How to Describe a Character’s Mental State

20 May
Nami Mun's novel Miles From Nowhere was a Booklist Top Ten Novel in 2009.

Nami Mun’s novel Miles from Nowhere was a Booklist Top Ten First Novel.

Our tendency as writers is to focus on describing the emotions of the characters closest to us: our narrators or, in the case of third person POV, the character we’re following. We become a Henry James-in-training, trying to capture the minute shifts of perception and feeling that occur inside the characters’ heads. But what happens when we need to describe those shifts of emotion inside a character whose head is closed to us? How do you describe an internal thought process when all you have available is the character’s exterior appearance?

A good example for how to approach this problem can be found in Nami Mun’s story, “Club Orchid.” It was a chapter in her novel Miles from Nowhere, a startling book about a homeless teenager that seemed to come out of nowhere in 2009 and appeared on many best-of lists. “Club Orchid” was originally published in Evergreen Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a homeless teenage girl in New York City in the 1980s. She rents a blood-stained mattress at night and has found a job in a brothel. Here is a passage that demonstrates the narrator describing her own thoughts and feelings about the club:

But the club was all right for what it was and I was just glad to come in from the rain. After a whole day of walking around downtown looking for work at grocery stores, gas stations, and donut shops, it was nice to hear someone say you’re hired, just by looking at you. Like I was a model or something. Miss T. didn’t give me any forms to fill out, didn’t ask how old I was or where I went to school. She did ask if I was over eighteen, and I felt bad about lying, but I really needed the money. And to be honest, she didn’t seem to care all that much about my answer. Rajeev the night manager at Bombay Palace Hotel had asked me the same question before renting me a room, and I’d lied to him, too. But I didn’t feel guilty about fibbing to him because he charged too much money.

Notice the indicator phrases: “I was just glad,” “it was nice,” “I felt bad,” and “But I didn’t feel guilty.” These types of phrases are available to a narrator talking about herself. But, they’re not available if she’s describing the interior mind of someone else. Here is a passage that shows how the description changes. The narrator is talking to a man who has hired her services, and she’s failed to follow the act he expected:

I turned back and caught the old man wiping his face up and down with both hands, like he was washing it or something, then he rattled his head to shake off the invisible water. He took a deep breath, held it, then let it out, sending me a wave of garlic and more garlic. His face squeezed out a big clown smile that looked more painful than anything, and he pulled up his chair closer to the table, sitting upright and tall. He was a new man. He was gonna take it from the top.

One key to this passage is that the narrator not only describes the man but mentally engages with the things she is describing. In other words, the thoughts and intentions behind the man’s actions are important to the narrator. She’s in a dangerous and unfamiliar situation, and so it’s necessary for her to figure out what is happening around her. As a result, the narrator provides specific descriptions of the man’s appearance and behavior and experiences these descriptions in different ways: she compares them to actions she’s familiar with (“like he was washing it”) and smells them (“sending me a wave of garlic and more garlic”). She also imagines the physical sensations that he feels (“a big clown smile that looked more painful than anything”). Finally, she interprets his intentions (“He was a new man. He was going to take it from the top.”)

If you go back and look at the first passage, you’ll see the difference. In the paragraph about the man, Mun uses none of the indicator phrases that appeared in the paragraph about herself. This may seem fairly obvious, but in early drafts of stories, it’s not unusual to find writers forcing narrators to convey their own emotions by describing their physical appearance (the most common way is to have a narrator look into a mirror). Or, the writer will force a narrator to describe another character’s emotion without describing that character physically; the result becomes speculation that can make the reader wonder about the narrator’s reliability.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe the thought processes and emotions of a character whose head is closed to us, using Nami Mun’s story “Club Orchid” as a model:

  1. Choose the characters. You’ll need a narrator and another character. Give them a relationship (friends, spouses, lovers, siblings, parent-child, customer-service provider, etc).
  2. Determine the situation. You don’t want to choose a scene in which nothing is at stake. Think of the situation as a transaction: the narrator is trying to get something from or give something to the other character (or vice versa). The thing being transacted could be information (where were you last night?), a word (yes or no), an agreement (what do you want to do?), or even engagement itself (talk to me, look at me, don’t ignore me). The thing could also be money or some object or action. I read a lot of Matt Christopher’s baseball novels when I was a kid, and the transactions in them were often between pitchers and batters. The thing being transacted was a baseball, but it was also cues that might give away the character’s intention for that ball (curveball, fastball, changeup). Be specific about what the narrator is trying to get out of the situation.
  3. Let the narrator describe the character using a comparison. So, you’ll need a description of the character (“the old man wiping his face up and down with both hands”) and the narrator’s sense of what that description is like (“like he was washing it or something”). The key is to give the character something to do. Try to avoid gazes (he looked at me like he was a jackal).
  4. Let the narrator engage physically with the description. Again, you’ll need a description of the character (“He took a deep breath, held it, then let it out”) and a way for the character to engage physically with it (“sending me a wave of garlic and more garlic”). The physical engagement can be through any of the four senses other than sight. Your goal is to make your narrator more than a distant observer. It’s one thing to watch somebody have a breakdown through a window, but it’s another to watch it from across the table. Make whatever the narrator is observing difficult to evade or hide from.
  5. Let the narrator imagine the character’s physical experience. In other words, let your character notice something (“a big clown smile”) and then imagine what it feels like (“more painful than anything”). This might be the easiest of the descriptions. One way to approach it is to watch for act and reaction: for instance, a character slamming the table with her fist and then the grimace that immediately follows. Allow your narrator to comment on what he sees.
  6. Let the narrator interpret the character’s intentions. Think of everything that the narrator has described (all of the character’s actions) as a transition from one mental state to another. So, is the character transitioning from joy to anger, from confusion to clarity, from grief to frustration? What is the outcome after these actions take place? Because the narrator cannot escape what is happening (Step 4), this outcome matters a great deal. So, let the narrator try to understand what that outcome might be (“He was a new man. He was going to take it from the top.”)

This exercise may yield a lot of writing. The next stage will be paring it back to a passage that propels the story forward. This likely means simply picking the descriptions that work best.

Good luck!

4 Responses to “How to Describe a Character’s Mental State”

  1. Pomegranatelover May 20, 2014 at 8:02 p05 #

    Very helpful, thank you for sharing with us. 🙂

  2. michaelnoll1 May 20, 2014 at 8:02 p05 #

    My pleasure!

  3. kevinsterne May 22, 2014 at 8:02 p05 #

    Are you familiar with objective correlative? I think that’s also a trick that can be used for conveying a character’s mental state.

  4. michaelnoll1 May 22, 2014 at 8:02 p05 #

    You’re right. The idea is that instead of writing, “I feel…,” you would instead describe the things that you see. The way you talk about those things, or the order that you would give those random objects or attributes, tells the reader something about the narrator’s emotional state. Off the top of my head, this seems like something that works best with first-person points of view or close third person. The question I tried to tackle in the post is how to convey the emotion or mindset of a character whose mind is closed off to the narrator. So, you can’t describe what the character sees because you can’t get behind his eyes. You’re left with a kind of Sherlock Holmes-ian practice of close observation and analysis.

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