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Reflecting the Interior

Some of the great writers use little interiority. They focus, instead, on showing us how the character views the world. Through these moments—when we are looking through the character’s eyes at a room, a character, a landscape—we learn almost more about who they are than if we had direct access to their thoughts and judgments.

William Trevor is a master at this technique, often using one character to tell us about another. Through the description, we learn about both characters. Take, for example, this passage from “Three People” where Sidney describes Vera:

Vera has sharp cheek-bones and hair dyed black because it’s greying. The leanness in her face is everywhere else too; a navy-blue skirt is tight on bony hips, her plain red jumper is as skinny as a child’s, clinging to breasts that hardly show. Her large brown eyes and sensuous lips are what you notice, the eyes expressionless, the lips perhaps a trick of nature, for in other ways Vera does not seem sensuous in the least.

We have a precise visual image of Vera after reading this description. But we’ve also learned a good deal about Sidney. He is very familiar with her body, focusing in on the clothes only to describe what they cover. The description quickly moves from her cheekbones and hair to her breasts and lips. We are perhaps surprised when he gets to the “sensuous lips,” because the description up until that point has been plain and matter-of-fact; the description of the lips leaves us with a nuanced portrait of her. What does it mean about Sidney that he ends there, rather than starts there? The language, too, progresses from simple sentences to those that are more complex.

Exercise

Write a scene with two characters in a café. Have a new, third character enter and order a cup of coffee. Describe the character from the first character’s point-of-view and then from the second character’s point-of-view. Focus on the description; use interior judgment or thoughts as little as possible. What do the descriptions tell you about the characters? How does the difference in the way each character sees the third character teach you about the interiority of the character who’s observing?

by Laura Spence-Ash