What is insight?
The ability to understand people and situations in a very clear way.
Or, an understanding of the true nature of something.
How about the power or act of seeing into a situation, or the act of apprehending the inner nature of things.
I think all of these are apt definitions of insight. They should be. They’re right out the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Why is insight important to the writer, and why do readers appreciate writing that is insightful? For me, when the author (through his or her character) enlightens me, or succinctly articulates one of my own thoughts or beliefs, I find myself identifying with that character. This known as relateability, which is an important concept for both readers and writers. If the reader can relate to a character in a deep and meaningful way, the reader is more likely to feel sympathy, or at least empathy, for the character. And, as every writing teacher will tell you, for a story to be successful the reader must have at least a modicum of empathy (if not full blown sympathy) for the protagonist, or they will not care about that character and will stop reading the story.
As an example, here is one of my favorite insights from J.M Coetzee’s Disgrace:
That is his temperament. His temperament is not going to change, he is too old for that. His temperament is fixed, set. The skull, followed by the temperament, the two hardest parts of the body.
When I read this I thought, Yeah, that’s me. I’m about the same age as this character, and my temperament is rigid just like his. At this point in my life, my temperament is calcified just like a bone, and the more my wife tries to chip away at it, the more calcified it becomes.
As a former heart surgeon, I totally related to this one form Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. The narrator desperately needs his (heart surgeon) brother’s help. His brother, however, uses the occasion to vent a lifetime of loathing and resentment toward the narrator:
All his relations with people are like this. It isn’t an attack on me. It is Jerry. Nobody can control him. He was born like this. I knew that before I called him. I’ve known it all my life. We do not live the same way. A brother who isn’t a brother. I panicked. I am in a panic. This is panic. I called the worst person to call in the world. This is a guy who wields a knife for a living. Remedies what is ailing with a knife. Cuts out what is rotting with a knife. I am on the ropes, I am dealing with something that nobody can deal with, and for him it’s business as usual—he just keeps coming at me with his knife.
And as a middle-aged man with a wife and kids, I’m often reminded of my shortcomings, so when Rusty Sabich (from Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent) says he’s lacking some human commodity, and we can only be who we can be, I think to myself, Yes, me too. If only I could get my wife to understand this …
The atomized life of the restaurant spins on about us. At separate tables, couples talk; the late-shift workers dine alone; the waitresses pour coffee. And here sits Rusty Sabich, thirty-nine years old, full of lifelong burdens and workaday fatigue. I tell my son to drink his milk. I nibble at my burger. Three feet away is the woman whom I have said I’ve loved for nearly 20 years, making her best efforts to ignore me. I understand that at moments she feels disappointed. I understand at times she is bereft. I understand. I understand. That is my gift. But I have no ability to do anything about it. It is not simply the routines of adult life which sap my strength. In me, some human commodity is lacking. And we can only be who we can be. I have my own history; memories; the unsolved maze of my own self, where I am so often lost. I hear Barbara’s inner clamor; I understand her need. But I can answer only with stillness and lament. Too much of me—too much!—must be preserved for the monumental task of being Rusty.
But not all insights need to result in deep connections to the character. Some can offer up a moment of joy or humor, or encapsulate something we’ve always known but have never been able to articulate quite as artfully, or maybe they provide nothing more than a glimpse of authorial brilliance.
Here are a few from Kurt Vonnegut that demonstrate these points.
From Mother Night:
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
From Player piano:
“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”
From Cat’s Cradle:
“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before.”
And finally, something all of us creative writers can (or should) relate to, from A Man Without a Country:
“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
How true, but that’s just me.
In sum, allow your characters to share a profound insight here and there. It will give that character depth, will make the character more relateable, and will enlighten and entertain the reader.
If you have a favorite insight, either your own or from a favorite author, please share it with the rest of us.