Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Question on Introspection

I have one really big question that I just can’t seem to get a good straight answer to. And maybe, it’s because I’m not really getting any straight answers. Hopefully, I’m not listening at a slant.

But seriously, I am having trouble with character “introspection”. I keep running into different camps of thought on this matter. #1 camp says adding a character’s thoughts is great. Reveals more about the character. Do it. #2 Camp says that introspection runs into the realm of telling vs. showing and telling is a no-no. Writing should be active. Find another way to reveal the character.

What am I missing?

This is a great question and I think you will find that the answer is pretty straight forward here.

You note that in the first camp, introspection really gives the reader a lot of information about the characters. This is SO TRUE! We want to know what is going on in the characters head. What are their thoughts, really, about the other characters or the action in the story. Remember that what they say might not be what they are thinking.

But here is the twist that gets a bit confusing. You comment that introspection runs into the realm of telling vs. showing and that writing needs to be active. We certainly don't want a story where you are just telling the reader what is happening in the story. Along the same lines, we don't want to read a story where there is nothing going on. This is not so much an issue of the inclusion of elimination of introspection, it is a matter of how you write the story.

Consider these two passages:

Antonio stared at the carnage of the car accident before him and was immediately transported to the accidents he had seen when he was Iraq. He had experienced so much with all of those road side bombs and the killing and this was just one more example of that same violence.


Antonio stared at the carnage of the car accident before him. How dare some drunk driver take it upon himself to ruin the lives of poor innocent families like this one. This was beyond a rational behavior of any human being and in reality, there was nothing different between this behavior and that same carnage he had seen in Iraq.

O.K. Now, don't go jumping all over the writing here. It's early. But, I think this might demonstrate the difference between introspection and just more narration. The first is that element of telling vs. showing. In this paragraph, the author is simply having the character narrate a scene. In the second, we are hearing the thoughts and feelings of the author.

Where I think a lot of writers screw up is how they use the moments when the character is "thinking" for just more narration. Return again to the definition of introspection: "a reflective looking inward : an examination of one's own thoughts and feelings" What you will notice here is that it deals with those internal thoughts and feelings. This doesn't say more narration.

Hope that provides some insight for you. Introspection is simply getting into our characters heads.


  1. I'm gonna jump all over the writing. If that was an example of 'early', late must be more than magnificent. I get what you've done - it looks Introspection is 1st person in 3rd person - is that even a thing? I'm so new to writing.

  2. Thank-you so much for this answer. And thank-you for the two examples. They really helped a lot! (Actually, they opened up a whole new world for me.)

    It was hard to get "it", at first, but after I studied your examples, I see the difference. Introspection is as if the character is speaking aloud, but they are not. It is active thinking; written like conversation but without the quotation marks. (Yes, and when I do algebra I have to list all of the steps or I don't get it.)

    Both of your examples did reveal more about Antonio, but that little bit of silent speaking in example #2 made Antonio seem to come alive, as if he is a real person.

    Now that I understand the difference, back to Chapter 1...for the 187th time. I am going to get this manuscript right no matter what.

    Again, thanks for this series and I do so appreciated the straight answer.

    1. Thank you Katie, I think a bit more abstract - your algebra brain describes what I wanted to know perfectly. .