To begin the New Year at Numéro Cinq, here’s a terrific addition to our growing collection of literary craft essays from Erin Stagg. In “The Mind’s Eye—Character Thought in Fiction,” Erin gives a terse, clear explanation of some of the basic techniques of character thought using a gorgeous Lorrie Moore short story as her example quarry.
Erin Stagg is a freshly-minted graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program. She grew up in Taos, New Mexico, studied Spanish at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and now lives in New Zealand where she teaches skiing in the winter and works in retail in the summer. She was awarded the 2002 Wellesley College Johanna Mankiewicz Davis Prize for Prose Fiction. Her short fiction has also appeared in The Battered Suitcase.
The Mind’s Eye – Character Thought in Fiction
By Erin Stagg
Character thought is text in the story that tells the reader what is going on inside the character’s mind. When I started looking for it in other writers’ work I suddenly realized that good writers are constantly weaving their characters’ consciousness into their stories. They write it into their stories using the techniques of narrative inscription, direct indication, free indirect discourse and imaginative reconstruction, all of which we will look at in depth. We will also look at how character thought functions in fiction as backfill, motive and thematic interpretation.
I was astounded at the sheer volume and density of character thought as well as a bit embarrassed that I had never really noticed it before. It’s everywhere. Flannery O’Connor begins “A Good Man is Hard to Find” inside her main character’s mind, telling the reader what that character wants: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind.” (O’Connor, 9) Jane Austen’s Emma is constantly thinking her way through what happens in the novel Emma and reflecting upon it:
Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes. She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before. How improperly had she been acting by Harriet! How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling had been her conduct! What blindness, what madness, had led her on! It struck her with dreadful force, and she was ready to give it every bad name in the world.
James Joyce uses it in “The Dead.” Here is a section from the final scene. The character thought is in bold.
The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live. (Joyce, 160)
Good writers insert character thought into every story and novel – characters think their way through stories. And it’s important here to realize, because I know some of you are thinking that character thought is telling and we should not tell, that character thought is not telling at all. In his essay “Notes on Novel Structure” Doug Glover writes, “Thought is action.” (75) Thinking is something characters do. Not only that, but it drives a story forward by giving every action and reaction a motive. Writers use it to give their characters a past, an imagination and the ability to interpret what is happening to them. In other words good writers use character thought to flesh out the bare bones of the plot and fill their characters with the semblance of life.
Lorrie Moore’s short story “People Like That are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” is 38 pages long and told from the third person point of view of a mother who discovers a blood clot in her baby’s diaper. The baby, it turns out, has a cancerous kidney tumor and the doctor advises surgery as well as chemotherapy. That night, in bed with her husband, the mother bargains for the life of her child with an imagined deity. The family then returns to the hospital full of bald headed boys and mothers in sweat pants.
The mother and father spend an evening with the other parents in a hospital lounge before going to sleep in the baby’s room. The next morning the mother stays with the baby until he is anesthetized then waits with the father until she is allowed to see the baby again. He is groggy and connected to plethora of tubes. The sight of him makes the mother promise to the baby that they’ll get out of there no matter what. The mother suffers the weekend at the hospital with her husband, waiting with other suffering parents until the oncologist informs them that the baby is fine and that, if they choose, he doesn’t have to undergo chemotherapy. The mother chooses to leave the hospital as soon as possible, to escape with her baby, relieved as well as determined to never return. The story is related with a slightly snarky, humorous tone that hints at a positive outcome.
Approximately a third of the text in this story occurs within the mother’s mind. Amid the mother’s trips back and forth from home to the doctor’s office to the hospital and then within the hospital the reader also travels back and forth through the mother’s complex emotional reactions, which tumble through disbelief, guilt, anger, depletion, relief and, over riding everything, fear. The narration moves easily in and out of the mother’s mind, braiding the character’s motives and reactions into the plot. Here is the first paragraph of the story.
A beginning an end: there seems to be neither. The whole thing is like a cloud that just lands and everywhere inside it is full of rain. A start: the mother finds a blood clot in the Baby’s diaper. What is the story? Who put this here? It is big and bright, with a broken khaki-colored vein in it. Over the weekend, the Baby had looked listless and spacey, clayey and grim. But today he looks fine – so what is this thing, startling against the white diaper, like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow? Perhaps it belongs to someone else. Perhaps it is something menstrual, something belonging to the Mother or to the Babysitter, something the Baby has found in a wastebasket and for his own demented baby reasons stowed away here. (Babies: they’re crazy! What can you do?) In her mind, the Mother takes this away from his body and attaches it to someone else’s. There. Doesn’t that make more sense? (212)
Although Moore begins with a generalized narrative voice almost immediately she starts writing her character’s thoughts into the story. By doing so she intertwines what’s going on inside her character’s mind with what is happening in the story. She couples every action in the story with a reaction in the character’s mind, which is then followed by another reaction in action of the story. What is happening inside the character’s mind becomes as important as what is happening in the story.
