The Things We Carry

Unlike personality, state of mind is constantly changing. But that doesn’t happen in a vacuum, not for people and not for characters. How we feel in any given instance is a complex interaction of who we are, what we face, and what we carry with us: our recent experiences, our relevant past, our concerns, our hopes and our fears. Progressing and expressing state of mind is critical to generating tension in fiction, as well as to forging an emotional connection with readers. However, simply stating how a character feels invites incredulity, and dumping a load of back story can undermine the forward action of a piece. Writers must look for more artful ways to convey what their characters carry.

1. Triggers for Memory

If your character was previously traumatized in a way that has significance for the present story, he or she will need to share those difficult memories, but only as they press upon the character’s mind. Relevance is key to building tension. Events in the present, even images or smells, can be used to trigger a vivid recollection of the past. Such memories are best shared in scene, so that readers can experience them along with the character. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan is a good example of how even extensive secrets of the past can be revealed in ways that enhance rather than dissipate tension.

2. Wear the Scars

A character who was raped should act like someone who was raped, even if the readers don’t know it. Same with other wounds, both psychic and real. Ernest Hemingway was a great believer in leaving his characters’ past in the past, but they wear their scars in how they behave. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake has clearly been injured in the war, but we don’t know much more than that; still, we ache when we see him and Lady Brett unable to consummate their love and overpowering attraction. His stoicism makes it impossible for him as a character to share more or even complain, but that only makes us as readers all the more empathetic.

3. Invest the Past in the Present

In The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, the loss of the main character’s mother at the beginning is tied up with his clinging to the painting of a goldfinch. When he laboriously wraps it in duct tape in a sad attempt to protect it, we’re reminded of the bombing that almost destroyed it and took his mother away. The trauma in the earlier part of the book has been invested in something that’s part of the real-time story, so that the reader carries it forward along with the character.

4. Objective Correlatives

Objective correlative is a fancy term for saying that perceptions are colored by feelings. If your point-of-view character is angry, the furniture looks hard, the food tastes bad, and the weather seems bleak. If it happens to be raining, all the better; if it happens to be sunny, then it’s painfully bright. This holds true whether you’re writing in first person or close third: we see everything, even solid objects, through the filter of the character’s state of mind. Your choice of telling details also comes into this – what you include should be guided by what would be most revealing of the character at that moment.

5. Figurative Language

Imagery and metaphor can reflect a character’s state of mind and keep it present for readers going forward. Figurative language can even amplify and deepen a character’s concerns. In Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, the tightrope walker suspended impossibly high above them acts to unite the disparate characters, both literally and figuratively, as the reader grasps that in a sense they’re all walking a high thin wire. It is an aspect of state of mind that they share.

6. Intuition

Most important of all, writers need to use their intuition. (See Writing as a Full Body Experience.) They must internalize their main character’s state of mind to find the most real and honest reactions they can. We’ve all read books in which the main character seems to be suffering from sudden amnesia. If something big happens, it should impact the character’s feelings. We expect there to be cause and effect. To progress and convey the things that characters carry inside them, writers must first carry them inside themselves.



Pushing Your Characters Deeper

Characters are tricky. You’d think they’d do whatever you want. You’d think they’d be as easy to write up as a list. Strong but vulnerable, damaged but tries to hide it, wants something (of course), and has to fight for it. Okay, go. That’s the kind of start that leaves us staring at the screen. Characters are made up of specifics. They look and act a certain way. Their voice reflects their history, as well as their attitude. They have dreams and carry pain. To be authentic, their actions and decisions need to be true to who they are. Writers often begin with some insights about their characters, but may have trouble fleshing them out more fully. A few key techniques can help you to crack them open.

1. Asking Questions

In his lectures at Off Campus Writers’ Workshop, Fred Shafer – literary editor, writer, and writing teacher par excellence – suggests that writers should try to move in and out of their characters: outside to assess and ask questions, and then inside to find answers. He is talking about probing questions, the same as you might ask a loved one in trouble. For example, I like to ask my characters: What are you thinking about? What worries you? Why do you seem to be in pain? What are you hoping for? Why does it matter to you? And perhaps most important in my experience: What haven’t you told me yet? You also want to ask them things more particular to your piece. The answers to all these questions will push your characters deeper and open up new territory for your story. And even if some of the answers don’t end up on the page – they may form part of your Hemingway iceberg – they will increase your understanding of the characters and lead you to places that otherwise you might never discover.

