All characters think and feel, and, as writers, it’s important to convey the texture of those interior worlds. Some stories are, in fact, as much about what happens inside a character’s head as what happens outside of it. The problem, though, is that it’s tempting to describe thoughts and feelings in ways that kill drama and tension. Sentences that begin with “She thought _____” or “He felt ____” risk doing just that. Everyone writes these sentences occasionally, and they undoubtedly appear in great novels. That said, when we search for alternative ways to describe a character’s mindset, we often stretch our prose in surprising, engaging ways.
A perfect example of showing a character’s thoughts without stating them explicitly can be found in Justin Torres’ novel We the Animals. It’s a slim book that was a mega-blockbuster a few years ago, and if you haven’t read it yet, you can check out this excerpt. (If you live in Austin, you can see Torres read this Thursday at Austin Community College.)
How the Novel Works
The novel follows three brothers as they grow and develop into young men. Here’s a paragraph from near the beginning of the book:
We all three sat at the kitchen table in our raincoats, and Joel smashed tomatoes with a small rubber mallet. We had seen it on TV: a man with an untamed mustache and a mallet slaughtering vegetables, and people in clear plastic ponchos soaking up the mess, having the time of their lives. We aimed to smile like that.
The most important sentence, in my view, is the last one: “We aimed to smile like that.” It reveals why they’re smashing tomatoes, and that why is the key to their minds and thoughts. They’ve seen something, and so they’re replicating what they see in order to replicate a feeling. At this point, another writer might be tempted to stick with that aimed to and explain, perhaps, why they wanted to feel that way and why this image was so compelling. Torres could have even given one of the boys’ thoughts, in italics, like this: This place isn’t happy. I’m tired of being worried. I want to cut loose. But that’s not what he does. Here is what comes next:
We felt the pop and smack of tomato guts exploding; the guts dripped down the walls and landed on our cheeks and foreheads and congealed in our hair. When we ran out of tomatoes, we went into the bathroom and pulled out tubes of our mother’s lotions from under the sink. We took off our raincoats and positioned ourselves so that when the mallet slammed down and forced out the white cream, it would get everywhere, the creases of our shut-tight eyes and the folds of our ears.
Those sentences are entirely about action. There is no interiority at all. And yet the action reveals the boys’ mental states as well as any italicized thoughts. The “pop and smack of tomato guts exploding” is what they feel inside as well (not literally guts exploding, which would be worrisome) but figuratively: they’re full of the kinetic energy of exploding fruit.
More importantly the readers feel the exploding fruit and the carefree chaos of the mess it makes. In short, Torres hasn’t told the readers what the characters feel. Instead, he’s made the readers feel the same thing that the characters feel, which is far more effective. It’s the difference between knowing something intellectually and feeling it in your gut. The latter is more powerful and engaging.
Also, the passage is written in first-person plural (we). As a result, it’s very difficult to give just one character’s thoughts. And, of course, it’s implausible to suggest that all characters think exactly the same italicized thought. This is why fiction written in first-person plural tends to be more action oriented and less interior.
Finally, look at the sentence that follows the passage about smashing tomatoes:
Our mother came into the kitchen, pulling her robe shut and rubbing her eyes, saying, “Man oh man, what time is it?” We told her it was eight-fifteen, and she said fuck, still keeping her eyes closed, just rubbing them harder, and then she said fuck again, louder, and picked up the teakettle and slammed it down on the stove and screamed, “Why aren’t you in school?”
The mother is the opposite of her sons: she’s sleepy and angry. Her appearance on the page immediately introduces tension. The room cannot contain these opposing emotions without conflict.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s reveal a character’s thoughts through action, using We the Animals by Justin Torres as a model:
- Start with action, not thought. Torres begins with what the boys are doing: wearing raincoats and smashing tomatoes. The action comes first. It’s a version of the in media res strategy. So, choose a moment of strong feeling for your character. That feeling could be an emotion like anger or joy, but it might also be something more difficult to label, something that pulses in the character’s blood. What is the character doing in that moment? State it clearly.
- Show what the character sees. Torres tells us that the boys are watching a TV show with a man smashing vegetables (Hooray, Gallagher!). They are imitating what they see. So, show the reader what your character sees or hears and how it informs the action. In this case, the boys are imitating. But that’s not the only approach. Character can respond to something they see in many ways. Imagine if the boys were smashing vegetables while watching another 80s icon, the blissed-out PBS painter Bob Ross. They might still smash the vegetables, but we’d view the action differently.
- State what the character wants. Torres tell us that the boys “aimed to smile like that.” He doesn’t name an emotion or spell out a thought in italics. He simplifies whatever the boys are thinking and feeling into a desire. So, state as clearly as possible what your character wants in the midst of doing whatever she’s doing and seeing whatever she’s seeing.
- Return to the action. Describe it as viscerally as possible. If the action is upbeat or energetic, choose energetic words. If the action is calm or threatening or despairing, then choose words that convey it. The goal is to affect the reader, to make the reader feel something like what the character feels. Horror stories do this all the time. What is Hannibal Lecter feeling as he eats his victims? Who knows? But when he serves a slice of person with a side of fava beans, we shudder. It’s creepy, and we know that whatever mind thought of such a combination is creepy, too.
- Introduce someone with a different emotional state. Torres introduces the sleepy, angry mother. Notice that he reveals her emotional state through action (rubbing her eyes). Ideally, the emotional state of this new character will not be able to co-exist with the emotional state and action of the character you’ve been describing.
The goal is to convey emotion and interiority through action and to create tension by putting together characters with conflicting emotional states.