Author John Thornton Williams, writing a recent Glimmer Train essay about his strategy for connecting readers with characters, touches on “one of the most important accomplishments of fiction” and one of the trickiest. Certainly writers receive plenty of advice not to come right out and say, “Mary was angry that Bethany was flirting with Ben” or “Dan felt sad when his dog died.” First of all, those feelings are pure obvious, given the situation, and second, naming a feeling doesn’t make the reader feel it.
An alternative, which Williams terms “a lengthy expository digression into the psyche of a character, perhaps accompanied by physical cues,” like “his stomach was in a knot, his throat was on fire,” he says, “generally proves detrimental to how I experience the story at hand.” It distracts him from the narrative, rather than immersing him in it. Or, as Donald Maass says, in Writing 21st Century Fiction, “when you supply everything readers are supposed to feel, they may wind up feeling little at all.”
Williams makes a third choice, especially for a story’s crisis moments, when emotions run highest and, often, at cross-purposes. He calls this approach “indirection of image.” To accomplish this, he takes into account how his characters would see a situation, based on their emotional state. “Something as simple as a car parked on the street surely looks different to a lottery winner than to someone who just got evicted,” he says.
His example recalls a favorite exercise from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: “Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, war, death, or the old man doing the seeing; then describe the same building, in the same weather and at the same time of day, as seen by a happy lover. Do not mention love or the loved one.” This exercise is many times harder than it might appear, and it’s perfect practice for the “indirection of image” approach Williams recommends.
Indirection of image, he says, “is a way to take abstract emotions and project them onto something concrete.” This actually expresses our lived experience. How many times has a car or a piece of furniture or a particular shirt become more significant in our minds because of its symbolic association with a whole range of emotions, beyond what we can tease out and easily express? Our childhood home. The ghastly color of its bathroom tile. The relentless ticking of the mantelpiece clock. A dead wasp.
By giving readers space to project their own emotions into the situation, by leaving a little ambiguity, readers can experience the emotion on a level that connects with their own experience, Williams says. They can, in other words, get inside the character. Here’s a link to one of his stories.