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is of the snow on the trees; the second is of the brevity of life.

The decision is
simply to walk in the woods, but in following this "new line of action" he also
"changes from one state to another," in that he acknowledges his mortality.


Take a monologue you have already written and add actions, in the form of either

narration or stage directions. Make the action contradict or qualify the speech. ("I'm

not worned about it at all. These things don't throw me." [She twists her hands.D and

so forth. Remember that a good way to reveal characters' feelings is through their

relationships to objects.

Character as Thought
Although discovery and decision necessarily imply thought, image, speech, and
action are all external manifestations-thingsthat we could observd. ImaginatiVe)
writing has the power also to take us inside the minds of characters to show us
what they are thinking. Again, different
of the revelation of thought are
appropriate to different forms of literature:
In a m~!!l0!~ or personal essay we count on the honest thoughts of the author

but can't credibly see into the minds of other characters. (Even this quasi-rule

is sometimes broken; Tom Wolfe in his techniques of "new journalism" fre

quently turns what his interviewees say into a kind of mental patter or stream

of consciousness, as if these quotations were in fact their thoughts.)

A character in a cJ.rama is necessarily speaking and therefore making his/her

thoughts external, but there are a number of theatrical traditions to let us

know that we are overhearing thoughts-as in ;>.9li1oquy, aside, voice-over.

Many characters in modern drama speak directly to the audience, and usu
do so with an assumed honesty toward what is going on in their minds,

whereas in dialogue with other characters they may lie, conceal, stumble. or

become confused.

Fiction usually (except in the case of the objective narrator) gives us the

thoughts of at least the central character.

A persona in poetry is usually sharing thoughts. Poetry also has the same

freedom as fiction, to be presented from the point of view of a character

and this character may reveal what's on his or her mind.

Aristotle suggested a useful way of looking at thought in relation to desire.

A persona or character begins with a certain desire, and therefore a certain spe"
cffic goal in mind. Thought is the process by which she works backward to decide
!!hat to do in the immediate situation that presents itself "Loveliest of Trees" is a
condensed poetic demonstration of this process. The chances are I will die at about
seventy. I'm twenty now. That means I have fifty years lift. That's not maT'!}'years to look




at these trees. I will look at them now. My apologies to Housman for this rude
paraphrase-but it does show not only Aristotle's understanding of the thought
process, but also how crucial to the beauty of the poem is Housman's diction.
Thgyght, like dialogue, is al~Q .action when it presents us with the process of
ch~ge. Since both discovery and decision take place in the mind, thought is
i material to every character and is in fact the locus of action and the dwelling
; place of desire. In the first lines of any poem, the first page of every story, the
curtain rise of every drama, you can find a human consciousness yearning
for whatever might occur in the last line, on the last page, in the last scene. The
action proceeds because that consciousness makes a lightning-fast leap back
ward to the present moment, to decide what action can be taken now, at this
moment, in this situation, to achieve that goal. At every new discovery, the mind
repeats the process, ever changing in the service of a fixed desire.


Pick a character. What is your character's deep desire? What is the situation that
character is in now-where, doing what, in the company of whom? Make a list,
inventing as you go, of the character's thought process, backward from the ultimate
desire to the specific action (or inaction) that would lead eventually toward that

Character as Presented by the Author

Appearance, speech, action, and thought are the direct methods of presenting
character. The indirect method is authorial interpretation-"telling" us the char
acter's background, motives, values, virtues, and the like. The advantages of the
indirect method are enormous, for its use leaves you free to move in time and
space; to know anything you choose to know whether the character knows it or
not; and godlike, to tell us what we are to feel. The indirect method allows you
to convey a great deal of information in a short time.
The port town of Veracruz is a little purgatory between land and sea for the
traveler, but the people who live there are very fond of themselves and the
town they have helped to make ... and they carry on their lives of alternate
violence and lethargy with a pleasurable contempt for outside opinion....
of Fools, Katherine Anne Porter

The disadvantage of this indirect method is that it bars us readers from

sharing the immediacy and vividness of detail and the pleasure of judging for
ourselves. In the summarized judgments of this passage, for example, we learn
more about the attitude of the narrator than about the town. Nevertheless, the
indirect method is very efficient when you want to cover the exposition quickly,
as A.S. Byatt does in this passage from "Crocodile Tears."



