One of the most important accomplishments of fiction is to connect readers with characters. For me, the strongest of those connections generally take place on an emotional level. It's one thing to come across a character that shares my affinity for barbecue or wears my same brand of boots. It's quite another to recognize in a character my own tendency toward disproportional anxiety or inappropriate laughter or desperation without cause. That said, when I started grad school I had very little notion of how character interiority operated in fiction, let alone any control of it.
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 to be, 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 rather than clumsy.
But how does one accomplish it? It depends on the circumstance, of course. There are occasions in fiction where it's 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 he'd felt in his entire life, so upset he thought he might die, his stomach was in a knot, his throat was on fire
generally proves detrimental to how I experience the story at hand. Such straightforward description, even accompanied by metaphor, rarely provides any greater nuance of emotional experience and usually pulls me out of the fictitious world, rather than drawing me into it.
A third option—what I'll call indirection of image—is often a more successful approach, at least in crisis moments in a story, places where emotions are most charged and complex. By indirection of image, I mean an instance where a writer takes into consideration how a certain character would experience 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, ones that are more intense—emotions that a story has perhaps been carrying for pages as subtext.
William Gay was an expert at indirection of image. His masterful story, "My Hand Is Just Fine Where It Is," published in his excellent collection I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down, features a whole host of examples. The story centers on protagonist Worrel. He takes his lover, Angie, who is sick with terminal cancer, to the hospital. Angie is married. 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 magazine, 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."
How does Worrel feel in the waiting room? He's tired, sure. But Gay doesn't tell the reader that Worrel feels tired. In a crisis moment for the story, Gay permits the reader to experience Worrel's tiredness for him/herself. And, because of that, the reader may well encounter emotion in Worrel deeper than tiredness—the reader may also sense his struggle in loving an unattainable woman, one who is dying. Further contained in how Worrel sees that magazine is his helplessness and a sense of unfairness in the world. It's Gay's use of indirection of image—the way Worrel's interiority is simultaneously revealed and left, to a degree, ambiguous—that invites the reader to absorb such breadth of emotion. Even if the reader can't articulate exactly what Worrel is feeling, he/she surely experiences it on a level that is deep and resonant.
In his Nobel Prize speech, a different William—Faulkner—claimed that the only thing worth writing about is "the human heart in conflict with itself." That's the sort of interiority that stretches beyond happy or sad. It's the sort that keeps me up nights on end after I encounter it. It's precisely what Gay presents—brilliantly—in the waiting room scene with Worrel, and he uses indirection of image to plumb it.