Thinking in your brain: How internalization helps build character


My brother is a fountain of good advice. He’s also insanely quotable. He has been since he was a child. He just has a way of phrasing things that are interesting—and oftentimes catchy. Of course, sometimes they make absolutely no sense, but I’m sure there’s some depth there that’s simply out of the mental grasp of mere mortals. 😉

But one of the things he used to say came to mind as I was editing a novel last night. He used to say: “I’m thinking in my brain.” I’m sure he meant that he was thinking about something, but that’s how he used to describe it when he was a little kid.

Well, that statement came to mind last night. I was working on my novel about Guatemala (The Mountain Requires Blood), and I came to a chapter that I thought I had done a pretty good job on. And as I was reading through it, I realized what it was lacking: Internalization.

What is internalization?

By Darkness Hid by Jill Williamson

By Darkness Hid by Jill Williamson

Well, it’s a fancy way to describe a character’s thought process. Here is a good example of what it looks like in practice:

          Sir Gavin stroked his mustache. “What is your day of birth?”
          Achan shrugged and moved his waster from middle guard to low guard and back. “No one knows for certain, so Poril always celebrates it on the first of spring. This is my sixteenth.”
           “Well, I should like to give you something as well. A day of birth is one thing, but you are a man now. And I feel you deserve a man’s weapon. As soon as you finished your squire training, I shall give you a real sword.”
           Achan’s lips parted. “Sir? Truly?”
           “Aye. Truly.”
           Achan stared at the old knight, dumbstruck at the mere idea of owning his own blade. “Wait. Am I really that close to becoming a knight? I thought—”
           “You’re close enough to be publicly declared my squire. And, in case you didn’t notice, most squires have a real sword.”
           Achan had noticed, but he also knew his situation was far from normal. He still couldn’t fathom why Sir Gavin needed him as a squire. He wasn’t doing squire’s work, after all. He’d done nothing but learn from the knight since he’d been recruited. Not that he was complaining.

Excerpt from By Darkness Hid, Blood of Kings Trilogy Part 1, Jill Williamson

This is a scene from By Darkness Hid, an awesome book I read recently. The whole trilogy is amazing, and I had it handy so that’s why I’m using it as an example. Plus, the main character, Achan, has such a strong voice, he’s an easy example of internalization.

This bit has a lot of dialog between Achan and his teacher, Sir Gavin. But the part that I want to point out is the last paragraph:

          Achan had noticed, but he also knew his situation was far from normal. He still couldn’t fathom why Sir Gavin needed him as a squire. He wasn’t doing squire’s work, after all. He’d done nothing but learn from the knight since he’d been recruited. Not that he was complaining.

This is an example of internalization. Achan could have very easily said this out loud. Or the writer could have explained it. But instead, the writer chose to use Achan’s voice to explain the situation. We’re in Achan’s perspective, so this is easily done—just explaining the situation through Achan’s eyes without it being something he’s saying out loud or referenced as something he’s thinking.

That’s internalization. It’s a character’s thoughts as narrative content. What does this do for us?

Well, it helps us understand that Achan is indeed the main character. We know for sure that we’re in his perspective. It’s his story we’re reading, and this helps solidify it.

Secondly, it helps build your character’s voice. Part of the strength of By Darkness Hid (as well as its sequels To Darkness Fled and From Darkness Won) is the strength of the characters’ voices. The two main characters, Achan and Vrell, are strong and unique and powerful, and we get to experience the story through their eyes because there is a great deal of internalization that goes on.

What happens if you don’t use internalization?

Honestly? I think your story will be boring. You can try to fill a novel with quotes, but people want action. You can fill a novel with action, but people will miss quotes. Internalization is the bridge between action and character.

I spent fifteen minutes berating myself last night because my main character had fallen into a routine of simple action and statement. Jamie went here. He did this, and then he did that. He said this, and then he said that. But what was he thinking? What is his perspective inside? That needs to be communicated.

This is an excerpt of what I wrote in my first draft of The Mountain Requires Blood:

          I stare at the Temple of the Jaguar and pass over the Temple of the Mask, and I stop on the last temple, the one Sarah hasn’t identified yet.
          “And what about that one?” I pointed to the other temple.
           Sarah scowled. “That one I don’t remember. But you can climb it if you want.” She indicated the stairwell and ladders going up the side.
           It looked very steep.
           Jake was surrounded by the people from Santa Rita. They were all asking questions, and it looked like Jake was asking questions too—probably about the Q’eqchi ritual in progress at the center of the park. Sarah was having a conversation with one of the women—Claudia I think it was.
           I didn’t feel like tagging along with them anymore, and seeing the whole park from the top of that temple sounded like it would be amazing.
           I headed for the stairwell and started climbing.
           It was steep. It was far steeper than I was expecting and the steps didn’t feel solid, but I didn’t stop. A sudden desire to reach the top of that temple had surged through me, and there was no denying it: I was going to make it to the top. I was going to look out over the jungles of my native country and I was going to feel like a Guatemalan.

Excerpt from The Mountain Requires Blood (draft 1), A.C. Williams

 There’s some internalization going on, but not enough to satisfy me. I want to know what he’s thinking. I want to know what he’s feeling. So this is what I revised last night as I’m working through the second draft:

          I stare at the Temple of the Jaguar and pass over the Temple of the Mask, and I stop on the last temple, the one Sarah hasn’t identified yet.
           “And what about that one?” I point to the other temple.
           “I can never remember that one.” Sarah grunts under her breath. “But you can climb it if you want.” She nods the stairwell and ladders going up the side.
           It looks very steep.
           Jake is surrounded by the people from Santa Rita. They are all asking questions, and it looks like Jake is asking questions too—probably about the Q’eqchi ritual in progress at the center of the park. Sarah turns from me and starts a conversation with one of the women in our group.
          I look back to the unknown temple.
          It does look steep, but it’s nothing steeper than anything I’ve climbed at home. And what am I worried about? I rode a horse through a jungle yesterday. Climbing the stairs on the side of a temple should be a cake walk.
And I don’t feel like tagging along with Jake and Sarah’s little Sunday school group anymore. I’m sure they’re nice people, but they don’t want anything to do with me—kind of like I don’t really want anything to do with them.
           So—climbing the temple it is.
           I head for the stairs and start on my way up.
           I realize soon that I was right again. It is steep.
           It’s far steeper than I was expecting and the steps don’t feel solid, but I’m not going to stop. A sudden desire to reach the top surges through me.
           I’m going to make it to the top. I’m going to look out over the jungles of my native country, and I’m going to be Guatemalan—or Q’eqchi—or whatever I am. If I can just get to the top, maybe I’ll know for sure.

Excerpt from The Mountain Requires Blood (draft 2), A.C. Williams

Feel the difference? I could. Internalization changes everything (Plus the fact that I got my tenses straight also helps; whose bright idea was it to write a book in first person present tense? Geez.). My main character doesn’t have to say those things. I could just as easily have used my own voice to describe what was going on in his head, but isn’t it more effective to let him do it? It’s his story after all.

So the next time you’re reading through the draft of your novel, ask yourself what’s missing. If it feels slow or long or dull, try internalizing. Let your main character tell the story. Your main characters think in their brains all the time, just like the rest of us do. Shine some light on what’s going on in their heads, and I’m willing to bet it will make a world of difference in your story.

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