Unveiling Character

Unveiling Character


Ralph Waldo Emerson—

“That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character… The key to every man is his thoughts.”

When people act, we see their behavior but not their experience. In fiction, though, inner dialogue allows the reader to get inside our characters’ heads. It opens a portal to their thoughts, feelings, and instincts, revealing, to the degree that our characters are self-aware or the degree that our readers can piece together their reality, the inner subjective tension that drives the behavior.

Leopold Bloom, the hero of Joyce’s Ulysses, is a character from whom most of us can recognize universal follies, desires and fears. Through his stream-of-consciousness we get to know him more intimately than perhaps we have any fictional character before or since. And Leopold’s wife, Molly Bloom is no less intriguing, the way she describes her life, her affair and her love for her husband in terms of all five senses. So memorable are these two that June 16, the day in 1904 upon which the novel is set, is celebrated annually throughout Dublin and the world as Bloomsday.

Characters’ thoughts, even when fleeting, individualize them.

Here’s John Updike’s twenty-six-year-old Rabbit Angstrom who’s just come in the door after work and kissed his wife on the forehead.

“[Her skin] looks tight, as if something swelling inside is straining against her littleness. Just yesterday, it seemed to him, she stopped being pretty. With the addition of two short wrinkles at the corners, her mouth has become greedy; and her hair has thinned, so he keeps thinking of her skull under it.”

When Janice stands, “her pregnancy infuriates him with its look of stubborn lumpiness.”  She tells him that she went shopping earlier and feels tired. As she elaborates on the complexities of a day at the department store, Rabbit becomes frightened.

“When confused, Janice is frightening. Her eyes dwindle in their frowning sockets and her little mouth hangs open in a dumb slot. Since her hair has begun to thin back from her shiny forehead, he keeps getting the feeling of her being brittle, and immoveable, of her only going one way, toward deeper wrinkles and skimpier hair. He married relatively late, when he was twenty-three and she was two years out of high school, still scarcely adult, with shy small breasts that when she lay down flattened against her chest so that they were only there as a little softness. Nelson was born seven months after the Episcopal service, in prolonged labor: Rabbit’s fright then mixes with his fright now and turns it tender. “What did you buy?”

Outwardly, Rabbit seems to do all the right things, and if not for a seat in his pea-sized brain, we’d never know—not yet, anyway—what a creep of a husband he is. We also learn that he and Janice have been married for three years, that they were expecting their first child when they wed and are now expecting their second.   In a discreet token of saving grace, we also see, as Rabbit’s fright of then merges with his fright of now, that he does view himself and Janice in this thing called life as a unified whole.  She may feel fine at the moment, but he projects his discomfort onto her, which results in tender feelings for her.

In Anne Tyler’s Celestial Navigation, Jeremy Pauling is a bachelor with a passion for making sculptures out of odds and ends and a terror of beautiful women.  When new lodger Mary Tell arrives, he finds himself faced with a challenge he’s ill-equipped to handle.  While working in his studio, he experiences Mary’s idle chatter as a kind of background music he filters out. If he detects a note of urgency in her tone, he struggles to emerge “from under layers and layers of thought”.  Even then, with Mary calling, Jeremy? … Jeremy? he has trouble pulling her into focus, for always inspiration seems to strike just then. Suddenly Jeremy is thrown into a tizzy and begins tearing through drawer after drawer to find the shade of color his mind’s eye has barely glimpsed. (How many writers have ransacked their mental files in just such circumstances?)

As we read his story, we find that Jeremy’s mental life is where he lives.  Often, his fantasies have him escaping to a desert in hopes of discovering a “small, bare, whitewashed cubicle” where he can work in privacy. An artist down to the bone, Jeremy’s mind hovers in a celestial space and the eyes with which he sees his world are not ones the ones we might presume—

That was the way his vision functioned: only in detail. Piece by piece. He had tried looking at the whole of things but it never worked out. He tried now, widening his eyes to take in the chilly white air below the skylight and the bare yellow plaster and splintery floors. The angles of the walls raced toward each other and collided. Gigantic hollow space loomed over him, echoing. The brightness made his lids ache.

And even dogs have an inner life that explains why they do the things they do. Here’s how it played out in Enzo mind the night he tore a stuffed zebra to shreds. From The Art of Racing in the Rain

The now-living zebra said nothing to me at all, but when it saw me it began a dance, a twisting, jerky ballet, which culminated with the zebra repeatedly thrusting its gelded groin into the face of an innocent Barbie doll. That made me quite angry, and I growled at the molester zebra, but it simply smiled and continued its assault, this time picking on a stuffed frog, which it mounted from behind and rode bareback, its hoof in the air like a bronco rider, yelling out, “Yee-haw! Yee-haw!”
I stalked the bastard as it abused and humiliated each of Zoë’s toys with great malice. Finally, I could take no more and I moved in, teeth bared for attack, to end the brutal burlesque once and for all. But before I could get the demented zebra in my fangs, it stopped dancing and stood on its hind legs before me. Then it reached down with its forelegs and tore at the seam that ran down its belly. Its own seam! It ripped the seam open until it was able to reach in and tear out its own stuffing. It continued dismantling itself, seam by seam, handful by handful, until it expelled whatever demon’s blood had brought it to life and was nothing more than a pile of fabric and stuffing that undulated on the floor, beating like a heart ripped from a chest, slowly, slower, and then nothing.
Traumatized, I left Zoë’s room, hoping that what I had seen was in my mind, a vision driven by the lack of glucose in my blood, but knowing, somehow, that it wasn’t a vision; it was true. Something terrible had happened.

Modern readers are not satisfied with surface realism.  The interior life, nebulous as air, provides the atmosphere that makes the story world habitable.  The secret, private self must overtake the outward look of our characters, for as a man thinks in his heart, so he is. Thought pulls down the masks and illuminates the action. Through associations, memories, fantasies, and self-talk, the interior life reveals character.

Become Your Character

And taking thoughts a step further, who is your character when no one is looking? The choices we make in private reveal our contradictions. Does your hero you have a habit that he secretly indulges? Is he the same person in seclusion as he is in public? Does he allow situations and emotions to get the better of him when he’s alone?

As Ethan Canin advises, “Don’t write about a character—become the character. Then write your story.”

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist