Characters’ internal lives

Lee Siegel, a critic always worth reading, lays blame at Sigmund Freud’s doorstep for the lack of psychological depth in contemporary fiction and art:

Freud’s abstract, impersonal concepts have worn away the specificity of fictional character. By the 1950’s, here and in Western Europe, it was making less and less sense to fashion the idiosyncratic, original inner and outer lives of a character in a novel. His or her behavior was already accounted for by the universal realities of id, ego, superego, not to mention the forces of repression, displacement and neurosis.

Thus the postwar rise of the nouveau roman, with its absence of character, and of the postmodern and experimental novels, with their many strategies — self-annulling irony, deliberate cartoonishness, montage-like ”cutting” — for releasing fiction from its dependence on character. For all the rich work published after the war, there’s barely a fictional figure that has the memorableness of a Gatsby, a Nick Adams, a Baron Charlus, a Leopold Bloom, a Settembrini. And that’s leaving aside the magnificent 19th century, when authors plumbed the depths of the human mind with something on the order of clairvoyance. Of course, before that, there was Shakespeare. And Cervantes. And Dante. And . . . It seems that the further back you go in time, away from Freud, the deeper the psychological portraits you encounter in literary art. Nowadays, often even the most accomplished novels offer characters that are little more than flat, ghostly reflections of characters….

For better or for worse, film’s independence from character is the reason it has replaced the novel as the dominant art form in our culture. Yet Freud himself drew his conception of the human mind from the type of imaginative literature his ideas were about to start making obsolete. His work is full of references to poets, playwrights and novelists from his own and earlier periods. In the latter half of his career, he applied himself more and more to using literature to prove his theories, commenting, most famously, on Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. “Civilization and Its Discontents” brims with quotations from Goethe, Heine, Romain Rolland, Mark Twain, John Galsworthy and others. If Freud had had only his own writings to refer to, he would never have become Freud.

The broad swathe of Siegel’s argument — namely that “the most intractable division in the world now is between those who believe that the subconscious plays a fundamental role in human life, and those who don’t. That’s the real culture war, and maybe even the real clash of civilizations” — bears further consideration. But I’m glad to see the Book Review making room for this sort of thoughtful, non-academic examination of the current state of literature.

Last year I discontinued graduate creative writing studies at CCNY. While my classmates and professors often reacted favorably to my work, the “show, don’t tell” rule seemed to undergird the entire enterprise (as in most writing programs), and I became suspicious of its impact on my fiction. My writing seemed too externalized to me. As I said in September:

For years I’ve struggled to write in a clear, straightforward style unencumbered by adjectives, adverbs, and especially abstractions. I’ve avoided the passive construction, opting always for active verbs: he kicked, he punted, he slept, he killed her. Feelings, I’ve thought, and emotional states, should be rendered through action, through concrete detail. The protagonist may feel sad, but the writer does not say that. She notes that the protagonist’s stomach tightens, that he frowns, that his eyes turn far too often to a portrait of his dead mother.

To use abstraction in a story, to directly explore a character’s feelings or psychology, is to violate an unspoken rule that contemporary fiction should be as much like a screenplay as possible. Storytelling increasingly is influenced by film. The physicality of characters, rather than their emotional states, is paramount. And to probe a character’s inner life in any but the most detached, ironic way, is to engage in a quaint, outmoded Nineteenth Century custom. It’s the literary equivalent of using a shaving mug.

So I curtailed my reading of contemporary fiction in favor of “books that delve into a character’s thoughts and motivations and idiosyncratic take on the world.” I returned to Poe, revisited Donna Tartt’s first book (the phenomenal success of which suggests that readers are hungry for insight into a character’s internal life), forged ahead with my semi-annual rereading of The End of the Affair and The Great Gatsby, and blundered upon Iris Murdoch and other post-WWII British writers who don’t disdain the novel’s psychological possibilities.

Deciding to render a character’s inner turmoil is a different thing from doing it successfully, of course, and when I sit down to write these days I usually find myself veering too far in one direction or another: toward the old, familiar, “show, don’t tell” approach, or toward endless, largely banal psychological reflection. Some of these problems even themselves out in rewrites. Others are harder to eradicate.

The novel I’m writing is told in the first person, a point of view uniquely suited to a character’s discussion (reliable or not) of her internal life, but also one that presents myriad opportunities for the narrator to seem self-pitying or blaming in an uninteresting way. For me, these pitfalls are most likely to arise as my narrator reflects on one particular unlikeable, somewhat villainous character.

An email pal, Robert Daseler, advised me to handle this villain delicately. “If you stack the deck against him, the reader will go over to his side and start trying to exculpate him,” he said. He went on:

While I think you can ignore that old dictum about “show, don’t tell” in most things, I think it’s absolutely crucial that you show, not tell us what a bastard [he] is. In order to be convinced, we need to see the evidence, and we can’t feel that it has been rigged…. Never allow [the narrator] to speculate about his reasons or motives or psychology. Always portray him from the outside and doing something. Pretend that he is a character in a movie: he can define himself only through words and actions, and it’s your job to make us see him, not to help us understand him. If [the narrator] can’t understand him, neither can we. That’s okay. We don’t have to understand him. He’s just a big deus ex machina rolling through your story.


A follow-up post appears here. See also:

  • Annie Reid, a creative writing instructor and frequent Friday blogger, advocating the “show, don’t tell” rule as a tool for beginning writers, but also arguing that “much contemporary short fiction is a fetishizing of intimate gesture, detached from story“; and

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