When it’s done well, interior monologue is one of the most elegant ways of establishing and developing character. You, as the writer, climb right into Sally’s or Esteban’s or (on occasion) the dog’s head. You take notes and these you transcribe for the person who will read the story you’re writing.1
There are many examples out there of really badly done interior monologue, but I have been reading Cathleen Schine’s The Love Letter (1995), and I keep running into good ones. The novel is about Helen and a mysterious, utterly charming and anonymous love letter that shows up out of the blue addressed to no one in particular. Helen is a very complex character, one I can’t quite like but can’t dismiss, either, which says to me that Schine has managed to get this Helen of hers under my skin. She is frivolous in many ways and she’s unapologetically selfish; she gets her kicks by arranging her people around herself like so many adoring dolls. Once in a while she remembers that they aren’t really dolls and improves her behavior, but it doesn’t last. She gets away with this because she’s pretty and pleasant; not many people see through her, and those who do seem to accept her for what she is. A lot of this is established through bits of interior monologue like this one (pay attention to the central metaphor especially):
“Helen […] went back to thinking of the letter, for the anonymous, wayward love letter was, whatever she might tell herself, on her mind. It had become a nuisance overnight, a houseguest that would not leave, would never leave; but wouldn’t come downstairs for breakfast either. The letter was a useless hanger-on. But it did hang on, disturbing her privacy. Go away, she thought. Get a job. Take a course at the New School.”
Helen has a talent for simply turning away from people who become too much work, but she can’t get this anonymous letter and its mysterious author out of her head, and she resents it. The metaphor of an unwanted houseguest provides particular insights into Helen’s view of the world. Not only does she want the houseguest to go away, she has particular goals for this person (a job, a degree). This is funny, but it’s also very telling.
Helen might have compared the love letter to an overdue bill, or a pile of ironing, or the pinging sound coming from the refrigerator, but her mind produces a human being, and more than that: a human being who isn’t easily manipulated. The novel is about Helen recognizing some unpleasant things in herself, and deciding whether or not she wants to change them.
Metaphor is such an intrinsic part of the way we tell stories that generally they happen below the level of consciousness. As a writer struggling with a character who won’t come into focus, you might be able to make some progress by eliciting metaphors. For example, other people in this novel come across the letter and imagine, for a short time, that it is meant for them. We don’t hear their interior monologues, but as the supreme being in this universe you’re creating, you can listen for one. Maybe the shy teenager sees the letter as a gift that will unwrap itself in time to reveal her heart’s desire. A jealous husband might jump to the conclusion that someone wrote the letter to his own wife, and for him that sheet of paper is as thin and transparent as last year’s snakeskin.
We talk about close reading, which is where metaphors come to the surface and make demands of the reader, but close reading is also something the writer needs to do. Writing is both mask and unveiling, according to E.B. White2 and metaphor — especially within interior monologue — is one place where that sleight of hand happens.
- Often literary scholars talk about James Joyce and Ulysses (1922) when they talk about interior monologue, but you may remember that Ulysses is on my list of literary sacred cows, so I won’t talk about it here except to say: Joyce doesn’t deserve any special credit for developing interior monologue as a device. Tolstoy used it very effectively fifty years earlier in Anna Karenina (1877). ↩
- Mr. White is another writer on my love/hate relationship list, along with James Joyce, Wallace Stegner, and D.H. Lawrence. ↩