A lot of factors affect whether a reader gets drawn into a book or series or is disengaged. One of them of course is the main characters’ personalities. If there’s no-one in the story to like or at least appreciate, that’s enough for a lot of readers to send the book to the DNF pile. An interesting post by Elizabeth Spann Craig has got me thinking about one way that authors reveal their characters’ personalities: internal dialogue. When we get a look at the way a character thinks, we get a sense of what that person is like and we can decide whether or not that character interests us or not. That’s one way in which internal dialogue can be a powerful way to “show not tell.” Lots of authors focus the reader even more on internal dialogue by using the first person when they write. For readers who like novels written in the first person, internal dialogue is probably the most important way they decide whether they like the main character’s personality.
Some of Agatha Christie’s novels are written in the first person. For instance, there are several first-person stories written from the point of view of Captain Arthur Hastings. Those stories tell us quite a lot about Hastings’ character and it’s often revealed through his internal dialogue. In Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), for instance, Poirot and Hastings investigate the poisoning murder of wealthy Emily Arundell. She left behind a group of relations, all of whom are desperate for their shares of her fortune, so there are several suspects. Hastings has been raised in the English tradition of sportsmanship and a certain set of expected (and taboo) behaviours, and we see this in this novel. Here for instance is his reaction when he observes Poirot listening at a door:
“At whatever school Poirot was educated, there were clearly no unwritten rules about eavesdropping. I was horrified but powerless. I made urgent signs to Poirot, but he took no notice.”
We don’t need a detailed description of Hastings’ modest, sometimes even retiring, and always “old school tie” personality. It comes through in his internal dialogue.
Ross Macdonald chose to write his Lew Archer stories in the first person as well. Archer is a private detective who isn’t afraid of fisticuffs if that’s what a case comes to, but at the same time, he’s hardly heartless. He has deep compassion for his clients (in that way he’s reminiscent of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee) and gets involved in his cases. His clients are really people to him. Readers can see that just from his internal dialogue. In The Far Side of the Dollar for example, Archer is investigating the disappearance of seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman from the school he attended. At first it looks as though Hillman, who comes from a wealthy family, might have been kidnapped. But it’s not long before the case becomes more complex than that. As Archer discovers, it’s all related to the Hillman family, their relationships and their pasts. Here’s a bit of internal dialogue that takes place while Archer is waiting for a piece of evidence he is expecting from an old acquaintance:
“I sat in the echoing silence thinking that she [his acquaintance Susanna Drew] had been treated badly by a man or by men. It made me angry to think of it. I didn’t go out for dinner after all. I sat and nursed my anger until Susanna’s messenger arrived.”
Other internal dialogue in the Lew Archer stories shows without telling that Archer’s observant, has a good memory and notices psychology as much as he does physical appearance.
A character’s sense of humour and attitude towards life can also come through in first-person internal dialogue. That’s the way Kerry Greenwood has revealed the personality of her Melbourne accountant-turned baker sleuth Corinna Chapman. Chapman isn’t what you would call an eager sleuth but she does care about her fellow humans and often gets drawn into cases that way. For instance, in Heavenly Pleasures, she’s upset when neighbours Juliette and Vivienne Lefebvre’s chocolate shop is seemingly sabotaged by someone who fills delicate chocolate with chili. Chapman is beginning to look into this case when her lover Daniel Cohen comes back from a trip to Ballarat the worse for wear after a run-in with a polygamist. The two incidents could very well be related to a new resident in Insula, the building where Chapman lives and works. It could also be related to a missing girl and a possible case of “possession.” Chapman and Cohen work together to untangle the mystery and throughout this novel (and the others in the series) we see Chapman’s personality. For example, here’s what she thinks during an interview she has with police officer Letty White after an unknown person tries to climb into her apartment:
“‘You must have got a shock,’ she [White] said in her dry, exact voice.
‘No, you think so?’ I asked weakly. I was too exhausted to scream at her. Probably a good idea since few police officers take to being screamed at.”
Even from those few lines of internal dialogue we can see Chapman’s independent style and sometimes sarcastic sense of humour. We also see her familiarity with and even liking for Letty White combined with her lack of blind obedience to authority. We don’t have to be told these things so the story moves along smoothly and keeps the reader’s interest.
There’s some very effective first person internal dialogue in Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant mysteries. Quant is a former Saskatoon Police Service (SPS) cop turned private investigator. He’s smart, resourceful and quick, which are good things because although he’s far from a weakling or a coward, Quant prefers to avoid getting into physical fights. In A Flight of Aquavit, he investigates the case of Daniel Guest, a successful married accountant who’s being blackmailed because he’s had a few secret trysts with other men. What starts out as a case of blackmail turns deadly and Quant finds out that it’s a far more complex case than he thought. At one point Quant visits a local theatre to track down the possible blackmailer and is confronted by a young secretary whom he hopes will provide him with pictures of some of the actors:
“‘Hello, my name is Rick Astley and I’m the Artistic Director for Theatre Quant in Mission.’ I was betting she wasn’t old enough to be up on her late 1980’s teen idol trivia or informed enough about British Columbia community theatre to catch on to my clever ruse. And actually she looked pretty unimpressed with life in general regardless of the decade. I continued on, hoping my enthusiasm, if not my really bad English accent, would be contagious.”
Quant does persuade the girl to give him the information he needs, and his effort turns out to have been worth it, because the ‘photos do provide him with a tiny piece of the puzzle. And we can see just from this bit that he’s got a sarcastic and somewhat self-deprecating sense of humour and doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is, though, committed to what he does. Other pieces of internal dialogue show us too that he cares about his clients and sees them as people, not just paychecks.
There are a lot of other examples of internal dialogue that show what a character is like. That’s often the way we decide whether we like a character’s personality or don’t. What about you? Do you enjoy internal dialogue or do you prefer a minimum of it? Does it draw you to a character? If you’re a writer, how do you use internal dialogue?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Elvis Costello song.