Kristen Lamb

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Write About Inner Demons Without Boring the Reader into a Coma

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One of the toughest concepts to grasp in writing fiction is this notion of “inner demons.” In all my years working with writers and busting apart countless manuscripts, the single greatest weakness I’ve witnessed with writers is a failure to truly understand how to plot. And before anyone breaks out in hives that I am encouraging detailed outlines, I’m not.

But the problem with inner demons is they are…well…inner. This means that our job as writers is to draw the demons out so they can be destroyed. It’s kind of like The Exorcist, though green puke and spinning heads is all your call.

You might laugh but if you have ever seen any movie involving an exorcism, what is the general progression?

The victim starts acting weird. Not herself. At first it might be written off as depression or lack of sleep or not enough caffeine. Then as the demon gains a toehold, the outward symptoms become more pronounced. Maybe physical changes (growling voice, speaking in Latin). Priests intervene and stuff gets cray-cray but to defeat the demon, what has to happen?

The demon must give its NAME.

You know you watch far too many horror movies when you are no longer scared, but are yelling critique.

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But the point of this I want to make clear is that the one thing these exorcism stories pretty much all have in common is the demon must be NAMED and manifest OUTWARDLY to be defeated.

Same in fiction.

Inner demons are tricky for a number of reasons we will talk about today. The trick is finding the plot problem that will drive the demon to the surface so it can be defeated.

Inner Demons are Inner

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Yeah, I already mentioned that but this is kind of a big deal. Many new writers begin the novel with a character doing a lot of internalization and thinking and thinking and more thinking.

This is problematic for a number of reasons but the biggest is we (readers) just don’t care. We haven’t spent enough time to be vested in a stranger’s emotional baggage.

Do any of us like spending time in person with folks who do nothing but talk about their character flaws and problems? NO. So we are unlikely to want to pay to endure this too much in a book. Can we get there eventually? Sure.

Just like dating. I would hope by the time we dated someone a couple months we might know they haven’t talked to their father in three years and we would care about this problem. In the first fifteen minutes of a first date?

*backs away slowly* *slips barista a $20 to create a distraction to cover ex-fil*

Demons Hide in the Blind Spot

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One key thing to remember about demons is they hide really really well. If they didn’t then shrinks would starve and be treated like writers.

Wow, you’re a psychotherapist? Really? What’s your “real” job? Seriously, people PAY you to listen to their problems?

This is another reason we don’t begin with a protagonist thinking about her inner demons. Odds are, she is oblivious they are even there. She isn’t yet that self-actualized.

Denial is more than a river in Africa 😉 . In fact, the stronger the denial, the better the story (or if you’re a therapist, the better the $$$$$). This is why your protagonist, if pitted against the antagonist in Act One should lose. He/She has not grown enough in order to defeat the core story problem.

Plot is What Exorcises the Demons

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The plot is the crucible that will fire this demon to the surface so the character can then defeat it. This is why understanding plotting becomes so vital. A great plot problem is going to sprout directly from that inner demon. Why?

Because fiction is the path of greatest resistance. What good is a plot problem unless it pits the character against her deepest flaw and weakness?

Some weaknesses might be fairly obvious—grief, betrayal or addiction. The problem, however, is no one wants to read 300+ pages of someone whining about a loss or a compulsion. We would probably want to smother such a person to get her to shut up.

Whining is not a plot.

Also remember that there is a reason for the grief, feeling of betrayal or addiction and THAT is the real inner demon that must show its head. There must be an outside challenge that forces the character to eventually choose to remain the same or to evolve (Act III).

You gonna keep hiding in a bottle? Or are you gonna face/defeat WHY you drink so you can walk your daughter down the aisle?

Not all inner demons are as obvious, though. The tricky demons look a hell of a lot like our greatest strengths, because…..um, they are.

Remember that every character strength has a corresponding weakness.

