by Ashley Lister
Rene Descartes said, “I think; therefore I am.” And, whilst he wasn’t talking about the construction of characters in fiction, it’s fair to say that describing a character through their thoughts is one of the most effective ways of letting your reader know all about a story’s protagonist.
For the past few months I’ve been looking at the different ways we can represent characters in fiction. We’ve looked at speech, action and physical description. This month we’re looking at thought. I’m going to start by sharing the opening page to a short story I’ve written called, ‘Here Comes Orgasm Girl.’
Betty Swolenski was startled by the faraway clatter of breaking glass. Immediately she knew a robbery was taking place. She stiffened in her chair and glanced toward the closed office door. A robbery? Here at Dildo & Son? Who in their right mind would rob a factory that met orders for sex toys and sundry adult novelties?
She supposed the answers to those questions were self-evident.
Here I’m allowing the main character to give narrative information, but I’m trying to constantly do it so the reader learns more about who she is and how she is motivated. Betty is startled by the noise. She stiffens in her chair. These are, in fairness, physical reactions. However, with the next sentence, we move directly into her thoughts. A robbery? Here…? Who in their right mind would…?
These three questions give the suggestion that Betty is panicked by her situation, which tells your reader that Betty is in a state of panic. This is not to suggest she is someone who is always in a state of panic. But it tells your reader that she is panicking in this situation – and with short fiction we only care about the character in that particular situation. The opening to, ‘Here Comes Orgasm Girl’ continues with:
Times were hard. On an industrial estate where most of the factories were boarded and abandoned, and the remaining warehouses were decorated with battered signs notifying creditors of liquidations and bankruptcy orders, the success of Dildo & Son was proving to be something of a local anomaly.
An enviable anomaly.
Again, this is from Betty’s perspective. This is her interpretation of the local economy. This is her paranoia colouring the interpretation of local business owners being envious. We’re already getting a sharp picture of Betty, and none of this has come from blatant exposition. All we’re reading are Betty’s thoughts. This passage concludes as follows:
The Dildo & Son workforce were only a small number. But they each took annual holidays and most of them met their personal bills and none of them, to the best of Betty’s knowledge, had to run a second job to cover life’s additional expenses. Big Eric, the owner, was currently driving a fairly new Mercedes. And although Betty figured this added to the truth of what she believed about Mercedes owners, she knew for a fact that he’d managed to acquire the car without having to employ some shyster accountant to fiddle figures or cook books.
As readers, we’re privy to Betty’s thoughts and get a shrewd understanding of who she is. There has been no physical description of her so far, but we already have some small sympathy for her and her plight (because we’ve all been in situations where we were a little bit scared). We’re aware of enough background for the story to begin, and this has been delivered through a nervous character’s iteration of facts, rather than narrative exposition. We’ve been given no dialogue up to this point but still, I think, we already feel as though we know Betty.
I’m not trying to suggest this is an exemplar for how quality fiction should be written. I’m not that arrogant. But I do think the opening to this story shows how easy it is develop a character by just using their thoughts.
As always, if you have examples of your own characters being portrayed through their thoughts, I’d love to see them in the comments box below.