Mind Reading

To all you laboring on your NaNoWriMo novel: Happy writing! May words pour out of you like water over Niagara Falls! May ideas crop up like dandelions in July! And if you have questions, think of this blog.

This question came into the website in September from Rebekah: I recently reread Writing Magic and the section on POV to see how I could make it work with my own story, but I didn’t find anything. 
My story is in 3rd person, but I wanted to try it in 1st person. I really love being in my MC’s head, but it’s also hard because then I can’t let the reader know what some of the other characters are thinking as well, and that makes it really hard on me. Do you have any suggestions for me on a way to compromise?

Athira Abraham responded with this: If your story is fantasy, maybe she has magical powers of reading people’s mind. Or she might have an object that helps her, like Gail’s magic book or spyglass.

And Eliza added:
1. Have more than one protagonist.
2. Don’t let the other characters take over as protagonists, but let them speak for little snippets. I’ve read some books that switch over to other characters at the beginning of chapters, usually in italics.

These are great ideas. I invented the magic book in Ella Enchanted so that Ella, who’s the first-person POV MC, can have an idea of what’s going on with other characters when she isn’t present. She can’t hear thoughts, but she gets a hint of the action. But you could invent a device that can receive thoughts, or you can make your MC telepathic, as Athira Abraham suggests. Or you can alternate among a few first person POV characters, changing perspective from chapter to chapter or between  sections within chapters, which should be clearly marked because we want the reader to always know whose head he’s in.

Along the lines of Eliza’s second suggestion, I’ve seen bits (clearly marked) of diabolical narration from the POV of the villain in a Terry Pratchett novel or two, and, in my opinion, whatever Pratchett does is worth imitating.

When we write in first person, we lose direct access to the feelings of other characters, in addition to their thoughts, so whatever we come up with to bridge the gap can include feelings (the racing heart, the churning stomach, the tension headache).

Telepathy, magic spyglasses, and magic books are possibilities. What else is there?

Let’s imagine that Julie, the best friend of our MC Marcy, has been unusually quiet lately, hasn’t wanted to hang out. She’s dropped out of the chorus at school. A planned sleepover happens, but Julie is too uncommunicative for it to be fun. Marcy is worried about her friend and also about their friendship. What can she do?

Of course what she does depends on her personality, but let’s think about what she might do:

• She can ask Julie and may find out what her friend is thinking and feeling through dialogue.

• She can get angry and possibly learn the information through an argument, again dialogue. Or she may not succeed, but she’ll know her friend is mad at her, at least for that moment.

• She can ask other people what’s going on and possibly find out that way.

• She can think about Julie, remember when the strange behavior started, consider everything she knows about her friend, and maybe arrive at the answer.

• She can snoop,  read Julie’s journal. If she has real snooping skills, she can bug Julie’s phone and conceal a camera in Julie’s room. Or, if she’s wealthy, she can hire a detective.

• With our authorial power, we can show the reader Julie’s journal so that he knows but Marcy doesn’t.

You may think of other ways. You’ll find a masterful example of one character discovering what’s going on with another in the young adult novel The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg.

We’re all the first-person MC of the story of our lives, and we’re probably not mind-readers, but in order to get along with other people, to have friends, to be decent students and family members – to do many things – we have to make assumptions, and sometimes we know with a high degree of certainty what other people are thinking and feeling. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to make others feel good or to push their buttons not in a good way. We do it by some of the methods I suggested above, by knowing our friends and family over time, by understanding ourselves and figuring that others are at least somewhat like us.

When I wrote the beginning of this post I was on the train on my way to New York City. A man across the aisle behind me talked loudly on his cell phone in a thick voice. I looked back, nosy writer that I am, to get a fix on him, and, instantly, he snapped, “Mind your own business.”

It didn’t take mind reading to know he felt angry. My guess is that this guy is always on the edge of anger and almost anything can push him over. It’s also possible that he felt guilty for being so loud – although that didn’t stop him from taking three more calls and it didn’t make him lower his voice. Guilt can make people angry; you may have noticed this.

As for me, I was a little scared, which he probably knew, because I’d imagine he wanted to intimidate me. Total strangers and we knew each other’s feelings! And only one sentence passed between us. Fortunately, he got off the train soon – which I knew he would, because he announced his stop on the phone.

In the example above, Marcy knows Julie isn’t happy, because people signal their feelings, smile, frown, stamp, cross their arms. The clues are legion. What we lose by writing in first person is the texture of others’ thoughts and feelings, the insider perspective, and I sympathize, because I love that, too. If a first person single POV best suits our story, that’s what we should use, but there’s nothing to stop us from writing a scene in third person in our notes, or from a different first-person POV, also in notes. We’ll have the pleasure of doing it, and we may learn something that we can work into our first-person narrative. Nobody ever called writing efficient!