These inner demons are a real bugger to spot because they serve the character really well (or at least the character believes they do). In fact, this inner demon might be the very reason the character has always been successful…until you Evil Author Overlord hand her a problem where the old tools no longer work.

New level, new devil, baby 😉 .

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For instance, maybe your protagonist has a heart of gold. She is always there to help a friend, lend an ear, or fix a problem. Helping is the core of her identity.

But what happens when she wants to open a new cupcake bakery but then realizes she is spending too much time helping people who really don’t want to help themselves?

The plot forces her to recognize she sucks at putting down boundaries. She might even realize that she wasn’t helping after all…she was enabling or even controlling. She might come to finally see that the dark side of her helping. Deep down she doesn’t trust and so she always has to keep the ledger balanced in her favor. Or she could really believe she doesn’t deserve to be successful and helping others is a way of avoiding risk of failure.

Well, as soon as I get my brother sobered up, THEN I can focus on the cupcakes.

When the outside challenge—opening a cupcake bakery—reveals the BS of her core identity, what will she DO? See, before she had a dream of a cupcake bakery, she could be there for everyone and every problem. The plot problem, however, drives the demon to the surface and shows its real face.

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Notice how the problem (outside goal) helps this become a story, not just 300 pages of tedious navel gazing and infighting. Without the goal, there is no real way to see if our imaginary protagonist succeeds. Yet, add in a cupcake bakery and it is pretty easy to spot failure. If, in the end she is still nagging her brother to stop drinking and does not have a successful cupcake bakery?

She failed.

Every side trip to rescue others that stops her from realizing this dream makes us worry (dramatic tension).

In the end, all great stories involve inner demons (character arc). But even in literary fiction, the outside problem is what is going to make that inner demon manifest. So take time to really think about how your outside plot problem can make the protagonist squeal then make them suffer…a lot. It’s good for them 😀 .

***NOTE: Pick up a Positive Trait Thesaurus for help finding your protagonist’s weak/blind spots.

What are your thoughts? Does this help you understand how to better make readers care about the internal struggles of your characters? Any questions? Suggestions? Additions? Recipes for holy water?

Remember I am holding the very first BATTLE OF THE PAGES and slots are filling up FAST! (Information below).

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

May’s winner will be announced next time 😀 .

Upcoming Classes

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Again, I am trying something new and offering an open and interactive workshop. Is your first page strong enough to withstand the fire?

Battle of the First Pages

June 16th, 7-9 EST. Cost $25

This is an interactive experience similar to a gong show. We will upload the first page and I will “gong” when I would have stopped reading and explain why. We will explore what each writer has done right or even wrong or how the page could be better. This workshop is two hours long and limited seats available so get your spot as soon as you can!

So You Want to Write a Novel 

June 17th, 7-9 EST. Cost is $35

Just because we made As in high school or college English does not instantly qualify us to be great novelists. Writing a work that can span anywhere from 60,000 to 120,000+ words requires training. This class is for the person who is either considering writing a novel or who has written a novel(s) and is struggling.

We will cover the essentials of genre, plot, character, dialogue and prose. This class will provide you with the tools necessary to write lean and clean and keep revisions to a minimum.

Character & Plotting (NEW CLASS!)

June 24th, 2015 7:00-9:00 P.M. EST. Cost is $35

All great plots are birthed from character. The core plot problem should be the crucible that eventually reveals a hero in Act III. This means that characterization and plot are inextricably linked. Weak plot, weak character. Blasé character, blasé plot.

This class will teach you how to create dimensional characters and then how to plot from inner demons and flaws. Get inside the heads and hearts of your characters in a way that drives and tightens dramatic tension.

This is an excellent class for anyone who wants to learn how to plot faster and to add layers to their characters.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook


41 thoughts on “Write About Inner Demons Without Boring the Reader into a Coma”

  1. areeceareece

    Reblogged this on Amy Reece and commented:
    It’s all about that plot, bout that….you get the idea.

