Friday, May 23, 2014

What's Inside

By Susan

Yesterday, a friend and I spent almost an hour and a half looking at a potential new house for her family. We picked it apart. We studied its trees and yard, the construction, windows, and porches. We spent a solid half hour on the first floor, and then another half hour on the second floor.
"Did you notice how long we spent upstairs?" she asked. "Is that normal? So much time upstairs?"
Part of the reason for the time upstairs, we reasoned, was the family room and office space were there. We spent time there, because that's where—if they were to live in this particular house—she would spend her time.
As I polish and revise my manuscript, I can't help but compare yesterday's field trip to character development, because houses, in general, are great metaphors for all kinds of things: novel writing, mental health, even marriage. And yet with character development, we sometimes forget why some things are important and some are not.
Last summer, I workshopped with Mark Powell (The Dark Corner, Blood Kin, Prodigals, and the forthcoming The Sheltering) and we talked extensively about the interiority of characters. What sets your characters apart, he repeated, is their interior life. What can you, the writer, put on the page that the reader can't visibly see? How is their character revealed by the way they think and process decisions? Interiority is the key to writing better characters, and is ultimately the defining difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction. In commercial fiction, what you see is what you get. To go deeper, show the reader what the character feels, believes, and how they make decisions. Show their internal reactions before they make action. Showing the reader what's upstairs in the house of your character is more important than looking at the home's blueprint; it's taking them there for an Open House.
At the same time, Powell talked extensively about the exterior of a character. How does what they wear, how they stand, and what they drive reveal what's inside?  Can you, indeed, judge a book by its cover? In a lot of ways, painting the outside of a character is like the landscaping of the house.  Sometimes the outside shows you only what the character wants you to see, and inside, you may find a house of horrors. At other times, the outside mirrors the heart of the house, and the heart of the character.
Do your characters conform, or go against the grain? How can you show this on the surface, and how can you expand their depth by spending more time upstairs, or even hanging out in the attic? And if you want a potential buyer to make an offer, they must fall in love with the interior and exterior of the house. They need to see themselves living there.

If you want your reader to fall in love with your story, they need to see a reflection of either the parts of themselves that they love and recognize or the parts that they detest (and yet also recognize.) This is the connection that bridges the writer and the reader—the same way it connects the home seller and the potential buyer.


  1. Great post, Susan! Loved this:
    "Showing the reader what's upstairs in the house of your character is more important than looking at the home's blueprint; it's taking them there for an Open House."

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Cindy!


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