Here are three prompts:

• From Marcy’s first-person POV, write the story of Marcy and Julie, and have Marcy try a bunch of methods to find out what’s going on with her friend. Surprise the reader with the answer.

• Marcy is the friend everyone goes to when they’re unhappy. She’s keeping more secrets than she has fingers and toes combined. But two secrets don’t add up. Someone is lying. Have Marcy delve into the thought and feeling life of her friends to find out what’s really going on.

• In the myth, “Pygmalion and Galatea,” Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he creates. The goddess Venus takes pity on him and brings her to life. Write from Galatea’s POV the scene when she wakes up . She used to be marble; she has no past. What does she think and feel? What does she make of Pygmalion? How does she figure out what he’s thinking and feeling when she has no experience to guide her?

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Dear Mrs. Levine,
    I don't know if you'll receive this, but I was wondering if you would consider Skyping with the English class I'm in. We are in a program called Quest, a gifted and talented group. My teacher, Mr. McCallum, had us chose ways to earn points, and last quarter a couple of my friends and I read The Two Princesses of Bamarre. Our teacher read the book with us and complained about it until she goes on the journey. From that point on he loved it. This quarter, I can earn points by contacting an author and scheduling a time slot in which to Skype with them. I'm very sorry to have taken up your time! Don't feel pressured to respond to this comment, I was just putting it out there. If you wish to contact me, please e-mail me at mlowel18@bhmschools.org.

    Nice post, and I liked the ideas within it. Thanks, and have a nice day!

    Megan Lowell

  2. Hello
    I love reading all your posts. Thank you for writing this one. I do have a question. Why do you think fairytales are such admirable stories and what qualities do you think make them so timeless? I have read most of your books and a bunch of them have a fairytale twist. Ella Enchanted i would have to say is my favourite. I first read the book when i was 11 years old, 7 years later (and countless amount of times going through the book) I still have myself eagerly reading through the pages. No matter how many times i read the book it never gets old.

    • I think that they display all of the human traits that we can sympathize with, and they are simple stories. Easy to understand. But they also provide endless opportunities to embellish themselves. But that's just my opinion, I'm sure that there are other, better reasons that they are so timeless.

  3. I was wondering if anyone knows how to make evil beautiful. I don't mean the making the villains physically beautiful, that's relatively easy. I mean the act of evil itself. For example, in the phantom of the opera, the phantom calls light "cold, unfeeling" and "garish", while he calls darkness and evil "sweet intoxication." Is this simply his mad opinion, or could you write something like that? I plan to read the book soon which will hopefully give me some ideas, but does anyone have any advice? Also, how difficult is it to write a protagonist as a villain?

    • I would say, pretty difficult. I mean, we all want to root for the protag, but can we if they're evil?

      I think that good examples of this on tv are Breaking Bad and definitely Dexter. Don't' watch those shows if you're squeamish. But in general, if the evil is backed by some good, even if it is crazy, purpose , then we might be able to relate. Like when we had to read Mein Kampf by Hitler, he kept stating his mission over and over again. It's a good read, there were some things in there that you wouldn't have expected of him.

      I digress, however, if you were to write a story like that, it would definitely need to be in first person. Otherwise, the character wouldn't come across as well as he could have.

    • I am working with something similar to this, but not exactly the same. My MC is supposed to seem good, while in reality, he is the villain. The reader is not supposed to know this until the end though. I have to work it so that it isn't unrealistic for him to turn out to be the villain. So I make him a little bit good with underlying nastiness. My MC is a detective. At one point, and amateur detective wipes away crucial evidence (That the MC had faked to frame someone) and the MC throws a huge fit ad calls the amateur all sorts of nasty things and threatens to have him fired. Later on he cools off and apologizes and offers to help him get a high up job and teach the amateur the tricks of the trade. He's evil, but he can appear to be nice, while all the while, he really has his own agenda–framing an old enemy of his and having the amateur figure out the phony case, thus getting the amateur a job, but at the same time, hiding his own crimes and hurting innocent people.

    • I'm not sure if you can make evil TRULY beautiful. I think you can make it understandable, or beautiful from the perspective of the evil character. But at some point in the story, the readers will begin to see the evil for what it really is.

  4. This came into the website:

    I am about halfway through the book I am writing, and I am thinking about starting to have people read it and tell me what they think. In your opinion, do friends make good first-time readers? And if not, who do you recommend?

    Thoughts, anyone?

    • I think that as long as you have friends that you know will be totally honest about what they think, they make great first-time readers. For your very first reader, I would recommend finding a friend that will tell you everything that they don't like (not sugar coating at all), who will also tell you the things they do like. I have one friend who I let read my creative writing, and she's great at this. She points out anything that doesn't make sense or that she doesn't like, but then she tells me her favorite parts too.

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