Indirection of Image: Revealing the Interiority of Characters
The craft of bridging the gap between reader and character
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Revealing the interiority of a character in a way that feels natural, yet resonates powerfully within a reader is one of the most difficult tasks of the fiction writer. Considering how powerful that emotional connection between reader and character can prove, and how empty a story can feel without it, it’s vital that the writer bridge the distance between reader and character in ways that are subtle and inconspicuous — unless, of course, an author has some higher purpose in being intentionally conspicuous — rather than clumsy, so as not to call attention to the writer’s hand at work and thereby break the fictitious world of the story, what John Gardner dubbed the ‘narrative dream.’
But how does one accomplish this? It depends on the circumstance, of course. There are occasions in fiction where it’s perfectly appropriate for a narrator to say, So-and-so felt sad/happy/anxious. But rarely are such basic expositions enough to make me feel known as a reader, to illuminate aspects of my own experiences that I didn’t yet understand or couldn’t yet articulate.
The most obvious alternative — a lengthy expository digression into the psyche of a character, perhaps accompanied by physical cues, i.e., So-and-so felt more upset than she’d felt in her entire life, so upset she thought she might die, her stomach was in a knot, her throat was on fire… generally proves detrimental to how I experience the story. Such straightforward descriptions, even when accompanied by metaphor, rarely provide any greater nuance of emotional experience and usually pull me out of a story’s fictitious world rather than draw me into it.
Something as simple as a car parked on the street surely looks different to a lottery winner than to someone who just got evicted.
A third option — what I’ll call indirection of image — is often a more successful approach, especially in crisis moments in a story, when emotions are most charged and complex. By indirection of image, I mean an instance in which a writer takes into consideration how a certain character would see (or, for that matter, smell/hear/etc.) a particular setting or image based on his/her 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.
In other words, indirection of image is a way to take abstract emotions and project them onto something concrete. Doing so creates the potential to explore interiority at a greater depth than what’s afforded by mere exposition. It’s a way to portray emotions that transcend simply happy or sad or anxious and instead swirl together a whole host of others that are more intense and nuanced and ambivalent. This swirling often creates a more compelling interior emotional landscape — the human heart in conflict with itself, which Faulkner said was the only thing worth writing about.
This swirling often creates a more compelling interior emotional landscape — the human heart in conflict with itself, which Faulkner said was the only thing worth writing about.
A good example occurs midway through ZZ Packer’s story “Brownies.” The narrator, Snot, belongs to a group of Girl Scouts who decide on their second day of Brownie camp to “kick the asses of each and every girl” in their rival troop 909. Snot is a quiet character — she reads “encyclopedias the way others read comics” — one who’s not accustomed to getting into trouble, let alone causing it. Yet Snot is the one who comes up with the idea to jump troop 909 in the bathroom. A change is occurring within Snot, an interior progression, and Packer relies on the physical setting of the camp bathroom to reflect that: “Inside, the mirrors above the sinks returned only the vaguest of reflections, as though someone had taken a scouring pad to their surfaces to obscure the shine.”
Snot is becoming a person she herself wouldn’t recognize — simple enough. But the choice to reveal this through indirection of image is an important one. The description of the mirrors works first on a physical level to establish a vivid setting — mirrors in many public camp bathrooms do in fact look like that–and thereby transport the reader. More importantly, the image of the mirrors, and that Snot notices their scouring, works on a metaphysical level to reveal her interior emotional landscape, something Snot herself cannot express in explicit verbiage in the narrative present — she’s only a fourth-grader, after all.
Alternatively, because “Brownies” is a retrospective narrative, Packer might have chosen to utilize a sort of flash-forward. Snot, wherever she is while recounting this past-tense story, might reflect on her fourth-grade self, revealing explicitly to the reader things that younger Snot cannot in the narrative present (in fact, Packer does so successfully at the end of this story). But it’s not the best choice at this moment, as a flash-forward would at best break narrative momentum and at worst pull the reader out of the fictitious world Packer has created, shattering “Brownies”’ narrative dream.
As it reads now, using indirection of image, Packer invites the reader to experience Snot’s interior state as Snot herself experiences it. Packer doesn’t reduce Snot’s interiority. As a result, the reader feels alongside Snot the foreignness of her first inklings of this self-realization. Indirection of image leaves the reader room to project their own emotional experiences onto the narrative, to match them up against Snot’s and see where the edges fit and where they don’t. Because of this, a reader is more likely to identify with Snot and feel known by the fiction itself. Packer’s is a graceful maneuver that occurs in a single line, and the dramatic action of the story continues along.
A similar example occurs midway through William Gay’s story “My Hand Is Just Fine Where It Is.” The story’s protagonist, Worrel, takes his lover, Angie, who is sick with terminal cancer, to the hospital. Angie is married to a different man. Needless to say, the emotions at play here are vast and complicated.
Sitting in a hospital’s waiting room, here’s how Worrel comes to view a copy of Newsweek magazine — something that at first glance (or first draft) might seem insignificant to the story:
…The sheer amount of work that had gone into producing the magazine he held in his hands made him tired. Lumberjacks had felled trees that had been shredded and pulped to make paper. Ink had to come from somewhere. Other folks ran presses, stacked the glossy magazines, delivered them; the US Mail shuttled them across the country…. The magazine grew inordinately heavy, all these labors had freighted it with excess weight. He could hardly hold it.