If you look closely at the examples you’ll notice that there are several techniques for inserting character thought into fiction but because we only have a limited amount of time we will look what I thought to be the four most prevalent techniques in “People Like That are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk”: narrative inscription, direct indication, free indirect discourse and imaginary reconstruction.
Narrative inscription is a technique in which the narrator tells the reader how the character feels, what she knows and what she might think. Say I were to write, for example, “Julia didn’t call Carl back. She was angry with him for not having taken her to Mexico.” That would be narrative inscription. The character is experiencing an emotional response to the action of the story. If you look at the first paragraph of the story you will notice that the majority of it is narrative inscription.
Over the weekend, the Baby had looked listless and spacey, clayey and grim. But today he looks fine – so what is this thing, startling against the white diaper, like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow? Perhaps it belongs to someone else. Perhaps it is something menstrual, something belonging to the Mother or to the Babysitter, something the Baby has found in a wastebasket and for his own demented baby reasons stowed away here. (212)
Narrative inscription works as a sort of blend between the third person narrator and character thought. Here is another example of Lorrie Moore using it later in the story:
Everything inside her suddenly begins to cower and shrink, a thinning of bones. Perhaps this is a soldier’s readiness, but it has the whiff of death and defeat. It feels like a heart attack, a failure of will and courage, a power failure: a failure of everything. (219)
Moore uses narrative inscription to write what is emotionally going inside the mother’s head. She uses it to insert her character’s desires and wishes into the story as well.
She wants to pick up the Baby and run – out of there, out of there. She wants to whip out a gun… She wants to shout at the surgeons and the needle nurses. Not anymore! No more! No more! She would crawl up and lie beside him in the crib if she could. But instead, because of all his intricate wiring, she must lean and cuddle, sing to him, songs of peril and flight. (237)
In this way Moore writes the character’s need into the story and uses it to propel the action forwards as well as creates an emotional landscape that weaves into the action of the story.
Character thought can also be directly indicated by words such as “thought” or “remembered”. If I were to write, for instance, “Julia didn’t call Carl back. She thought he would probably only talk about his trip to Mexico” the character thought is directly indicated by the use of the word “thought”. Take a look again at the story’s first paragraph. Only the third to last sentence is directly indicated. “In her mind, the Mother takes this away from his body and attaches it to someone else’s.” (212) With the phrase “in her mind” Moore informs the reader that she is inside the character’s thoughts. Here is another example from the story: “Perhaps, she thinks, she is being punished: too many babysitters too early on.” (216) Moore directly indicates thought in order to attribute those thoughts to her character. By doing so she notifies the reader that she is inside her character’s mind. “I could get out of here, thinks the Mother. I could just get on a bus and go, never come back. Change my name. A kind of witness relocation thing.” (231) Moore is writing her character’s train of thought directly into story.
A third technique for inserting character thought into a story is the use of free indirect discourse. Free indirect discourse, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, is “a manner of presenting the thoughts or utterances of a fictional character as if from that character’s point of view by combining grammatical and other features of the character’s ‘direct speech’ with features of the narrator’s ‘indirect report’.” Say I wrote, for instance, “Julia didn’t call Carl back. Who did he think he was? That bastard! How could he go to Mexico without her?” The character thought isn’t identified by a word such as thought or feels. In fact it’s very close to actual dialog, functioning somewhat like an internal monologue.
Moore loves this technique and consistently uses it to weave her character’s thoughts into the story. Look again at the first paragraph. Those first two questions are free indirect discourse, “What is the story? Who put this here?” (212), as is the section separated by parenthesis. “(Babies: they’re crazy! What can you do?)” (212) Both are sections of the mother’s internal dialog but are not indicated as thought by any verb or phrase. The thoughts instead stem directly from the action that precedes them.
Here is another example from the story: “Wait a minute. Hold on here. The Baby is only a baby, fed on organic applesauce and soy milk – a little prince!” (215) Remember that free indirect discourse looks like dialog. The character is having a conversation with herself inside her head.
