Because human beings are inherently complex, characterization in fiction is itself a complex process. Appearance and action, the two methods of characterization we looked at in my last From the Forge post, obviously reveal character, but they may also be used to hide or disguise some elements of character. A character’s actions may even be used to mislead the reader temporarily.
This complexity of characterization is heightened when a writer turns to speech and thought as methods. Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, says that “speech represents an effort . . . to externalize the internal and to manifest not merely taste of preference but also deliberated thought.” Put simply, Burroway is saying that we attempt to say what we mean, what we think. But there, of course, lies the problem. As Hamlet says, “Words, words, words.” We have all experienced the struggle of putting our thoughts and feelings clearly into words, while avoiding misunderstanding. But that very difficulty can create great opportunity for the writer.
What is more human than hiding our true feelings and either saying nothing or saying what we do not really mean? What is more human than misunderstanding our own intentions, or more human than hurting another person with words that were innocently spoken?
The writer can use these struggles, manipulating the conflict between methods of characterization—for example, between what is thought and what is said, or between what is thought and what is done—to great effect.
In Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of the two characters–the man–says to the other character–the woman–four times, “I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do.” The reader knows, has in fact known from the first time he says it, that the man does want her to do something she doesn’t want to do, which is have an abortion. His selfish nature and his duplicity are revealed by the conflict between what he says at those four points and everything else he says and does.
Hemingway doesn’t have to tell the reader anything about the man’s thoughts or feelings, because he has revealed the man’s nature through the clash between his words and actions.