Turnabout is fair play, right? Recently, I was reading for my CP, and I was starting to sound like a really annoying broken record that you kind of want to throw out the window. “Introspection!” I kept yelling, “We need more introspection!” The character wasn’t meant to be liked, but I also didn’t care about him, and there’s a big difference between the two. “Think about myth!Loki,” I said, “He’s the Worst, but we still like him because we’ve been given enough background that we feel bad for him. We understand why he’s doing what he’s doing.” I literally would not stop, even when we got on our video call, I was like, “Introspection is the thing that makes the world go round!”
Hilariously, when I turned to my own work later that week, my other CP had left me several comments that, boiled down to its core, was–you guessed it–introspection!
the examination or observation of one’s own mental and emotional processes
It’s a mighty important thing, folks. And, because we already talked about him, I’m going to bring Loki back. And no, before we get any further, I am not talking about the Marvel Loki because the way the fanbase has become, y’all make me not want to like him, so we’re taking it wayyyyyy back.
One of my favorite Loki stories is perhaps one of the most well-known, probably in part because of its absolute and pure viciousness. Loki is an asshole, through and through, and he’s literally titled a trickster, so I’m not really sure why the Norse gods were always so up in arms about him. That’s his entire purpose, guys. He gets his jollies of by annoying you, so like? Maybe don’t give him so much rope? Anywho, Loki likes to get into shit, mess everything up, and then sheepishly shrug away. Sometimes, he goes a bit too far, and the other gods get rough with him, but my favorite is when they decide enough is enough and they chain him up in a damp, drafty cave. Not only that, they string his arms up above him, position him perfectly beneath something that’s dripping, and then, the real cherry on top, guess what! The thing that’s dripping is poisonous! He can’t reach the thing, even with his arms above him, because it’s still too far away, but close enough that it’s tantalizing. He can’t escape the chains, and if the poison strikes him, well. It’s poison. That won’t be fun. But Loki’s sneaky, so he decides he’s going to swallow the poison, drop by drop. Because imbibing poison that slowly is the way some people do to acclimate their body to it, so why not give that a whirl?
Instead, his wife shows up, and, for all eternity or some bullshit, she hovers in front of him, a bowl upheld to collect the poison, and the only time he ever is injured by the poison is when she has to empty the bowl. It’s pretty clever, honestly, and for the guy who’s always the one doing the clever things, I hope Loki truly appreciates the pickle he’s in.
But do you know what else happens during this story? Everyone feels bad for him. Eventually, he gets released, and even though he gets up to more Loki nonsense, they still release him because he’s their friend or their family, and they care about him. The reader, too, cares about him, and if Marvel’s adaptation of this Norse god is any indication, we like a bad guy when they’re written with enough introspection.
I’m a huge James Bond fan, so I’m going to swing quickly in that direction. I think one of the reasons I get so bored by Quantom of Solace is that LeFou is a pretty flat character. (I’m sorry, Mads!) And maybe I’m just not remembering it well, or maybe I’m just comparing him to Silva, who was an excellent villain. LeFou doesn’t have a whole lot of motivation that I can remember, or at least motivation that I felt anything particularly strong about. And sure, there’s a heck ton of poker in Quantum that just puts me straight to sleep, and Q comes in during Skyfall, so I was bound to like that more anyway, but just think about Silva. Not only do we get this whole history of who he is and how he’s tied into the Bond saga, but we really, truly feel for him at times. He’s been hurt, and though he maybe deserves what’s coming to him now, he didn’t deserve that hurt then. He’s still a person, and to see a person broken apart is something that’s going to stick with you. Yes, I want Bond to win, and yes, I’m glad when Silva is finally taken down, but it’s not like LeFou. I gave a vague, exhausted cheer when LeFou was defeated. I mourned the loss of Silva because he was a well-developed character.
