We all have an internal compass.
It comes to us as flashes of intuition, gut instinct. Sometimes, when danger threatens, it raises the hair on our necks and arms. At others, it comes to us as a gentle knowing.
Some say we absorb signals subconsciously and instinct is nothing more than us becoming consciously aware.
Some say we suffer sensory input overload and it triggers the sum of our experience and knowledge and wisdom which makes value judgments and signals our internal compass to alert us.
Some say we are the sum of our experience and our reactions are solely learned. (i.e. touch a hot stove, get burned, never forget it and always associate touching a hot stove with getting burned.)
Others say these nudges are divine intervention, in the case of warnings, or of divine assurance, in the case of affirmations.
I believe our internal compass is all of that and more. And the more we trust it, the more aware we become and the easier it is for that compass to get our attention. It’s like muscles. Those you exercise perform better and more easily than those you don’t. The more we exercise our internal compass, the stronger, wiser and more honed it becomes.
Take reading. When you were learning how to read, you first struggled over the letters that formed the words. Then you struggled over the words. But as you practiced and learned to recognize them, the reading became easier, faster, and your comprehension of what you were reading grew.
When you were learning to type, you weren’t familiar with the keyboard and you had to look at the keys to verify their position to be certain of the outcome. You push P and get P. You don’t push P and get Q. Soon, you develop a bond of trust between your mind and fingertips and the keyboard. You know that when you push P that’s what you’re going to get.
If your internal compass warns that danger is afoot, and danger comes, then the next time that compass signals you of danger, you give the warning more credence. The more it proves accurate, the more weight you give it.
Our internal compasses give us insights not only on danger but on those gentler knowings. Where someone tells us something and innately we recognize it as truth. We don’t need hard evidence. We don’t need character witnesses or for verifiable events to affirm or to vindicate. We just know.
Most people acknowledge their internal compass. Many respect it, and some rely on it in all things. Writers typically fall into the last category, or grow into it. Why?
Because dealing with people, their motivations and conflicts, is ordinary business for writers. We couldn’t write a paragraph, much less a story, otherwise. So this routine work gives our compass-muscles a lot of exercise. It becomes honed and we naturally take that honed skill into other areas of our lives. Sometimes knowingly, sometimes as innate, normal reactions.
What does that mean to the writer when it comes to the work?
It means that writers usually craft characters with strong internal compasses, too. And that those characters use them.
Some characters, depending on their story role, might not heed their compass, but the protagonists, being admirable people readers respect and want to emulate, do. It’s odd for a worthy villain not to rely heavily on his internal compass, too.
These acknowledgements of and affinity with their internal compasses means the attuned writer instinctively creates 3-dimensional characters. Ones with depth and real-life qualities. Complex characters that aren’t just reflections of their story role but ones that give birth to their story roles. It is what it is because they are who they are. The result? Highly individualized characters and stories.
Characters intuit. Relate. Deliberately heed or dispute their compasses’ findings. They don’t ignore or disregard the compass; it’s too much a part of them to be ignored.
What can the internal compass do for characters (or people)?
In bogus situations, it signals the wisdom in skepticism and doubt. Have you ever had someone tell you something and even as they spoke, you knew it was a lie? That’s your internal compass at work.
Have you been in a situation where things were not as they seemed? No one told you they weren’t, but you knew all the same. How did you know? Say you detected an experience or event was staged. How did you innately know it wasn’t genuine? Your internal compass.
What about the person who says I’m sorry, but you know they’re not. That their apology is a machination or a manipulation to achieve a goal and not sincere? Or the person/character who deliberately undermines relationships because it serves their own interests–or they believe it does?
And you know it without evidence. All of it. Again, that’s your internal compass at work.
Everyone has an internal compass. It tells us right from wrong. It is the keeper of our conscience—and the guilt that parks there when we cross lines we shouldn’t cross. It signals our lines in the sand, our values being trampled or exalted, our judgments being confirmed or refuted. Our compass does all that and more, which is why it is critical to not neglect the internal compasses in our characters.
Characters emulate real people. Without an internal compass, the best character can only be a shadow of all s/he could be and should be. Seated in the compass is an integral part of our humanity.
We’ve all heard about the person about to take a flight getting a feeling s/he shouldn’t. S/he doesn’t fly, and the plane crashes.
We’ve all heard about the person who sensed an attack and either was or spared him/herself as a direct result of the warning.
We’ve all heard about the people who knew xyz was lying or cheating or having an affair and later was proven right.
Characters should have these experiences, too.
A common technique in fiction: when the female protagonist hears something and goes to investigate, and the reader (of the book) or the viewer (of the movie) is virtually shouting at the protagonist not to go down those stairs, not to go outside. We know danger is waiting. Sometimes the protagonist does, sometimes s/he doesn’t.
The character is ignoring his/her internal compass, but we’re heeding ours. That’s why we’re virtually shouting–and the conflict creates suspense that engages the reader.
We do exercise caution with this. We want the conflict and the suspense. We don’t want the reader to think our protagonist or antagonist is too stupid to live.
Remember in SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY when Julia Robert’s character returns home from the midnight picnic and senses someone’s been in the house? She innately knows it. But she still goes inside, finds the towels on the rack straightened (after she’d deliberately scrunched them) and the canned goods in the cabinet all in perfect order–not as she’d left them. Those things signaled every viewer that the abusive ex she’d fled was in the house. And every viewer feared what he would do to her.
If you look at that example, it shows multiple uses of the character’s internal compass. Intuited and learned.
The compass works that way for us and for our characters, and the more we trust it, the stronger it becomes.
And the stronger it becomes, the more deft we become as writers inserting it into our works.❧
©2008, Vicki Hinze