  2. Suzanne Lucero (@S_Lucero)Suzanne Lucero (@S_Lucero)

    *sigh* You’re writing this for me, aren’t you? Don’t worry, I’m #AmPlotting as I face my Monday morning chores, although sometimes I forget what, exactly, I’m doing while my mind is flitting about in the highlands of Scotland. Hazard of not paying attention, I suppose. (Glad I’m not driving.)

  3. themadgaymanthemadgayman

    After re-reading my finished novel from 2011, I realize I stay in my character’s head way too much. Further, he knows his issues way too easily, especially for a hormonal 14-year-old. Granted, I wanted a novel where the main character understood himself deeply due to various background reasons, but it made it boring. Going over the story and creating a more meaty plot, I realize there are great opportunities to engage the reader without boring them with info dumps of answers and no breakthrough for the protagonist.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. oldpoet56oldpoet56

    Excellent article, it was a very good read.

  5. annaerishkigalannaerishkigal

    I’m editing a book where my character has PTSD (oh, and because of that can harness the power of primordial chaos to DESTROY THE UNIVERSE) but the naval-gazing in the first quarter of the book as he deals with his flashbacks is driving me nuts to try to externalize it in a way that’s NOT BORING for the readers! Timely post 🙂

    • Jess Mahler (@MsJessMahler)Jess Mahler (@MsJessMahler)

      PTSD really fucks with your life. Instead of navel gazing about his flashbacks, show she flashbacks costing him his job or destroying his marriage. I have PTSD and I have a partner with PTSD. The worst part of PTSD is not the flashbacks–the worst part is the sense of helplessness as your life is destroyed by your inner demons manifesting in your interactions with other people.

  6. kirizarkirizar

    Truly enjoyed this one…and not just for the memes about exorcism!

  7. 1authorcygnetbrown1authorcygnetbrown

    While I was reading this post, I realized that this is definitely not a problem that I have. I have learned that I can effectively avoid this by developing my character sketches and have my characters do their internal dialog there. Before I write my stories, I develop a friendship with my characters rather than as an extension of myself. As the writer then, I can observe my characters behaviors related to the story line.

    I like how you stated that it is important that the protagonist fail the first time he is confronted by the antagonist. Just look at all the great books written or any good movie. That is always the case. I found that watching a lot of movies and seeing how emotion is applied helps a lot to “show not tell” about inner demons.

  8. jenowenbyjenowenby

    Reblogged this on Jens Thoughts and commented:
    Fantastic blog by Kristen concerning our character’s inner demons.

  9. Southpaw, HR SinclairSouthpaw, HR Sinclair

    My first MS was just the opposite of think, think, think. I’d pretty much left all internalization out and thoughts–in my own head I knew what they were and OF COURSE everyone else would. I still chuckle about that.

  10. nancysegovianancysegovia

    Lots to think about here, which means, lots of work for me to do 🙂

  11. rijanjksrijanjks

    Great blog! I agree 1000%. Demons are subtle and often take some coaxing to come out in the spotlight!

  12. mandibelle16mandibelle16

    Thank you. Your pieces are always so helpful. I appreciate info like this so much as a new writer. Have a great week.

  13. Deborah MakariosDeborah Makarios

    This is like what Larry Brooks calls the Knot, is that right? My MC is a princess who – due to her backstory – has totally the wrong idea about what being a princess really means, and therefore about who she really is. So she’s trying to hold on to the ideal of being all decorative and ladylike – while running for her life and trying to overthrow the usurper. Does that fit the definition of an Inner Demon, would you say, or is it just an amusing character flaw?

  14. jaimisorrelljaimisorrell

    Just watched Iron Man 2. Tony Stark is the embodiment of having a helluva lot of inner demons and never talking about them. Yet it’s all over his face. And just like in your post here, he is forced by the plot to confront them. 🙂

    • teleprechaunteleprechaun

      Good call! Just watched Captain America: Civil War, and the same could probably be said for it (wish this post was out on Friday!). Captain America’s strengths (being a devoted friend, being principled, among them) play out in all kinds of ironic ways.

