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staying out of characters' heads

CTRandall

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Does anyone have suggestions for books that avoid getting inside characters' heads?

(That is, children, is what we call a rhetorical question. This is the Chrons. Everyone will have a book suggestion. :))

I'm looking for books that rely on dialogue and character actions not only to tell the story but also to reveal emotions, motivations, etc. None of this mamby-pamby, "George thought to himself, 'Gee, Miss Warburton looks awfully lovely today! If I weren't feeling so sickly after a long night of Jager-bombs, I might be tempted to ask her father for her hand in holy matrimony,'" and more like, "George looked longingly at Miss Warburton. He made to approach her but a quiet rumbling in his stomach and a touch of sick at the back of his throat gave him pause. 'What ho, George! You're looking a little green around the gills,' Mr. Warburton said with his usual, overbearing enthusiam. 'What you need is a good sip of sherry. Nothing like it for settling the digestion. Let me pour you a glass.' 'Thank you, sir,' George mumbled weakly. 'You are most...kind.'"

This is a mode of writing that I've been experimenting with for a while (I have my reasons) but I find it tough to do, never mind to do it well. So can any of you recommend authors who do do it well? I'm thinking along the lines of Camus' The Stranger, though that is a pretty extreme example. Dumas' Three Musketeers, does it as well, though I'm not a fan of that one. Voltaire also does it in Candide, to much better effect. Can anyone think of current or recent authors doing this?
 

Phyrebrat

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Beckett are all brilliant.
Seconded. He can be inscrutable - or rather his work is. Not I is a great example of stream-of-consciousness that gives a huge, nihilistic idea of someone's character. And it's only a couple of (dense) pages. Might be better to watch the Billie Whitelaw BBC recording though. Similarly Happy Days.

pH
 

Abernovo

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Perhaps an odd suggestion, but the early work of Alistair MacLean; his later work was affected by ill-health. His work is dated, but still very accessible.

HMS Ulysses reads like reportage, which is understandable, as MacLean pulled much of it from his own experiences of the Arctic Convoys. When Eight Bells Toll is first person, but might still be what you're looking for, in that it's very observational, rather than contemplational, if that makes sense -- it also has perhaps the best opening to a thriller ever, despite being ostensibly an info-dump.

I'd also agree with Jo's suggestions of Synge and Beckett. And, if we're going for different formats, observational poetry: Liz Lochhead is brilliant at describing a scene, and people's interactions, for example.
 

tegeus-Cromis

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It's called third person objective, but Googling it I'm coming up with almost no examples. One suggestion I found is John Reed's The Rise of Pancho Villa. I imagine you'll find more examples in journalism / non-fiction than in fiction.
 

tegeus-Cromis

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I imagine it would be really hard to sustain for a whole book, so examples might come more from short stories?
 

Steve Harrison

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I can't think of any books, but if you can get hold of the screenplay of AMERICAN BEAUTY, it's a master class in expressing emotion and motivation without entering the heads of the characters (aside from a little narration from the MC). Not the same as fiction, of course, but it has been a major influence on both my script and novel writing.
 

CTRandall

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Interesting that theatre is a prime example, where tempo, delivery and body language all help fill in missing elements. I've got Beckett floating around the house somewhere, I'll have to dig it out and read it again. I also noticed that the examples I cited are either really old or explicitly experimental (which is part of what I'm doing).

Thanks for the ideas! Keep 'em coming!
 

Lumens

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For some extreme examples, the Icelandic sagas are all very objective. The style is quite dry at times, but still somewhat engaging if you persevere. Or if you get used to it, more like. They are also interesting because you can see where Tolkien got some of his inspiration from.


They all start with family trees, as this was important to establish their status as members of the "upper class".
 

tegeus-Cromis

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Funny thing is, ages ago, right after college, I thought I'd look for jobs in advertising. Through my college alumni program I found a mentor at an agency who gave me a few things to do mock ads for, to build up a portfolio. I did one for Lifecycle, which was a joke on the title of "Hills Like White Elephants," and was told that it's clever, but that the reference is too obscure.
 

Brian G Turner

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I'm looking for books that rely on dialogue and character actions not only to tell the story but also to reveal emotions, motivations, etc
I used to try and write this way, and I remember reading a claim that The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammet was the best example, with the caveat that this style of writing was rarely successful. It may have been a Sol Stein book on editing where I came across that.
 

tegeus-Cromis

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Asimov, Jules Verne, Heinlein.
Also if you haven't read Hector Malot try Sans Famille - Wikipedia. Not SF or fantasy. Awesome book although is 140 years old.
I would also recommend Malevil by Robert Merle Malevil - Wikipedia.
Hi. I don't mean to be negative, and I'm sorry if I come off that way, but I've read quite a lot of the first three, and I've also read Malevil, and I don't think any of these do what the OP is asking for...
 

tinkerdan

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What is described in the OP at the beginning seems to wander closely to Omniscient Objective POV. I'm not sure I have that right.
However in the example given we wander over into something that looks more like Omniscient Subjective POV.

And what do I mean?

The thing about Omniscient is that the Omni-Narrator can know everything. This includes what the characters think and what they experience through their five senses, which can make it difficult to stay out of their heads. However there are many flavors of Omni that go anywhere on a meter from the most distilled objective to the richest subjective.

To stay completely out of the characters head I would take the needle to the extreme Omni-objective point where the narrator could still know everything and has chosen only to show what they see rather than to dig into the character's head and this would include not digging into their senses.

Take your example:
The quiet rumbling of his stomach
The touch of sick at the back of his throat

While an Omni-Narrator might know of these things, a narrator doing what you ask has to be able to see or hear them in a way that the other characters might see and hear them and I don't think they can hear his quiet rumbling nor can they feel the sick at the back of his throat.