Like Packer’s mirror, Gay’s Newsweek works on multiple levels. It’s admittedly unusual that Worrel reads so much into the magazine, but Gay establishes earlier in the story that Worrel is a thinker and a wonderer — when reminiscing about his many kisses with Angie, the narrator claims on Worrel’s behalf “In these tawdry moments are worlds, universes.” Rather than smacking of literary device, the way Worrel sees the copy of Newsweek is believable and adds depth and nuance to his character.
The way he sees that magazine contains his ongoing struggle in loving an unattainable woman, one who is dying.
Packer’s child protagonist, Snot, is unable to describe explicitly how she feels in that camp bathroom, at least in the narrative present. Worrel, on the other hand, might well be capable of describing his feelings — at least on a surface level. He’s tired, of course. He’s worried. But rather than rely on Worrel to describe how he feels, Gay projects the way Worrel feels onto something concrete. Through this projection, Gay achieves a more accurate reflection of Worrel’s interior state. In a crisis moment of the story, the reader experiences Worrel’s exhaustion and his worry manifested, beyond surface-level adjectives. The way he sees that magazine contains his ongoing struggle in loving an unattainable woman, one who is dying. In that copy of Newsweek, Worrel — and thereby the reader — reckons with his helplessness and his sense of unfairness in the world. It’s an impressive breadth and depth of emotion, and Gay’s use of indirection of image — the way Worrel’s interiority is simultaneously revealed and left, to a degree, ambiguous — invites the reader to experience it the way that Worrel does. Even if the reader can’t articulate precisely everything that Worrel is feeling — are there even words for it? — they surely experience it on a level that is deep and resonant.
As a final example of how indirection of image can reveal complex interior landscapes, consider Rebecca Lee’s story “Fialta.” A couple of especially strong instances at the end of the story encapsulate, in ways that call little attention to Lee’s hand at work, the richly ambivalent crisis the story has been building toward.
A watered-down premise of the story: while at an architecture residency, an unnamed narrator falls in love with another resident named Sands. But Stadbaaken, the architect who runs the place, has dedicated Fialta, the residency, “not to the fulfillment of desire but to the transformation of desire into art.” As another Fialta resident puts it: “It means not to fool around.” Yet Stadbaaken is perhaps sleeping with Sands. He eventually catches the narrator and Sands making out, makes a big show by sweeping a Thanksgiving turkey off the dinner table, and the next morning Sands meets up with the narrator in a cow barn on the Fialta grounds for a last goodbye.
“And then the door opened. The cold, dim day rushed in, and, along with it, Sands.” The sensory details in the second line are unlikely and curious — the narrator wants badly to see Sands again, but doesn’t expect to; in fact he’s certain that he won’t. Then she appears, and the day seems to him “cold, dim.” Lee makes a similar move in the next full paragraph. The narrator acknowledges explicitly that he will have to leave Fialta, and then comes another unusual description of Sands: “But there was still the morning. [Sands’] hair and skin were the only moments of darkness in the brightening barn.” The inverse of this imagery would be a more obvious way to reveal the interior state of the narrator; Sands’ hair and skin would be the only moments of brightness in the dark barn — he is, after all, happy to see her.
The work of this reversal is (at least) twofold. On a surface level, it challenges the expectation of the reader, which calls less attention to the authorial move here — the indirection of image — making it feel like less of a literary device and holding intact the story’s narrative dream. But moreover, the imagery in this moment acknowledges the ambivalence of this situation, the scope of what’s actually occurring in this crisis moment. The narrator is happy to see Sands of course, but their relationship is effectively over. On its surface, this is a situation with emotional upswing — the narrator is getting a thing that he wants. But Lee inflects the imagery of the moment with darkness — emotional downswing — to remind the reader of the temporary nature of the narrator’s happiness. Lee orchestrates a beautifully ambivalent moment here in which she simultaneously holds to the light jubilation and grief, almost in equal measure, at the same time.
Lee orchestrates a beautifully ambivalent moment here in which she simultaneously holds to the light jubilation and grief, almost in equal measure, at the same time.
Unlike Snot and perhaps Worrel, this nameless narrator is perfectly capable of explicitly articulating just how he feels and does so in the story’s final paragraph: “I could practically have predicted my leaving to the hour, but my heart was caught up in the present, whirring away and still insisting that this was the beginning, not the end.” That’s beautiful — it’s as if the emotional tenor of the story is folding in on itself. The language in which the narrator describes his emotional state is hugely compelling, and the sentiment is all-encompassing, at least insofar as the concerns of this story. But Lee first employs indirection of image to lay crucial concrete groundwork for this final exposition. Without the initial curious descriptions of Sands’ face, the ambivalent disparity inherent in those moments’ construction, the narrator’s final exposition wouldn’t feel as whole and total.
It could be that Faulkner was a touch narrow-minded in his aforementioned evaluation. Perhaps the human heart in conflict with itself isn’t the only thing worth writing about. However, it is one worthy and gainful thing — replicating in art interior emotional landscapes that make readers feel known, especially when those landscapes can’t be adequately explicitly articulated. Packer, Gay, and Lee all three utilize ndirection of image to plumb this tenuous, shadowy, ambivalent landscape, each in ways that are emotionally resonant, all without calling attention to the artifice of their fictions.