The book I'm currently reading (and not enjoying overmuch) is sold on the premise of a young teenager confronting a strange and challenging situation on her own. Well, in the grand tradition of the query letter, the marketing department of this publisher has created a tag line that doesn't quite describe the facts of the story. I'm at least two-thirds of the way through the book, and thus far the main character has only been alone for about ten minutes. The minute I suspected she was on her own the author created an adult character from out of nowhere and together our two characters face the challenging situation. How great is this? Yeah, it's not.
Alone is hard. Writing a character who is alone for an extended period and knows nobody else will be showing up any time soon is very difficult to pull off. I was thinking about this in terms of the book I'm reading when it occurred to me that it's something I did in my last novel. I'll make no claims to fabulous success, but for about 150 pages of a 400-page book, my young teenage main character is entirely alone, other than some brief encounters with characters who either don't respond to him or are not terribly sane. They certainly aren't helpful.
Being utterly alone is not a normal condition for most humans. Perhaps because I live alone with no pets or houseplants it feels more normal to me, but most of us are in a fairly constant state of conversation and interaction while we're awake. So how do we manage this in fiction if it's so rare in fact?
First, you might consider cheating. The book I'm reading used a flat-out marketing lie. This character is not alone. Lesser cheating can be seen in the movie Castaway, where Tom Hanks is issued a volleyball to meet his conversational needs.
Here's what I did: observe and describe from the beginning of the book. If all you do with your character from the start is have them in conversation or thinking, you'll never pull off having them alone for any length of time. What you need to do is give the reader a sense of your character's place in the physical world starting on page one. My character has some health problems. The book opens with him waking up in the hospital. His internal awareness is always present. In his time alone cannot sleep, cannot eat, and suffers various injuries. The land he's traveling through is dangerous. The temperature fluctuates, there are terrible odors and sights and numerous challenges to overcome. The experience is terrible. In short, he has a lot of nasty ground to cover and because of that I had a lot to write about.
That is the trick to writing about a character who is alone: make sure they have plenty to do. They have to face many challenges and make many decisions, and they can't all be in the character's head. The reader has to see it happening. The best test is the camera test. If it were happening on screen, would the audience understand what your character is doing? Even if they can't talk to someone else about it? If yes, you have succeeded.
Please, no volleyballs.