Thursday, June 2, 2011

Creating a Novel With An Emotionally Numb Main Character

A Guest Post by Bill Johnson

One of the most common problems I see when I real novel manuscripts is an emotionally numb main character. Writing a novel around an emotionally numb main character is difficult because the character often has no feeling about what's happening. Since a story's readers often access a story's characters through their reactions to events – their feelings -- when characters have no feelings, it's hard to experience a story world through them.

It can be done. A great example of how it can be done is demonstrated in the novel The Accidental Tourist.

The novel begins, 'They were supposed to stay at the beach a week, but neither of them had the heart for it and they decided to come back early.'

The questions here, why were they 'supposed' to stay at the beach for a week, and why didn't they have the heart for it? These questions draw readers forward.


'Macon drove. Sarah sat next to him, leaning her herd against the side window. Chips of cloudy sky showed through her tangled brown curls.'

There's a subtext here of Sarah sitting as far from Macon as possible.


'Macon wore a formal summer suit, his traveling suit – much more logical for traveling than jeans, he always said. Jeans had those stiff, hard seams and those rivets.'

These details are not just a description of Macon, they tell us that Macon has thought about how to travel comfortably. These details speak to a truth about Macon.


'Sarah wore a strapless terry beach dress. They might have been returning from two entirely different trips. Sarah had a tan but Macon didn't. He was tall, pale, gray-eyed man, with straight fair hair cut close to his head, and his skin was that thin kind that easily burns. He'd kept away from the sun during the middle part of every day.'

These details emphasize how different Macon and Sarah are. The line about 'two entirely different trips' is especially telling. This 'trip' has been the beginning of a formal split of these two different people. Their differences raise a question, why have they stayed together?


'Just past the start of the divided highway, the sky grew almost black and several enormous drops spattered the windshield.'

The storm is symbolic of what is happening in this relationship. This kind of metaphor is often used in stories because it works, just as in a movie a cab arriving, a plane landing, a ship coming in to dock, speaks to a character on a journey.

Moving forward,

'Sarah continued to grip the dashboard. She had a broad, smooth face that gave an impression of calm, but if you looked closely you'd notice the tension at the corners of her eyes.'

This author will be looking closely at Sarah and her tension.


“I don't know that you really care that much,” Sarah said. “Do you?”

Macon said, “Care?”

“I said to you the other day, I said, 'Macon, now that Ethan's dead I sometimes wonder if there's any point to life.' Do you remember what you answered?”

This is the purpose of the trip. Macon and Sarah are trying to regroup as a couple after the death of their son, Ethan. How Ethan died will come out later.


“Well, not offhand,” Macon said.

“You said, 'Honey, to tell the truth, it never seemed to me there was all that much point to begin with.' Those were your exact words.'


“And you don't even know what was wrong with that.”

“No, I guess I don't,” Macon said.

Sarah is pointing out here that Macon doesn't have much feeling about life. A subtle point, Sarah doesn't have much more feeling than Macon. Being married to Macon her lack of feeling isn't an issue.

Soon after,

“You're not a comfort, Macon,” Sarah said.

And soon after that,

“Macon, I want a divorce,” Sarah told him.

This couple has moved forward along this divided highway.


'For some reason, it was this that finally made her finally break down. She turned away sharply. Macon switched his right blinker on. He pulled into a Texaco station, parked beneath the overhang, and cut off the engine. Then he started rubbing his knees with his palms. Sarah huddled in her corner. The only sound was the drumming of rain on the overhang far above them.'

What the writer suggests here is that both Sarah and Macon are emotionally numb, even while Sarah suggests she has more feeling than Macon.

As the novel continues, Sarah moves out and Macon tries to continue his work of writing travel books about how business people can travel anywhere in the world in a kind of cocoon. The irony is that Macon could not prevent his personal cocoon from being ruptured.

As the novel continues, Macon's inability to deal with his grief and loss lead his dog to internalize Macon's unexpressed feelings, and the dog begins to attack others. Because Macon travels, he must find a place to board Edward, but Edward's biting makes that difficult.

Macon meets Muriel, who boards dogs. She's lower-class, the opposite of the careful, neat Macon. She also has a sickly son, the last thing Macon wants in his life. But she's also fully, deeply alive. Being around Muriel, Macon slowly learns to feel, to go from being emotionally numb to alive to his own life, and then a life with Muriel and her son.

Then Sarah returns. Sophisticated Sarah, the opposite of Muriel.

Now that Macon has changed and learned to feel, she wants him back.

In the end, Macon decides to stay with Muriel and a haphazard life instead of returning to a new cocoon with Sarah.

The Accidental Tourist, by Anne Tyler, is a wonderful example of how a story can be told about an emotionally numb main character.

If you're a new author trying to write a novel about an emotionally numb character, consider whether you're using that story character as a vehicle to experience feeling. This creates a story designed to help move you through states of feeling via the situations you place your character in, while leaving your audience unmoved. Our personal wounds can provide much dramatic fuel to write a novel, but the risk is that we consume everything we create for our own needs.


Bill Johnson is author of A Story is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling, a writing workbook, and web master of, a web site that explores principles of storytelling through reviews of popular movies. Spirit is now available on Amazon Kindle at

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