In Anne Tyler’s Celestial Navigations, a novel that explores the struggle to achieve balance between separateness and closeness in relationships, we come to know the protagonist Jeremy Pauling through the eyes (chapters narrated by) the women in his life. The 38-year-old artist living with various boarders in the house bequeathed to him by his mother is a construction of the women around him.
Jeremy Pauling, depicted first through Amanda and Laura, his sisters’ eyes, was their mother’s favorite child, a boy who has always done things half-heartedly. Miss Vinton, the spinster boarder, says Jeremy makes pictures "the way other men make maps—setting down the few fixed points that he knows to guide him. . . through this unfamiliar planet." Olivia, an eighteen-year-old hippie runaway thinks Jeremy is caught in a time loop. From another age, Olivia wonders whether Jeremy is their descendant or ancestor. And Jeremy, as much unknown to himself as to the others, is the only narrator to depict himself and his reality in a distant third person perspective.
“All fictional characters are flat. A writer can give an illusion of depth by giving an apparently stereoscopic view of a character—seeing him from two vantage points.”
In life, we see people through others’ eyes more often than we think. Vulnerable to concensus opinion, conscious of it or not, we often look to see how people treat someone we’re unfamiliar with and take our cue from them. On entering a room, if we find its occupants bowing before a king, we also bow. If we visit a community where people keep a safe distance from a certain member, we’ll likely keep our distance.
In the opening of The Godfather, Don Corleone sits behind a desk in a room of devout supporters and one apprehended man pleading for his life. While Don Corleone does nothing and says nothing, we get our first impression of the godfather. As readers vicariously experiencing the tension, the threat of self-expression, we hold our breath, responding in compliance much like the characters in the room. Don Corleone, we learn from those in his company, is a man to fear and obey.
Rather than telling our readers what opinions to form of our characters, we can demonstrate who they are by dramatizing the responses they elicit from the people in their lives.
Early in Good Will Hunting, a mathematician is defined by his response to Will’s solution to a problem he’d been unable to solve. Though we expect the mathematician’s response, the scene nonetheless leaves us with a strong impression of his fragile ego. The exchange derives its power, not from a visible response on the scholar’s part, but from his lackey’s response. Watching the subtle fear glosses over the protégé’s face, we infer the wound to the mathematician’s pride. “Everyone gets lucky. You’re a brilliant man,” the student says, and we in the audience feel the drain of the man-diva’s neediness.
Characters define characters through their relationships with each other. The above scene from Good Will Hunting plays out so deftly that it’s easy to miss its discreet maneuvering, which evokes disgust from viewers without ever portraying disgust on screen. While employed in the medium of film, the novelist can appreciate the technique, how the camera moves from the lackey to a shot of Will who reflects an airy ease in contrast to the mathematician unease.
The way a character is treated is an opportunity to reveal the characters doing the "treating", as well. If Tom, Dick, and Harry bully Bob in the schoolyard, the point might be to show that Bob is the type that gets picked on—or it might be to show that Tom, Dick, and Harry are ruffians.