This is not my beautiful post
Some thoughts on stakes and interiority and (kind of) Witch King
I have been thinking about my Joseph Mitchell Up in the Old Hotel post for weeks, trying to work through my thinky thoughts about real estate, capitalism, the evils of private equity, and the publishing industry, but when I think about it too long I eventually circle right back around to how little money is in my bank account, and then I go into a panic and apply for six more jobs1. So instead, I’m going to talk about how interiority creates stakes, but not vice versa.
I wrote a post about interiority back in 2021, where I said:
I had clients who would joke about making me a shirt that said “but how do they FEEL?” on it, because it was probably the most common question I asked in edits. Now as a freelance editor it’s STILL the most common question I ask. Often, when I point out that we have no idea what a character thinks or feels about a situation in the conversation afterwards the author says “I thought I was doing that.” The problem is almost always that the author knows what the character thinks and feels - they created them, after all. So they don’t necessarily see that those feelings haven’t been made clear to the reader. Often, there is a cue to how they feel, but it comes in the form of a physical reaction- someone tensing up, or frowning, or gasping. Those aren’t bad, necessarily, but too much of it and you have a wincing, gasping, frowning, tensing, trembling mess and for all the reader knows they could be secretly delighted with the entire situation.
I am thinking of this specifically in the context of Witch King because I just read a review of a completely different book that perfectly encapsulated my feelings about it. Writer and reviewer Amal El-Mohtar (of This Is How You Lose the Time War fame) wrote this about one of the books she covered in her SFF roundup:
…I found myself desperate for a map and a glossary of terms to help orient myself in the constantly shifting web of those characters’ elided or obscured motivations. Giant robot fights are indisputably cool, but it’s hard to be invested in them when you don’t know why they’re fighting or what will happen if they win or lose.
In Witch King, the reader follows a disgraced sorcerer, who has been in a magical enforced slumber-prison for about two years, for Political Reasons. He has a friend with him, also in Sleep Jail, and together they have to go find—someone else? Several someones? I read the book from cover to cover and I still can’t quite fit the characters in my mind. I blame the lack of interiority—our POV character didn’t give us emotional context for what was happening to him.
Sometimes, you can get away with simply establishing external space—if we don’t find our friend/the macguffin/the cure, the world will explode. Those are clear stakes. But the way you make those stakes matter to the reader is by making sure that the reader knows—feels, even—why the POV character you’re writing doesn’t want that to happen. Or does want that to happen, for a spicy twist! How a character feels about the stakes is almost more important than the stakes themselves. For example, in Ling Ma’s masterful, deeply unsettling novel Severance, the main character often has wildly divergent priorities from others around her. For the reader, both the external priorities and internal priorities make sense. In fact, Ma is able to achieve such a high level of tension precisely because there is such a contrast between the two sets of stakes and yet you feel desperate that the character succeeds on both levels!
With Witch King, there was so much information, and yet I cared so little about so much of it. (When texting with a friend about these frustrations, she said she wished there was more whale. The whale disappears after about page 60. The book is 400+ pages long.) Martha Wells is an immensely talented writer, which makes it all the more disappointing—she wrote the Murderbot stories, which are masterpieces of interiority. Murderbot is a combat droid who has gained some semblance of selfhood and has used it to develop a preference for watching endless hours of TV, when not having to save the humans it’s nominally tasked with protecting.
If you can take anything advicey away from this newsletter when you’re looking at your work, ask yourself how the character feels in that moment. How are they expressing that on the page? Are they expressing it, or do you just know how they feel because in the world of your manuscript you are an all-powerful god? How long has it been since they expressed an emotion? If it’s been a minute, add a line in. “He felt frustrated—his characters weren’t behaving as they ought, instead preferring to spend their time as flat caricatures and not the vibrant creatures he’d envisioned.” Did I say it had to be a good sentence about how they felt? No! All it has to do is exist, and you can fix it in post, so to speak.
Get a reader on board with a character and what they want, and you end up with a reader who wants the same thing. It’s how you get readers to root for a cannibal gourmand (ahem, A Certain Hunger is out in paperback now) or a group of women stranded on an ice planet surrounded by big blue dudes hungry for love. (ahem.) And it starts by answering a simple question: how do they feel?
WHAT I’M READING
I just finished reading John Fowles’ The Magus, which was frustrating and intriguing by turns. If anything, I was too aware of how the protagonist felt, and moments of clear, intriguing writing would be followed by pages of nonsense. I’ve moved on to Tessa Bailey’s It Happened One Summer, which is frothy and fun—and which I purchased at the delightful newly-opened romance bookstore The Ripped Bodice, which just opened in Park Slope.
THIS WEEK (WELL, TWO WEEKS AGO) IN HOCKEY
Tom Wilson re-upped with the Capitals! He’ll be in the DMV for another 7 years (to the tune of $45.5 million!) A lot of people had many feelings about it, mostly negative, to which I say: you’re just mad your team didn’t try to get him! He’ll be captain after Ovi retires, I’m fairly confident. Also, Erik Karlsson is a Penguin now, which is just funny to me.
My first novel, Marrying In, is available for purchase on Kindle, Nook, and Kobo, and is coming soon to iBooks. If you’ve read it, consider leaving a review—that helps me and the book in the long run!
I’m available to hire for freelance editing services on Reedsy. You can find me on social media on Twitter, Instagram, the A Faster No Discord, and now TikTok. If you buy any of the books linked in this newsletter I receive a small commission at no cost to you.
this is, in fact, what capitalism wants.