Tag Archives: describing emotion

How to Reveal Character Interiority through Action

9 Feb
Justin Torres' novel We the Animals has been called "the kind of book that makes a career" in a review in Esquire.

Justin Torres’ novel We the Animals has been called “the kind of book that makes a career” in a review in Esquire.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Good luck.

An Interview with Mũthoni Kiarie

24 Oct
Mũthoni Kiarie grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. She earned her MFA from Mills College and is an alumna of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation. A finalist in the Spring 2012 Story Contest, she lives in Oakland, California.

Mũthoni Kiarie’s story, “What We Left Behind” was a finalist in the Narrative Magazine Spring 2012 Story Contest.

Mũthoni Kiarie grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. She earned her MFA from Mills College and is an alumna of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation. She lives in Oakland, California.

In this interview, Kiarie discusses her approach to intensely emotional moments in a story.

(To read Kiarie’s story “What We Left Behind” and an exercise based on the story’s indirect treatment of emotion, click here.)

Michael Noll

This story is about a mother and her two children who flee their village after it’s violently attacked by armed men. Though the story describes the attack, it only focuses on certain parts. So, for instance, the mother’s torn dress and bloody lip are clearly and specifically described, but the body of the murdered father is described less directly as “painting the ground a lush red.” Did you make a conscious decision to show certain people and things in greater detail than others? In other words, how did you know what to describe clearly and what to suggest more indirectly?

Mũthoni Kiarie

When writing this, I knew the story was going to be focused more on the mother and that the father would sort of fade into the background. However, it was important to show that his was still an important role in the story. The way he died to me showed in a restrained way, how that community was decimated. I also wanted to make sure that his death was also lovingly portrayed, while still showing that it was a violent death. The mother’s details, the dress, the bloody lip I almost felt were even more subtle than the father’s because she underwent what was possibly an even more violent experience that I didn’t necessarily talk about but give my reader a strong sense of what may have happened.

Michael Noll

The story begins with a list of the items abandoned in the desert, and great care is taken to distinguish between the different types of baskets and different sizes of sandals. The list is powerful–and the power doesn’t abate even after several reads. The items that are shown reveal so much about the characters’ live, and the fact that we see these items and not the people who left them is chilling. It reminds me of one exhibit at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. It’s a room filled with children’s shoes—for some reason, when I visited the museum, those shoes affected me more than any of the horrifying photographs that I saw. Why do you think personal items like shoes or baskets or sandals have this effect on us?

Mũthoni Kiarie

I think as human beings, the value that we attach to material possessions defines our existence. Like your example of seeing the children’s shoes in the Holocaust Museum, you attached a certain child and their life to those items. This is really where this story came from. Thinking about these material things that hold so much value to us when we are alive and all is well in our worlds. But then, what do you take with you when you have three seconds to get out of the house? Your child or your shoes? That’s kind of an obvious question, but you get what I mean. I imagine that at each step when my characters or others who’ve been faced with a similar journey, have to chose what to leave behind. And those decisions must be excruciating.

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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