By: John Thornton Williams
One of the most important accomplishments of fiction is to connect readers with characters. For me, the strongest of those connections generally take place on an emotional level. It's one thing to come across a character that shares my affinity for barbecue or wears my same brand of boots. It's quite another to recognize in a character my own tendency toward disproportional anxiety or inappropriate laughter or desperation without cause. That said, when I started grad school I had very little notion of how character interiority operated in fiction, let alone any control of it.
Revealing the interiority of a character in a way that feels natural, yet resonates powerfully within a reader is one of the most difficult tasks of the fiction writer. Considering how powerful that emotional connection between reader and character can prove to be, and how empty a story can feel without it, it's vital that the writer bridge the distance between reader and character in ways that are subtle rather than clumsy.
But how does one accomplish it? It depends on the circumstance, of course. There are occasions in fiction where it's appropriate for a narrator to say, "So-and-so felt sad/happy/anxious." But rarely are such basic expositions enough to make me feel known as a reader, to illuminate aspects of my own experiences that I didn't yet understand or couldn't yet articulate.
The most obvious alternative—a lengthy expository digression into the psyche of a character, perhaps accompanied by physical cues, i.e., So-and-so felt more upset than he'd felt in his entire life, so upset he thought he might die, his stomach was in a knot, his throat was on fire… generally proves detrimental to how I experience the story at hand. Such straightforward description, even accompanied by metaphor, rarely provides any greater nuance of emotional experience and usually pulls me out of the fictitious world, rather than drawing me into it.
A third option—what I'll call indirection of image—is often a more successful approach…
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Happy writing and running, Kathy