I’ve changed over this topic through years of writing fiction. Now when my characters experience violence, brutality, or negative emotions, I tend to feel sorrow. I rarely find joy or cheer for the actual consequence of what is happening in that world to the characters I created and placed in a spot where such things could happen to them. I feel responsibility and it is a grave matter in which the responsibility of evil, terror, and horror is placed upon myself. Part of that means, given enough time, I am driven to describe these experiences properly and not glibly.

To explore the minds of characters who are evil can be necessary and depending on the character, it can be intoxicating. Instead of avoiding this or suppressing it through making humor (or hysteria) out of a sincerely impactful experience of evil, being aware and maintaining safety protocols helps manage any side-effects that might arise while writing. This can go for other traits in characters as well for minds are messy things that develop in strange ways, but the evil-mind is a distinct example of what I mean. The individual writer has to decide where they are at and where they can go with internal development of their characters. Perhaps it’s not for everyone.

While I don’t usually save my characters from these negative events or soften a world to ease their troubles, I empathize with what they are experiencing. I also consider the impact it might have on potential readers. To do this provides depth to the creative decisions I make in my writing and while it isn’t always gratifying in the short-term, it is highly rewarding as a creator.