Should You Get Inside Your Main Character’s Head?

My critique group constantly warns me about my habit of getting deep inside my main character’s head. And it’s not just my main character. I do it with all major point-of-view (POV) characters. It’s a popular technique in fiction writing, yet it’s fraught with potential problems when not done skillfully.

Why is this a potentially bad habit? Letting the reader in on the main character’s deepest thoughts violates a sacred rule in fiction: “show don’t tell.” The reader wants to find out what makes the main character tick on her own. The reader doesn’t want the author to tell her  the main character’s darkest secrets and greatest fears. Okay, I get all that, but I’ve been schooled through the years by exceptional writers who do just that. They delve into the main character’s psyche.

In a recent post on Writer Unboxed, noted editor Victoria Mixon wrote about the need to limit this type of exposition. In the comments section, I shared my dilemma with Victoria, adding that renowned authors like Michael Chabon get deep inside the main character’s head. Victoria responded with a long and insightful comment I want to share in part with readers of this blog.

“When we focus upon writing in scenes and save our exposition for certain, special lines, that throws the exposition into high relief, so it can serve its special function of a peek behind the curtains.

“However, when we ‘tell all,’ then we must have developed an enormously smooth and solid stylistic voice with which to carry the weight of all that exposition. Then the reader falls for the voice more than the story.

Those stylistic voices take years and years and years to develop properly, and they take line-editing by a professional editor like you simply would not believe… ”

“Head-hopping POV such as you described in Chabon’s novel is actually an intensely sophisticated technique. It’s so easy to lose reader investment in our protagonist(s) or, worse, confuse the reader about who the protagonist actually is when we keep switching perspective on them.

“It’s not that you can’t learn to do what Chabon does. Obviously he learned it.

“It’s that it takes a really long time and a ton of writerly dedication in order to learn the most sophisticated techniques of this craft. And it takes a knowledgeable mentor.”

I’m indebted to Victoria for her guidance on this question, but I’m still left with a dilemma. I love to read the deep third-person POV and I love to write in that style. I’ve tried consciously to limit the deep perspective by using it sparingly within the context of a scene or narrative or as a brief reaction to a line of dialogue.

The casual reader may say, ‘Who cares?’ but to me this is a crucial issue. I have to come to grips with it in my writing. I may go back, as Victoria suggests, and deconstruct scenes from my favorite writers to see how they did it–not so I can copy them, but so I can gain a greater understanding of the technique and how it’s best used.

 What about you: do you like to head-hop? Does it concern you? What do you do about it?

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Should You Get Inside Your Main Character’s Head?

  1. POV was one of the toughest aspects I wrestled with in my MS. When I first started writing, honestly, I didn’t give it much thought– you write in third or first, right? Wrong. It’s a lot more complicated and faceted than I ever realized. Great response– thanks for sharing. (It must have been one of the few articles I missed on there!)

    • Julie,
      Thanks for your comment. You are so right. It really is more complicated than it seems. I struggle with how deeply to get in the main character’s head. I’m always looking for how to do that without too much exposition. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Being inside my character’s head is my thing, but not for every head in the story. I don’t worry about it, though; if i’m having a problem, I just go read The Shining for pointers.

  3. Being a new author it seems that everything is a challenge. I’m trying to fix that by reading a number of different “how to” books along side writing my manuscript. Often I will find out that I could have done the chapter I just finished in a whole new way and gotten a better result, so it gives me inspiration to go back and do just that. Have you all found a more efficient way to improve your writing?

    • Angel,
      Thanks for your comments. Writing is a lifelong learning process. I did numerous rounds of revisions before publishing my first novel. It’s best to embrace the revision process and always seek out new craft of fiction books and advice, though only you know what works for you. Some writers like to do extensive outlining before ever beginning a first draft. I’m more of a “pantser” (seat of the pants writer). I do a brief, three or four page outline of major events in the story, then I start writing. I need to discover the story as I write. There is no right or wrong way to write. You have to find what works for you. Thanks for your comment.

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