And why? I feel like I’m in front of a class of children, why am I writing like this today–introspection! We care about Silva because we know about him. With my CP, the edits that I gave her were basically, “I want to dislike this character, but right now, he’s just in the way. Make me dislike him in a way that also means I understand him.” And that, at its heart, is what introspection is about, and it’s what is going to make or break your book. If your characters are just monsters, you’re going to lose your audience pretty fast. We want monsters, but we want to feel bad about wanting them, too.
If you need a book example, look no further than Malahciasz from Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan. The dude is awful, and there is absolutely no reason why we should root for him, and yet? Do I definitely want him to come out okay at the end? A little? Don’t judge me? Or, honestly, do, because Malachiasz is about as monstrous as it gets. But Duncan has written him in a way where I kind of want him to win, and even if he doesn’t, I understand why he’s doing what he’s doing because she’s taken the time to really dig into the why and explain it to us.
The introspection edits I got recently were mostly, “This character is just reacting to this scene. What’s going on in their head? How do they feel about what’s happening?” Because, at the end of the day, it’s not only about your villains. Yes, I want to feel for your villain, and I want him not to just be flat ahhhh murder the world for no reason. I mean, heck, even Invader Zim has more introspection than that. Your MCs, though–and your side characters, and your pantheon of gods & goddesses, and even your damn animals–they all need to have some level of introspection. I recently read The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman, and while I greatly enjoyed it, I had some issues two of the characters–May & Justin. Violet, Isaac, & Harper were phenomenal, and I was lowkey really impressed with how well Herman carried their arc, both individually and together, but it was like she put all of her power into beefing them up as characters and then was just like AND HAWTHORNES BAM. There are reasons presented for why they do the things they do, why they are the way they are, buttttttt they were pretty thin, they were often forgotten, and they didn’t change all that much as people throughout the duology. Isaac, who’s angry and volatile in the beginning, doesn’t necessarily let go of that anger, but he starts to put it to different use as he pieces together more and more of both his past and himself. Justin, however, was attacked by the forest, and thus became a sort of pariah after he martyred himself by revealing he’d been lying for years on end, and that’s just–catch me with the next one, no thanks. May, too, had a lot of similar characteristics, and a large part of why they fell so flat was because we so rarely got to understand what was happening inside their heads.
I feel like I’ve got to pull back a bit because I’m making it sound like if you don’t utilize a limited POV, then you’re screwed. Tell me, right now, to my face, that you don’t 100% understand Aragorn’s motivations. And it’s not even because he states them outright all the time, though he does occasionally do that. The actions that he takes, and the way he reacts to things–these give us his introspection while in an omniscient POV. So no, you’re not screwed if you’re not directly inside your characters’ heads, and you’re also not exempt from introspection. There are so many countless ways to show your reader what’s going on with someone.
Did I just show, don’t tell you? YES IT’S GOOD ADVICE.
Now, is introspection easy? Nah, bro, it’s probably one of the hardest things you’re going to employ in your book. You can dress a character up like a badass, give them a sword, and have them fight a war, and I’m still not going to care about them if I don’t know why. One of my favorite characters in the last year was Elisabeth from Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson because she had all those trappings, and I was so ready to love her, and then Rogerson just gave us so much understanding and growth and introspection, and I’ll never forget that book. Elisabeth was an incredible character because Rogerson took the time to tell us why she was incredible.
I can so take myself back to the first Saintsverse book. I was so excited about this new idea that I just ran away with it, and when I took a second to step back and look at the last 50k words I’d written, it was to find that there was almost no emotion in it. And I knew that I was doing that, but introspection is hard, so I just powered through the action because it was fun. Not more fun because, honestly, emotions are just about one of my favorite things to write, but action is so much more engaging at times that it’s easier to fall into it. And I can so remember realizing that I had to go back and thread a heck ton of introspection through each of the characters, which is not as simple as it sounds because it changes them as people, and adding that kind of work is harder than adding anything else.
This kind of ran away from me, as a #marywrites post, because I feel like I didn’t really talk about how to write introspection, but also, kind of did? You know what introspection is, and you know how it works, and you can see it in all of your favorite books. And there’s no single right way of how to write something, so really, all I can say is to pay attention to your characters and what’s going on in their heads.