My fiction seldom contains much exposition. I describe the actions of the characters, I give them a lot of dialogue, then just try to let the action and interaction speak for itself. Not everyone can always infer the motives or feelings a character is experiencing just from the action and dialog. So, when my writer’s group points those things out, I try to fix it.
I was reminded about the difficulty in perceiving character motivation by an extremely odd set of actions on my bus ride Tuesday morning…
There were only about four or five of us waiting at the stop. There’s usually at least twice that many that time of the morning. And when the bus pulled up there were a lot of empty seats. I headed to the back, aiming for some of the empty seats that faced the aisle. There was a young man, probably in his early twenties, sitting in the very back corner of the bus. It’s a popular seat, especially for tall guys, because the way the seats in front of that spot face in, there’s more leg room and it’s easy to prop either leg up without being in anyone else’s way. Plus, of course, there’s a window.
As I was nearing the back of the bus, the young man meets my gaze. And his expression became odd. I smiled and nodded as I got close. I may have even said, “hey!”
His expression remained odd. Not angry, but not happy to see me. Perhaps a bit confused.
As soon as I sat down, I did a quick check to make sure I didn’t have something stuck on my face or something. When I looked up (I had taken one of the inward facing seats, so if I looked straight ahead, he was just off in the left half of my field of vision), he had hunkered back in his seat, and was reaching inside his hoodie with one hand. He pulled out a large-ish and very glittery gold crucifix, on a large chain, and let it fall onto his chest. Then, he pulled his hood up, and all the way forward, then tightened the strings on the hood, so he had only a little peep-hole to look out of. Because of his cross necklace hanging out of the hood, this pulled the cross up so that it was dangling in midair about three-four inches in front of his chin.
He then held his phone up in front of his little peep hole.
No one else who had gotten on the bus at my stop came all the way to the back section, so it was just the two of us. It was a more than a little disconcerting. I did another little self assessment. I worried, for a second, that I might have sprouted horns or something.
I pulled my phone out, opened iBooks, and startedreading.
People are getting on the bus at the next six or seven stops, and the seats are slowly filling, but it’s isn’t too crowded. I notice that he opens the hood up, and pulls it back to reveal his face at about this point, though the cross is still hanging out of his hoodie. A few stops later, his head is leaning against the window and he appears to be dozing. Which is how he remained at least until I got off the bus downtown.
I shared the story with a couple of co-workers, and posted it on twitter. Several people wondered if he thought I was a vampire.
As was thinking about it while talking to one co-worker, another thought occurred to me:
One of the people who got onto the bus with me was a lady who received a phone call just as the bus pulled up. She was one of these people who see on the bus a couple times a week: a bit past middle-aged, dies her hair a color that doesn’t match her eyebrows, wears a lot of make-up, has perfume you can smell from about four feet away, and usually has either very long brightly painted finger nails or big earrings.
Anyway, she was babbling very energetically into her bluetooth earphone as we all boarded the bus. She followed right behind as I headed for a seat. She took a seat that was very near me, but whereas mine was part of a bench the faced the aisle, heres was part of a pair that face forward. So, while from my point of view she was beside me, she had her back to me and the guy in the corner, and was “in front” of both of us.
She kept talking the entire time she was on the bus. A non-stop, bubbly babble punctuated with several barks of laughter, and “I know!”s.
She was still talking just as vigorously when she got off the bus, six stops after we both got on.
In other words, the guy in the corner covered up his face almost as soon as she sat down a short distance in front of him, and did not uncover it again until after she got off the bus.
And because she was behind me talking so emphatically, even though she was a significantly shorter than me (which is unusual, because I’m way shorter than average for a guy), the guy in the corner’s odd expression could have been directed at her, rather than at me.
The more I thought about it, the more plausible it seemed. I mentioned that he dozed off several stops after he pulled the hood back from his face. But even before that, when he pulled the hood back to show his face again, his whole body became much more relaxed.
Now, other people got on with us. There was one guy who got on ahead of me who took a seat in the middle of the bus, and at least one person behind the lady who was behind me. I don’t remember them. It’s just as possible that the guy behind the lady was the person who Corner Guy was staring at unhappily. Because I wasn’t paying attention, I have no idea whether the other people who got on when I did also exited the bus at the same time as the lady.
If she hadn’t been babbling the entire time, I might not have noticed when she left.
So, maybe he thought I was a vampire when I first got on. And something made him decide I wasn’t.
Or maybe the talkative lady was someone he had a past experience with and he didn’t want her to see him.
Or maybe he thought she was a vampire.
Or maybe it had nothing to do with any of those things.
One of the irritating things about real life is that we seldom get answers to those kinds of questions. There’s no author to pull all the subplots together into a satisfying conclusion.
It makes me more determined to make sure all of my plots hold together. I don’t want my readers walking away from my book puzzled and confused.