2. Taking on the Part

Conveying character requires empathy, and even personal identification. I write about how to engage your sympathetic imagination in Writing as a Full Body Experience. Some writers may find it helpful to approach this as a type of acting. You take on the part of the character in your mind, holding their attitudes and feelings inside yourself, as well as an awareness of what’s recently happened to them in the story and whatever is relevant from what’s happened to them in the past. I know of writers who even like to throw on a hat or scarf as if wearing a costume. Sanford Meisner, a pioneer of method acting, describes acting as “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” I would apply the same concept to writing fiction.

3. Watching for Clues

I believe the subconscious is deeply engaged in the crafting of fiction. The truths that pull at us, the characters that attract us, the problems that engage us – they resonate with us for reasons. We may not always know, or even need to know, what they are. Intuition comes out of this relationship between writers and the work that calls to us. Sometimes things we’ve written without conscious thought are just sitting there, waiting for us to dig in. I mention in Watchman: Cynicism or Hope that Harper Lee left herself a clue in the earlier novel – about perpetually making secret trips to the past – that should have caught her attention, even if her editor hadn’t made her rewrite her book to do that very thing. As you review your work, keep asking yourself: What did I mean when I wrote that? Is there something else there? Try free-writing a new paragraph and see what else comes to mind.

Pushing your characters deeper can be scary for writers. The questions you ask may be ones you’re not prepared to answer in your own life. The part you take on may take you someplace you’re not wanting to go. The clues you leave behind may be unconscious for good reason. In fiction, we can reshape the hurtful and repurpose the ugly, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to keep our perspective. But I think if you’ve begun to put it on the page, your own mind believes you’re ready. You may also find truth, and beauty you didn’t realize was there.



Movement with Meaning

Real people are never still. Gesture and movement are part of our language. They usually complement what’s being said, but they can also tell us things the speaker didn’t mean for us to know. Our experience of people guides our interpretation. Because readers come equipped to understand body language, writers can use it to show rather than tell. We don’t want to clutter the page with insignificant movements that readers will simply tune out (see Resisting Your Own Autosuggest), but well-chosen gestures and movements present opportunities for writers:

1. Enriching Character. Distinctive, authentic gestures convey personality. We recognize people by the way they do things. In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, when Boris pulls his chin back or pinches his nostrils shut, we feel that we know him. Only he would blow his nose sloppily, inspect the contents of the Kleenex and wince (p. 564). Body language can also open up depth, especially in characters reluctant to reveal themselves. When Boris leaves Theo behind in that scene – “his gait loosening and lightening as soon as he thought he was out of my view” (p. 565) – we immediately grasp that Boris has been hiding something from Theo and realize how tenuous their bond has become.

2. Invoking Sympathy. Small movements can be a subterranean way of engendering sympathy for characters who evoke a mixed response. An example here could be an embittered woman speaking hard truths to a child, but having that woman’s hands open for a moment, then close as if with regret. Imagined actions can be even more subtle – those considered and not taken – as contemplated within a close point of view. In Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (p. 180): “She would like to rest a hand on Marlene’s head, but this is not the kind of thing Olive is especially able to do. So she goes and stands near the chair Marlene sits on, gazing out that side window there, looking down at the shoreline….” Olive’s urge to touch Marlene makes her sympathetic, but her inability to do so is heartbreaking.

3. Creating Layers. Gestures and staging can contrast with narration and dialogue to set up an unreliable narrator, in books such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on The Train by Paula Hawkins. They act as our clues. Contrasts like these can also be mined for irony and humor or built up to increase the tension. Jennifer Egan does both in A Visit from the Goon Squad (pp. 180-183) when, in contrast to the typical back and forth of an entertainment interview, the reporter keeps taking little inappropriate actions such as staring at the movie star’s legs. Finally, he experiences an urge to push her back on the grass and then does, which launches a scene of full-blown action, while retaining the tone of dark absurdist comedy.

4. Marking Transitions. Movement can be of great practical use to a writer. For instance, small actions can be used in place of attributions like “said.” Movement draws the reader’s attention; we assume whoever moves is the one who speaks. Similarly, gestures can help us to transition between current time and memory or between dialogue and thought. Not only does movement draw the eye, a gesture can carry a sense of intimacy that invites us deeper. In Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (p. 330), we move seamlessly from outside to inside the character of Jaslyn: “She rubs her hands together, nervously. Why, still, this small feeling of tightness at her core?”

5. Inspiring Discoveries. Gestures are easy for writers to improvise – to try on, if you will. They may open up paths we didn’t know we were on. They encourage us to surprise ourselves by making our scenes more real and vivid and may lead us to unexpected discoveries. All of us – writers as well as readers – interpret body language without consciously meaning to. Remember always to picture how your characters would move as they speak and listen and think, and you may find yourself learning something important and new about them.