The fourth technique that Moore uses is what Douglas Glover refers to as imaginative reconstruction. This is a technique in which the writer creates an imaginary event or conversation or scene that occurs entirely in her character’s mind. Sections of imaginative reconstruction can be a sentence long or several pages. Let’s look again at the little drama between Julia and Carl used in previous examples. “Julia didn’t call Carl back. Just imagining him sitting on the beach drinking a Margarita and watching the waves roll in made her livid.” Moore uses the device of imaginative reconstruction, for example, to create a lengthy scene and between her main character and an imagined deity. Here is the beginning of the scene:
How much? She calls out to the ceiling, to some makeshift construction of holiness she has desperately, though not uncreatively, assemble in her mind and prayed to; a doubter, never given to prayer, she must now reap what she has not sown; she must assemble from scratch an entire altar of worship and begging. She tries for noble abstractions, nothing too anthropomorphic, just some Higher Morality, though if this particular Highness looks something like the manager at Marshall Field’s sucking a Frango mint, so be it. Amen. Just tell me what you want, requests the Mother. And how do you want it? (220-221)
Moore enters into the imagined scene by having her main character create another character inside her mind. Moore then has the mother ask questions of this imaginary character, which initiates an argument. In this way Moore can write the mother’s internal turmoil out into the text of the story and have it escalate.
Now the Manager of Marshall Field’s reappears. “To take the surprises out is to take the life out of life,” he says…
“But I don’t want these surprises,” says the Mother. “Here! You take these surprises!”
“To know the narrative in advance is to turn yourself into a machine,” the Manager continues, “What makes humans human is precisely that they do not know the future. That is why they do the fateful and amusing things they do: who can say how anything will turn out? Therein lies the only hope for redemption, discovery, and – let’s be frank – fun, fun, fun! There might be things people will get away with. And not just motel towels. There might be great illicit lovers, enduring joy, faith-shaking accidents with farm machinery. But you have to not know in order to see what stories you life’s efforts bring you. The mystery is all.”
The Mother, though shy, has grown confrontational. “Is this the kind of bogus, random crap they teach at merchandising school? We would like fewer surprises, fewer efforts and mysteries, thank you. K through eight; can we just get k through eight?” It now seems like the luckiest, most beautiful, most musical phrase she’s ever heard: K through eight. The very lilt. The very thought. (221-222)
This entire scene is occurring inside the mother’s head. It is character thought. This imagined conversation is a conflict within the character’s mind. She doesn’t want surprises or mysteries, she wants to be able to affect the outcome of the story, but she realizes, at the same time, that mystery and surprise are a part of life.
Before we move onto the functions of character thought it is important to remember that these are only a few techniques selected from one story. There are several other ways to write character thought into a story that we don’t have time to discus today.
Like techniques, there are also a wide variety of functions that character thought serves in a story, but we are only going to look at three of them right now – backfill, motive and thematic.
Moore uses character thought to insert backfill into a story without interrupting the stream of narration for too long. Backfill is action that happens before the story begins or action that happens before a certain scene occurs. When Moore writes backfill into the story using character thought she uses an event as a catalyst to send her character’s mind into the past. Here is the moment, for instance, when the radiologist first examines the images of the baby’s kidneys: “’Are you finding something?’ asks the mother. Last year her uncle Larry had had a kidney removed for something that turned out to be benign.” (213) Moore notifies the reader that the sentence is backfill by changing the verb tense and using the time phrase “last year.” The backfill in this case serves to motivate the question the character asks but also shows her grasping at the possibility that everything will be fine. Moore again uses character thought as backfill when the baby is first diagnosed with cancer and the mother tries to understand why this is happening to her baby:
Perhaps, she thinks, she is being punished: too many babysitters too early on… She had, moreover, on three occasions used the formula bottles as flower vases. She twice let the Baby’s ears get fudgy with wax. A few afternoons last month, at snacktime, she placed a bowl of Cheerios on the floor for him to eat, like a dog. She let him play with the Dustbuster. Just once, before he was born, she said, “Healthy? I just want the kid to be rich.” (217)
Again Moore notifies the reader that this is backfill by changing verb tenses and using time phrases. Again she has written this section of character thought into the text at this particular point because it establishes a motive for the mother’s feelings of guilt.
By writing backfill Moore connects the story’s past with its present and develops the character of the mother. She uses backfill to build the illusion of life around her character. Here is the scene in which the mother discovers blood in her baby’s N-G tube:
The medical student holds the tubing in his hands. “I don’t really see anything,” he says.