Now, not so oddly, this factors over easily to other POV in that when writing for instance in first person POV when seeing things around them they really shouldn't be able to get into the other character to access these things. They can however possibly make broad assumptions in a subjective manner that are subject to being wrong now and then leaving the reader to trust or not trust that they are correct in the assumptions. However it is better if they can describe what they see in such a way that it might guide the reader while leaving some room for the reader to make assumptions and conclusions(which might be one thing you are trying to achieve by writing this way).

If that's the objective--and I honestly can't say for sure it is. If it in fact is then I think it might require more description to a point that it could border on purple prose if you get it wrong and something more akin to Dickens if you get it right. I'm not sure I'd even want to pull it off; however if i were to try; here is what it would look like.
::
George's glance struck out to the lovely creature in the brightest corner of the room and he even stepped in her direction, as if drawn there by some bit of habit. He almost smiled. His muscles froze as he stopped dead in his track and moved his gaze to the darkest corner of the room, where he stopped turning and his eyes grew steely dark, determined. The man before him stood glaring back with judgmental eyes. George threw his shoulders back and stood straight and even took a resolute step toward Mr. Warburton, before slow hesitation brought him near to a stop. He appeared to deflate while his hand briefly touched his abdomen and a brief wince betrayed his countenance. The other man's face beamed in sinister glow. "What ho, George. You're looking a little green around the gills. Perhaps some sherry to whet the palate and soothe the digestion. Let me pour you a glass."

"Thank you sir." George's weak mumble barely crossed the room. "You're most kind." George turned back to where Miss Warburton stood smiling soldierly and he quickly diverted his gaze to a neutral corner while seeming to gather himself.
::

As you can see there might still be some things that I let the narrator be subjective about; however the point was to take all the senses away while inserting some actions to best signal those.

Anyway--someone who can do this well and sustain it through a novel also probably will go more un-noticed for this great feat; because many readers might not notice what he's done.
 
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CTRandall

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Some interesting suggestions. @Lumens I've read the Icelandic Eddas and really enjoyed them. I suspect it is that kind of thing that pushed me in this direction.

It's been a long while since I've read Aasimov or Heinlein but I don't recall this being a significant feature in their novels. I'll jave a second look, though.

Thanks @tinkerdan for the analysis. I made up the initial example in about 5 minutes, so I'm not surprised if it is ambiguous or inconsistent. And I take your point that readers may not notice what I'm doing. For me, the point is that I end up telling a different kind of story by engaging in this process. It may be that it doesn't work and I'll have to switch to a more conventional style but, for the moment, I find it interesting--even creatively stimulating--to experiment with this.
 

tinkerdan

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Of course in all fairness my analysis is of something that might not exist in what you pursue.
Let's take The Three Musketeers by Dumas.

He does a fair job of staying out of heads for a number of pages; it is interesting to note those pages are the rather wordy world building and character introduction where we are introduced to d'Artagnan and his family and their history and some history of the neighbors and even the kings of France with a slight dip into the politics and temperament of the time. All setting us up for the way this tale will unfold.

It doesn't take long though before we see this rather Omniscient narrator begin to delve into the heads of many characters; though not enough to cry foul and perhaps discern the head hopping that is going on. Sure there is some cleverness early on that helps keep the distance such as placing feelings of the character into a mix of those of those around him almost as if the air of his presence cast those feelings across himself and everyone. However somewhere along the line he begins the cheat if in fact he means to stay out of the heads. Not just with the main character but with much of the cast when he begins to use his omniscient power to dig into the characters to express some of their darker and deeper secrets. Oh yes, he does often disguise it with the device of having them murmur to themselves sometimes even loud enough for those around to hear and often just loud enough for themselves or the narrator.

However there are far too many brief sorties into the the heads of the characters to delve into what they are thinking and reveal their character to make a claim that the narrative and dialogue are doing all the work without getting into the heads of the characters. They are short and defined moments indeed and that is what covers them; however they are there and they not only constitute being in the heads, together they create a whirlwind of head hopping that's covered by the often long and clever descriptive sentences around them.

Of course don't take my word for it but rather look back into the narrative and see.

In the same token you could pick up Ayn Rand--let's say--The Fountainhead.

She too starts with a distant eye that sees all and gives great description; however she doesn't sustain it as long as Dumas and is quickly bouncing around in peoples heads to gain general feelings and attitudes while once again the surrounding text remains mostly long descriptions that help disguise the occasional short dip into someones head.

If your are looking to do something like Dumas' Three Musketeers then I think you should take a closer look at what he has and you will notice that what is missing in your example is just the longer descriptive sentences between. Keep in mind that his is a time where they delved into longer much more colorful language than you see today and at some point this became tiresome and such authors as Edward Bulwer-Lytton were chided for being too colorful in Paul Clifford.

In fact take a look at all three of these novels.

All the examples above make use of the Omniscience in that they know all; so in many cases they don't have to delve into their heads because they already know what is in there and the trick is how well they put it to paper without sounding as though they are in the characters head. It's often like putting words in the characters mouths; but it's thoughts, feelings and sometimes expression of their ideals and prejudices.
As example Dumas at one point uses the device of having the narrator say As you have already seen--to go on to tell us something more about a quality of the character that I'm not sure the reader so much saw as was told in like manner earlier. Such a device builds upon itself as the narration goes on
 
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CTRandall

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It's been long while since I read Dumas. I'll have to go back and check what he does. To be honest, I find myself "cheating" as well, occasionally taking a cheeky peek behind the curtains concealing my characters' thoughts. One of the best tricks I've discovered, however, is the use of the surrounding environment to suggest something about the characters' internal states. I know there's nothing new about this but it's something I particularly like working with. It can be damned difficult to get it right, though, and to avoid going over the top with purple prose.
 
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