I'll kick us off. This morning I reacquainted myself with a story I haven't read in a while: John Updike's "A&P", which is one of those stories your favorite English teacher made you read in high school, maybe alongside Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find". What's interesting is that both of those stories find their way into the hearts of characters without actually telling much about what's going on inside them; they let the action and dialogue take care of all that instead. That's not the only or best way to tell a story, of course, but it makes for a very different reading experience from, say, something by Virginia Woolf or Joyce Carol Oates. Woolf, for example, will narrate right through a character's train of thought and feeling, noting even which thoughts make that character freeze for a breathless moment, or smile, or clench and unclench their hands; she'll connect specific thoughts and emotions to the subtlest actions and gestures. Take the following passage from To the Lighthouse**:
No, [Mrs. Ramsay] said, she did not want a pear. Indeed she had been keeping guard over the dish of fruit (without realising it) jealously, hoping that nobody would touch it. Her eyes had been going in and out among the curves and shadows of the fruit, among the rich purples of the lowland grapes, then over the horny ridge of the shell, putting a yellow against a purple, a curved shape against a round shape, without knowing why she did it, or why, every time she did it, she felt more and more serene; until, oh, what a pity that they should do it-- a hand reached out, took a pear, and spoilt the whole thing. In sympathy she looked at Rose. She looked at Rose sitting between Jasper and Prue. How odd that one's child should do that! (Woolf 163-4)Note that the action in the scene involves mainly what Mrs. Ramsay's eyes are doing, which, on the surface, may not seem like much: she looks at a bowl of fruit, then someone takes a pear out of the bowl, and she looks elsewhere. It's the reason Mrs. Ramsay shifts her gaze which tells us something about who she is, and gives significance to the motion of her eyes: she's disappointed by what she sees. By extension, the next thing she looks at-- her daughter-- seems equally wrong somehow. These details tell us not only what sort of person Mrs. Ramsay is-- she likes everything in its place-- but what kind of relationship she has to the people around her. She would be a very different character if Woolf had told us, say, that the upheaval of the fruit in the bowl secretly delighted her, or that it pleased her to see her daughter sitting between her sister and brother while the fruit lay in a jumble.
Compare that passage to what the narrator of "A&P" sees:
She had on a kind of dirty-pink-- beige maybe, I don't know-- bathing suit with a little nubble all over it and, what got me, the straps were down. They were off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms, and I guess as a result the suit had slipped a little on her, so all around the top of the cloth there was this shining rim. If it hadn't been there you wouldn't have known there could be anything whiter than those shoulders. With the straps pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. I mean, it was more than pretty. (Updike 221)†Again, there's more going on here than straightforward description. The narrator's own attraction to the girl he describes is obvious: what got me; you wouldn't have known there could be anything whiter than those shoulders; I mean, it was more than pretty. But the details themselves also reveal much about the girl. She's bold, she's got her straps down, she knows she's pretty and isn't afraid to show it. The passage gives us a glimpse into the hearts of two different characters at the same time-- but not once are we told outright that the girl means for others to look at her, or that the narrator feels a desire for what he sees.
Getting inside a character that you've created yourself is tricky; it takes a certain amount of empathy, maybe even acting ability. It's not just a matter of dreaming up a character who does and says things; you also need to be able to understand why your character would say or do the things he says and does. It helps to understand things like psychology, and to be able to describe people accurately, but it takes a certain amount of imaginative ability, too, which can be hard for an adult writer to get the hang of.
I had a friend-- this was back when I was eight or so-- with whom I spent one summer playing something we called Magic Queen. I don't remember much about it now except that it was a story which we made up and acted out, serial-fashion, every day: there was an evil sorceress-queen whom we fought to overthrow, and who frequently would capture and coerce one of us into betraying the other. As far as we were concerned, it was all was absolutely real; we were exactly who we pretended to be and meant every word we said. Sometimes we upset each other so deeply in the process that the only way out was to keep on pretending our way through the story till we'd redeemed ourselves in each others' view.
For me, writing characters is a bit like what I used to do when playing Magic Queen. I feel my way into the thought patterns which might lead a character to do or say something terrible, or something good, or nothing at all, essentially by shutting myself off and pretending to be someone else; the only real difference is that now I write down whatever happens rather than act it out. (That, and there usually aren't any magic queens involved.)
But how-- I hear you ask-- on earth do you get to the point where aren't just imagining a character, but you're actually inside? Stepping outside yourself, and stretching your empathy that far, takes some practice; it's not something that comes all that intuitively, especially if you gave up make-believe when you turned eleven or twelve or thirteen-- as many of us likely did-- thinking you were supposed to have outgrown it by then. A lot of beginning writing students I've had were absolutely baffled by the idea of getting inside someone else's head-- how can you know what anyone else thinks?
I'm not sure how to answer that question, as I'm not sure how to answer a lot of questions, except to say that you can make a pretty good guess by drawing on what you might do if you were in a particular character's shoes. Here's an exercise I've been thinking of; I haven't tried it yet, though I mean to.
First part (and you don't have to share this part with anyone): think of a time that you lied, or hurt someone. Why did you lie, or hurt that person? Write down your reasons-- dispassionately, without trying to justify them-- as a series of sentences beginning with Because I ___. For example:
Because I didn't want to lose my job.
Because I wanted one more chance.
Because I couldn't get a break.
Because my dad yelled at me on the phone.
...and so forth. Write several of these, then pick two of the sentences and write a short narrative in which a character lies (or hurts someone) which begins with one of the sentences you picked, but uses the other as the real reason the character lied (or hurt someone). Do not, however, simply plop the character into your own situation, whatever that was; make up new circumstances, a new lie, or some other new offense. Take your reasons, and make the character do something else with them.
Because I haven't tried it yet, I'm not sure how tricky this exercise might be, or whether or not it does what I think it should. If anyone wants to attempt it, let me know how it worked out for you, and whether you found it helpful or interesting; feel free to email (addy's in my profile) if you'd rather not leave a comment on the blog.
*Yes, that also means you, you lovely lurking-types-- and don't think I haven't seen you lurking, because I have. I've got a Site Meter account. Hello Byrndale, PA! Hello, Isle of Wight! Hello, Baltimore! I've got a cousin in Baltimore. Is that you, Larkin?
** Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse, Penguin Popular Classics Edition. London: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1996.
† Updike, John. "A&P." Points of View: an Anthology of Short Stories, Revised Edition. Ed. James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny. New York: Mentor, Penguin Books USA, 1995. 221-26.