He flunks! “You don’t?” The mother shoves her way in, holds the clear tubing in both hands. “That,” she says. “Right here and here.” Just this past semester, she said to one of her own students, “If you don’t see how this essay is better than that one, then I want you just to go out into the hallway and stand there until you do.” Is it important to keep one’s voice down? (239)
This scene reminds the character of her own students. By inserting character thought as backfill here Moore creates a vocation and a past for her character, which strengthens the mirage of reality.
As you may have already noticed, Moore weaves character thought into her story in order to show her character’s motivations and clarify conflict. As with backfill, Moore inserts character thought as motive in response to events in the story, using her character’s thoughts to move the story forwards. The character reacts to what is happening in the story by thinking about it and then making decisions about what to do next. Here is the moment the mother learns her baby has a cancerous tumor:
Wait a minute. Hold on here. The Baby is only a baby, fed on organic applesauce and soy milk – a little prince! – and he was standing so close to her during the ultrasound. How could he have this terrible thing? It must have been her kidney. A fifties kidney. A DDT kidney. The Mother clears her throat. “Is it possible it was my kidney on the scan? I mean, I’ve never heard of a baby with a tumor, and, frankly, I was standing very close.” She would make the blood hers, the tumor hers; it would all be some treacherous farcical mistake. (215)
The character thought as free indirect discourse expresses the mother’s first reaction, that of denial and substitution. Moore establishes a conflict within her character’s thoughts then writes the progression that runs through her character’s mind as she tries to resolve that conflict. After the brief section of dialog Moore reverts to her character’s thought, in which the mother admits to herself that she would make the sickness hers if she could. This last sentence is the character admitting reality. She knows that it isn’t her kidney. She knows her baby is sick. But she would do anything to take that sickness away from him. Moore does this over and over again in the story. Here is another example:
She wants to pick up the Baby and run – out of there, out of there. She wants to whip out a gun… Don’t you touch him! She wants to shout at the surgeons and the needle nurses. Not anymore! No more! No more! She would crawl up and lie beside him in the crib if she could. But instead, because of all his intricate wiring, she must lean and cuddle, sing to him, songs of peril and flight. (237)
The conflict once again begins with denial. Moore repeats the word “want” three times to establish her character’s desire to protect her baby from the doctors. But then she uses to the word “would” to again show reality setting in. She uses the last sentence to resolve the conflict completely.
Moore uses these sections of conflict and resolution within her character’s mind to move the story forwards. Every action is met with a reaction.
The Baby is awake but drowsy. She lifts off his pajamas. Don’t forget, bubeleh,” she whispers, undressing and dressing him. “We will be with you every moment, every step. When you think you are asleep and floating off far away from everybody, Mommy will still be there.” If she hasn’t fled on a bus. “Mommy will take care of you. And Daddy, too.” She hopes the Baby does not detect her own fear and uncertainty, which she must hide from him, like a limp. He is hungry, not having been allowed to eat, and he is no longer amused by this new place, but worried about its hardships. Oh my baby, she thinks. And the room starts to swim a little. The Husband comes in to take over. (232)
Note how Moore weaves sentences of character thought in with the action in this scene. As the mother dresses the baby she promises him she’ll be there for him but she jokes with herself that she might run away. This causes her to promise the baby she’ll be there for him. That dialog, however, causes the mother to hope that the baby won’t notice her uncertainty and fear. The character’s awareness of her internal conflict then drives her to observe her baby. The sight of him, hungry and worried, initiates another section of character thought – the mother thinks “oh, my baby,” accepting the full weight of the situation and is then overwhelmed by it. The light, humorous tone at the beginning of the paragraph is eclipsed by the serious, sad reality by the end. Moore uses each section of character thought give the mother’s actions and reactions a motive. She also uses character thought to create conflict and resolution in each scene even when the external action of the scene may not be particularly conflicted.
The third function for which Moore uses her character’s thoughts is to write thematic material into her story. In his essay “Short Story Structure”, Douglas Glover defines a thematic passage as “any text in which the narrator or some other character questions or offers an interpretation of the action of the story.” (173) Moore inserts thematic passages into her scenes in order to have her character examine what is happening to her. In this way she can write what she means and interpret the story for the reader.
