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Exploring the art of fiction

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Character’s Imagination

Exploring the imagination of a character is a wonderful way to allow the reader insight into the way a character thinks and behaves. How characters behave with others—their actions and their words—can move a story forward and, of course, are essential to create conflict and tension. But in tracing their innermost thoughts, particularly when they imagine narratives that are different than the narrative that is presented, tells us so much about who they really are.

Let’s take a look at a few examples by William Trevor. In “A Day,” Trevor’s protagonist, Mrs. Lethwes, moves through her day from waking up in her bed to going to sleep that night. She has interactions with the housekeeper, with the gardener, with her husband. But mostly she lives in her head. And it is there that we learn about a past incident, a letter received from her husband’s lover. Mrs. Lethwes has created, in her imagination, the relationship between her husband and the other woman.

They sit by the French windows that open on to a small balcony and are open now. It is a favourite place in summer, geraniums blooming in the balcony’s two ornamental containers, the passers-by on the street below viewed through the metal scrolls that decorate the balustrade, the drawn-back curtains undisturbed by breezes. The teacups are a shade of pink.

We see how thoroughly Mrs. Lethwes has imagined this scene. It’s not just a thought or a vague sense of what the woman’s apartment looks like. It is fully developed, with flowers and railings and china. How much this tells us about Mrs. Lethwes and the way in which she lives mostly in her head. This other world—the imagined world—is as fully described as is the world in which she lives. For the reader, these details serve to make this imagined world as real as the world of the story. We, too, begin to believe in the veracity of this world.

In “An Evening Out,” a couple—Jeffrey and Evelyn—are on a date, of sorts. The perspective switches back and forth between the couple, and we go deep into the interiority of both, seeing how their interior lives are so different from the people they are in the world. At one point, Jeffrey considers the bartender:

Jeffrey took against the man, the way he often did with people serving him. He guessed that the barmaid looked after the man in a middle-aged daughterly way, listening to his elderly woes and ailments, occasionally inviting him to a Christmas celebration. Her daytime work was selling curtain material, Jeffrey surmised; the man had long ago retired from the same department store. Something like that it would be, the theatre bar their real world.

We see how his thoughts move away from the present moment. This movement away shows us that he is not particularly interested in Evelyn. Instead, he creates a world for these ancillary characters, complete with former occupations and holiday parties. And we wonder, in this fully imagined world, whether these are things that Jeffrey wishes for as well: someone to take care of him, someone to invite him home for Christmas.

 

Exercises

  • Take a scene from a story or a novel that you’re working on and allow the point-of-view character to fully imagine a scene with another character. Use specific details to render the scene as completely as one in the present moment.
  • Use a character’s interiority to show their disinterest in the scene at hand. Have them imagine lives for other, minor characters that show, perhaps, the things that they wish for in their own lives.
  • Have a character imagine acting in a way that they never would in real life. What does the difference between their imagined and real actions tell you about the character? How close are they to actually acting on their thoughts?

by Laura Spence-Ash