What Were They Thinking?

As fiction writers, we make decisions about how close we want the reader to be to our main characters’ thoughts. Sometimes the point of view is very distant as it is when we’re reporting our characters’ actions or their histories or describing their landscapes. Take, for example, the opening lines of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”:

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. . . . The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.

In this case, there are no characters until “The American and the girl with him,” but even after they appear, the point of view is still the objective one of the camera, and that perspective doesn’t allow us access to either of the characters’ thoughts.

Compare that opening with the first sentence of Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party”: “And after all the weather was ideal.” That opening sentence is filtering through someone’s consciousness, and before long we find out it’s Laura’s. She’s sent to supervise the men constructing a marquee for the party, and, as she goes, she carries a piece of bread-and-butter: “It’s so delicious to have an excuse for eating outdoors, and besides she loved to arrange things; she always felt she could do it so much better than anybody else.” Such a sentence dissolves the psychic distance and takes us into Laura’s interiority.

We can get closer still, as Bernard Malamud demonstrates in his story, “A Lost Grave,” a story in which the main character, Hecht, has a dream in which he can’t locate his ex-wife’s grave:

The grave had taken off. How can you cover a woman who isn’t where she’s supposed to be? That’s Celia.

That last sentence of that passage—“That’s Celia”—takes as close to the Hecht’s interior as we can get.

This issue of interiority begs this question: What kind of writer are you when it comes to psychic distance? Do you like entering the thoughts of your characters, or do you resist going there? I’m not suggesting that there’s a right or a wrong when it comes to these questions. I’m only inviting you to think about how you go about the business of conveying a character’s journey through a sequence of events in a way that illustrates the impact these events have on him or her.

So let’s say you’re pro-interiority—someone like Virginia Woolf, for instance. It’s easy for you to dip into your characters’ thoughts. Like Woolf, you believe the mind is an interesting mystery:

My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery—always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud. And why? What’s this passion for?

This eternal question of what the events mean as processed through a character’s thoughts.

But let’s say you find people incapable of interesting thought, and, therefore, you wish to keep your fiction away from the interior. You can keep the point of view completely objective, but what if you don’t find that completely satisfactory? Is there a way to show interiority without accessing a character’s direct thoughts?

An apt example might come from Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. As the novel opens, a widow, Addie Moore, has come to call on her neighbor, a widower named Louis Waters. We find out eventually that the purpose of her visit is to ask him to sleep with her, not for sex, but for companionship and conversation. Louis says he’ll consider her request. The first chapter ends with him watching Addie walk back home:

She stood and went out and walked back home, and he stood at the door watching her, this medium-sized seventy-year-old woman with white hair walking away under the trees in the patches of light thrown out by the corner street lamp. What in the hell, he said. Now don’t get ahead of yourself.

Hasn’t Haruf given us a good sense of what Louis is thinking just by the details he observes—Addie’s white hair, the trees under which she walks, the patches of light that illuminate her. All this so beautifully and lyrically presented in language and image that conveys Louis’s interiority without fully going there until he says to himself, What in the hell and warns himself not to assume too much. We know a heck of a lot about Louis from this one passage. The novel is tight and poignant, and perhaps even more so for the way Haruf manages the psychic distance. He strips out direct thought and uses dialogue, action, and description to give us an idea of what it is to be Louis or Addie in any given moment.

There is no right way to deal with the interiority of your characters. It’s really an aesthetic decision. How do you believe people operate? Do they blunder through the world, inarticulate and unaware, or do they dwell on every little thing because they know it’s part of the larger questions that face them? Just know that if you forsake taking us closer to your characters’ thoughts, you have to be a master craftsman, as Haruf is, to be able to work with other tools to create a more subtle and nuanced picture of what it is to live in their skins.




  1. Clayton Cormany on September 21, 2019 at 8:07 am

    I try to keep some psychic distance between my characters and me perhaps out of fear that my interiority will intrude on theirs. One technique I use in The Bullybuster (thanks for your purchase!) is to have internal arguments take place within the mind of Owen, the protagonist. The most poignant such argument arises when Owen discovers Erica, his love interest, has withheld vital information about the avenging robot and thereby placed his aunt’s job (she’s the principal) in danger. As Owen tries to evade the issue of Erica’s disingenuousness, a contrary “voice” challenges him. For example:

    Owen decided to avoid the issue of Erica’s guilt or innocence. That was for his aunt and Sergeant Enders to decide. If he focused on gaining Erica’s help in stopping future robot attacks, he might save his relationship with her and his aunt’s job. You’re putting your head in the sand, the contrary voice whispered.

    I’m not sure how well it works, but it does allow me to show Owen’s internal conflict while maintaining some psychic distance.

    • Lee Martin on September 24, 2019 at 11:13 am

      Interesting technique, Clay! It takes us further into Owen’s conflict.

Leave a Comment