She can feel him falling backward into sleep, his mouth round and open like the sweetest of poppies. All the lullabies in the world, all the melodies threaded through with maternal melancholy now become for her – abandoned as a mother can be by working men and napping babies – the songs of hard, hard grief. Sitting there, bowed and bobbing, the Mother feels the entirety of her love as worry and heartbreak. A quick and irrevocable alchemy: there is no longer one unworried scrap left for happiness. (219)
The Mother is singing her baby to sleep and thinking about what those songs mean to her now. Moore uses character thought in this scene to interpret the action of the story and to connect the action with feelings. She doesn’t make the reader guess what the mother is feeling – she writes it straight onto the page. By doing so Moore gives her plot thematic and emotional depth.
But Moore doesn’t only have her character interpret the action of the story. She also has her question what is happening. With these questions Moore can explore larger themes, themes that extend past the boundaries of the fictional worlds and people within their stories.
The act of questioning is more important here than the act of answering. One of the most common devices of thematic inquiry in fiction (mostly ignored by beginners) is the rhetorical question. The questions don’t have to be answered, or they don’t have to be answered correctly. But by asking the question in the text the author creates a sense that the story is aware of the larger mysteries of its own existence. A story that does not ask its own questions often seems fatally unaware of itself, unintelligent and inhibited. It cannot develop any moral or psychological depth. By asking questions the story generalizes its own meaning, opens up thematic depths and, more importantly, creates new possibilities of action. (Glover, 173-174)
Moore consistently does this throughout her story. By using her character’s thoughts to ask rhetorical questions Moore writes her character’s uncertainty and fear straight into the text. Here is another example:
The Mother has begun to cry: all life has led her here, to this moment. After this, there is no more life. There is something else, something stumbling and unlivable, something mechanical, something for robots, but not life. Life has been taken and broken, quickly, like a stick. The room goes dark again, so that the mother can cry more freely. How can a baby’s body be stolen so fast? How much can one heaven-sent and unsuspecting child endure? Why has he not been spared this inconceivable fate? (217)
The mother has just been told that her baby has cancer and so Moore has the mother interpret the information by inserting her thoughts directly into the scene. First she has her character think about what this information means for her – in this case the end of her life as she knows it. Then Moore has her character question how and why this is happening to her. The questions are personal, relating directly to the character and her situation, but are also philosophical. Moore doesn’t make the reader to guess what is going on inside the mother’s head. Instead she writes it out so everything is there for the reader to read.
If you look back through the quotes cited above you’ll notice rhetorical questions in the examples of character thought as backfill and motive. Moore often inserts them at the end of her thematic sections of character thought.
Everything inside her suddenly begins to cower and shrink, a thinning of bones. Perhaps this is a soldier’s readiness, but it has the whiff of death and defeat. It feels like a heart attack, a failure of will and courage, a power failure: a failure of everything. Her face, when she glimpses it in a mirror, is cold and bloated with shock, her eyes scarlet and shrunk. She has already started to wear sunglasses indoors, like a celebrity widow. From where will her own strength come? From some philosophy? From some frigid little philosophy? (219)
Again Moore has her character first attempt to mentally grapple with what is happening in the scene. She writes in what the character is feeling and then she has her character ask rhetorical questions in order to create conflict. The questioning not only opens the story up thematically but also, as Glover put it, “creates new possibilities of action.” (174) Moore uses these rhetorical questions to move the story forwards towards the next scene in which the mother tries to resolve her conflict by creating a deity in her imagination.
I have to admit that I was blown away by Moore’s extensive use of character thought. All of her stories are full of it. She uses it to create conflict and make things happen. She uses it to resolve that conflict. She uses it so that the reader can witness the character changing as the story unfolds. And yet she slips all of that information seamlessly into her story without ever stopping the story’s forward momentum.
Moore’s not the only writer to do so. Since I started this lecture I’ve begun to notice character thought in everything I read. And yet, before I ever noticed it, those thoughts were what seduced me into the foreign worlds other writers’ created with a jumble of letters on a page.
- Austen, Jane. Emma. Ignacio Hills Press, 2008. Electronic.
- Baldick, Chris. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print. 135-136.
- Glover, Douglas. “Notes on Novel Structure”. Words Overflown by Stars. Ed. David Jauss. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2009. 70-85. Reprinted in Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing, Biblioasis, 2012.
- Glover, Douglas. “Short Story Structure”. The New Quarterly Number 87 (summer 2003): 163 – 177. Reprinted in Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing, Biblioasis, 2012.
- Joyce, James. “The Dead” Dubliners. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1993. Print. 127-160.
- Moore, Lorrie. “People Like That are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk”. Birds of America. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1998.
- O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” A Good Man is Hard to Find. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1953. 9-29.