Character as Voice
As a writer you need to hear a character's voice in your head in order to bring him
or her to life successfully. This involves moving beyond inventing or remember
ing the character to inhabiting his or her persona, a challenging task if your char
acter is significantly different from the person you are. As a first step, it's always
good practice to write a monologue in your character's voice. Thinkingfrom the
point ofview of that character will help you to find the diction and the rhythm of
his or her speech and thought. Keep going even if you feel you haven't "caught"
the character, because sometimes the very fact of continuing will allow you to slip
or sidle into the voice you seek.


Write a qUick sketch of a character you have already worked with-no more than
two or three focused details. Then pick one of the trigger lines below and write a
monologue in that character's voice. Keep going a little bit past the place you want
to stop.
It doesn't take much, does it, for ...
And what I said was true ...
I know right away I'm going to ...

I've become a different person since ...

I don't like anyone to watch me ...
You call that music?
Now look over the monologue and highlight a few phrases that seem to you to
catch that character's voice. Pick one of these and use it to begin another short
One of the ways we understand people is by assessing, partly instinctively and
partly through experience, what they express voluntarily and involuntarily. When
someone chooses to wear baggy jeans as opposed to slim-fits, or a shaved head, a
tuxedo, body piercing, a string of pearls-these are choices, largely conscious, that
signal: I am a member ofthis group. Other "body language" will strike the viewer as
involuntary (dishevelment, poor taste, blushing, slurring, staring, sweating, clum
Siness) and so as a betrayal of characteristics that have not been chosen. In the
same way speech may be consciously chosen both in its style (the rapper's patter,
the lawyer's convolutions) and content (she tells him she's angry, but not that she's
broke). On the whole, it is human nature to give the involuntary more credibility
than the chosen. We say that what he said was very generous, but he kept checking to
see how it was going over. His glances belied his words. In this case, we say that the
words represent the text, and that what we read by other means is the subtext.
Speech belongs largely in the voluntary category, though like appearance it
can (and does) betray us. Talking is an intentional attempt to express the inner

as the outer. But when people talk in literature they convey much more than the
information in their dialogue. They are also working for the author-to reveal
themselves, advance the plot, fill in the past, control the pace, establish the tone,
foreshadow the future, establish the mood. What busy talk!
So just fill me in a bit more could you about what you've been dOing.
SHaNA: What I've been doing. It's all down there.
NELL: The bare facts are down here but I've got to present you to an employer.
SHaNA: I'm twenty-nine years old.
NELL: So it says here.
SHaNA: We look young. Youngness runs in our family.
NELL: So just describe your present job for me.
SHaNA: My present job at present. I have a car. I have a Porsche. I go up the
Ml a lot. Burn up the Ml a lot. Straight up the MI in the fast lane to where
the clients are, Staffordshire, Yorkshire, I do a lot in Yorkshire. I'm selling
electric things. Like dishwashers, washing machines, stainless steel tubs
are a feature and the reliability of the program....

Top Girls, Caryl Churchill

Notice how the characters produce tension by contradicting each other

(Fill me in; it's all down there; but I've got to present you; I'm twenry-nine; so it
says). This is known as "no dialogue," in which characters are in many and var
ious ways saying "no" to each other. They may be angry or polite, disagreeing,
contradicting, qualifYing, or frankly quarreling, but whatever the tone, they
spark our interest because we want to find out what will happen in this overt
or implied conflict.
Notice also how Shona's description of her job reveals the subtext. She falters
between concrete imagery and flimsy generalization, contradicting in general
ization what she tries to prove by making up convincing details. She is spinning
lies without sufficient information or imagination, so it's no great surprise when
Nell ends the exchange with, "Christ, what a waste of time ... Not a word of this is
true, is it?"
Dramatic dialogue is always direct as in this example, all the words spoken.
In fiction, nonfiction, or poems, direct dialogue of this sort is lively and vivid,
but sometimes the narrative needs to cover ground faster, and then dialogue
may be indirect or summarized. Summarized dialogue, efficient but textureless,
gives us a brief report:

Shona claimed she had sales experience, but Nell questioned both her age and
her expertise.
Indirect dialogue gives the flavor of the dialogue without quoting directly:

Nell wanted her to fill in the facts, so Shona repeated that she was twenry-nine,
claimed that looking young ran in the family, and that she drove a Porsche up to