      • teleprechaunteleprechaun

        Stumbled on a meyers-briggs thread yesterday, and I realized that it also is quite relevant here (especially related to Tony Stark-Captain America). Those two characters are pretty much completely opposite personalities. It makes for interesting differences in how they tackle problems, and also how their demons manifest.
        I’m definitely not one to buy into that personality breakdown entirely, but it does make for a useful framework/checklist both for crafting characters, and determining how they would interact with their demons.
        For anyone unfamiliar with/who has forgotten, the basic breakdown is: introvert/extrovert, sensing/intuitive, thinking/feeling, judging/perceiving.
        Another work with great characters that seems to have used Jungian thought pretty deliberately is Star Trek DS9. That show has wonderful characters, and many great moments where a person’s strength becomes their weakness. Major Kira, for example, is a resistance fighter who has won the war, but can’t stop fighting. (as a novice, I’d guess she’s an ENFJ.) They put her through a lot of experiences where she has to put aside her fixed sense of the battle lines, and be perceptive of what’s actually happening. They also put her alongside an introverted constable frequently. They are opposites in many ways, but each have a strong tie to justice.
        What is especially good about DS9’s characters, is that they have layers that are in some ways contradictory. Kira is a warrior, always full force in the world, yet she is at her core a deeply spiritual person. Very realistic. No one is made of just four dynamics.

        Again, thanks for the great food for thought, Kristen. I always learn a lot from your posts.

  15. Elizabeth RoseElizabeth Rose

    Terrific post. I see exactly where you are coming from, and I appreciate your take on no navel gazing. I hate it when character whine almost as much as when my toddler whines. It’s unattractive whatever your age.

    Perhaps part of this, but I also hate it when characters aren’t active about dealing with whatever ails them. I am reading this story about them and what they’re doing. I want them to be doing something! Being “swept along” with the circumstances is not a good read.

  16. Jess Mahler (@MsJessMahler)Jess Mahler (@MsJessMahler)

    The first shrink who really helped me used to say that all the inner demons and mental shit become ten times easier to deal with once you’ve recognized them. He was right. Naming the demons is definitely one of the keys to defeating them.

  17. Paula LeighPaula Leigh

    Another great post.

  18. Icy SedgwickIcy Sedgwick

    I feel like I don’t do enough navel-gazing! 😀 Seriously, excellent post. I hate it when writers give lengthy sections of the book over to characters thinking. I don’t even like it when *I* overthink things, I’m not going to read someone else doing it!

  19. Rick AmitinRick Amitin

    You continue to amaze. You make it sound so easy. Yet, you understand the challenges. Very helpful to me as a new writer.

  20. katkent2014katkent2014

    Awesome post to help writers in creating characters with issues that resonate with many people so that the reader wants to know more about your characters and events. Fail @ that and all that info is just weights that sink your story. The goal of every scene s/b to make it worse and worse. Reading scenes w/out conflict are boring. Like you said, suffering is good.

  21. Talena WintersTalena Winters

    This was brilliantly funny. Also brilliant was your use of the horror genre to illustrate proper plotting. I’m not a fan of horror, but the obviousness of how the “demons” manifest is a perfect visual reminder of how plots should develop. Brilliant! (Wait. Did I say that already?)

  22. Sharon Bonin-PrattSharon Bonin-Pratt

    So, plot is not a grocery list? Great article, as developing the plot is one of my biggest challenges. And instead of making me cry about it, you made me laugh.

  23. theblessedbackyardtheblessedbackyard

    Great advice. I just wrote a scene with my main character visiting her psychologist and almost bored myself to tears. Still working on how to overcome inner demons without having so much dialogue about those demons.

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