Staffordshire to sell dishwashers and washing machines. But she couldn't seem
to come up with the word "appliances."
There's a strong temptation to make dialogue eloquent (you are a writer,
after all), and the result is usually that it becomes stilted. People are often not
eloquent, precisely about what moves them most. Half the time we aren't really
sure what we mean, and if we are, we don't want to say it, and if we do, we can't
find the words, and if we can, the others aren't listening, and if they are, they
don't understand.... In fact, the various failures to communicate can make the
richest sort of dialogue, just as the most stunted language is sometimes the
most revealing of character.
In this example from David Mitchell's Black Swan Green, thirteen-year-old
Jason Taylor comes home from school. Notice how in this short space Mum's
actions contradict her words, her "sarky" (sarcastic) tone conceals her secret, and
Jason's thoughts contradict his responses. Notice also that we are never in doubt
who's speaking, though there is only one "he said."






Mum was at the dining room table ... Dad's fireproof document box was
out and open. Through the kitchen hatch I asked if she'd had a good
"Not a good day, exactly." Mum didn't take her eyes off her calculator.
"But it's certainly been a real revelation."
"That's good," I said, doubting it. I got a couple of Digestives and a
glass of Ribena. Julia's snaffled all the Jaffa Cakes 'cause she's at home all
day revising for her A levels. Greedy moo. "What're you doing?"

I should've just gone upstairs. "What's for dinner?"


One unsarky answer to one simple question, that's all I wanted.

"Doesn't Dad usually do all the bank statements and stuff?"

"Yes." Mum finally looked at me. "Isn't your lucky old father in for a
pleasant surprise when he gets home ... "
Debate and argument can make interesting dialogue if the matter itself is
interesting, but in imaginative writing debate and argument are usually too
static to be of interest, too simple and too single. Eudora Welty explained in an
interview with the Paris Review, "Sometimes I needed to make a speech do four
or five things at once-reveal what the character said but also what he thought
said, what he hid, what others were going to think he meant, and what
misunderstood-and so forth-all in this single speech.... I used to laugh out
loud sometimes when I wrote it."
If a character expresses in dialogue what he/she means, that character has
done only one thing, whereas as a writer you are constantly trying to mean
more than you say, to give several clues at once to the inner lives of your charac
ters. If Jeannine says:
I feel that civilization is encroaching on nature, and that the greed of the
developers will diminish the value of all our lives

-she has expressed an opinion, but little of her inner life is revealed: her emo
tions, her history, her particularities. This is the dialogue equivalent of the vague
category images described in Chapter 2. But if she says:
They should lock up that builder. He's massacred the neighborhood.
I remember how the lilac and wisteria used to bloom, and then the
peonies, and the daffodils. What fragrance in this room! But now.
Smell the stink of that site next door. It just makes me sick.
-the same opinion is expressed, but her emotions-anger, nostalgia, and defeat
also are vividly revealed, and through parncular detail.

"'TRY THIS 4.4

;';Write a "dialogue" between two characters, only one of whom can speak. The other
l,isphyskally, emotionally, or otherwise prevented from saying what he/she wants to
tsay. Write only the words of the one, only the appearance and actions of the other.

Character as Action
By our actions we discover what we really believe and, simultaneously,

reveal ourselves to others.


I have said that a character is first of all someone who wants. Whatever the nature
of that desire, it will lead the character toward action and therefore toward potentialSh~qge. The action may be as large as a military charge or as small as remov
ing a coffee cup, but it will signal or symbolize for the reader that a significant
change has occurred. The characters who interest and move us are those who are
capable of such change.
Playwright Sam Smiley observes that "Any significant discovery forces change
in conditions, relationships, activity or all three." And, he says, "The quickest and
best way to know someone is to see that person make a significant decision.... At
the instant a character makes a choice, he changes from one state to another; his
significant relationships alter; and usually he must follow a new line of action as a
If we grant that discov.ery ahd decisio1l! are the two agents of human change,
characters will be in action when these are possible. Action as in action-packed is
a crude but effective way of getting discovery and decision into a work:

There's the bad guy! (discovery) Quick, I will load my revolver, hide behind
this pillar, turn and shoot. (decision) But wait! There's his accomplice on
the catwalk above me! (discovery) I will roll under this forklift to avoid his
bullet! (decision)
The thriller, the cop show, the alien, and the spy are enormously popular (and
money-making) genres because they simplify and exaggerate our experience of