Writing 2018-01-14

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 6

How Fiction Works is a book written by critic James Wood and is an examination of the techniques that fiction utilizes to immerse the reader and create an experience. This is the fifth of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.

Chapter 6: A Brief History of Consciousness

In this chapter James Wood examines the idea of how characters evolved from essentially stock characters to developed entities that we expect today. In Wood’s estimation, this transition began with theatre, which he posits changed the nature of who sees the character. That is, is the character behaving a certain way for the benefit of the audience, or for some unseen force? That is to say, the author or some unseen deity. This becomes an highlight issue when taking into account theatrical soliloquies, such as Hamlet’s famous monologues. Who or what is the character talking to and what is the motivation? This begins the perception of dimensionality of the character.

For novels, the theatrical monologue becomes an internal voice, a form of mental speech, allowing readers to look into a character’s mind. In addition, theatrical characters can change over time due to dramatic effect. The dynamism of character in theatre caused novelists to experiment with their own medium, for example playing with time or perceptions within their stories in an effort to match and provide an alternative to the dynamism of theatre.

Wood also asserts that the modern novel owes much to the work “Rameau’s Nephew” by Denis Diderot. Diderot made the story completely about the internal lives of his characters instead of using the standard tropes of the time. This was also shown in the works of Dostoyevsky which focused on an analysis of human nature. His characters had three different layers: announced motives, unconscious motivations and a desire to be known and have their flaws revealed.

Just as an example of early storytelling. Wood cites a biblical story, David and Bathsheba. David as a character is transparent to God, but not to the characters, The readers can see his actions, but not his thoughts. This causes his actions to sometimes surprise readers, since they can’t see his motivations. According to Wood, such internal access doesn’t really come along in full until Shakespeare. In particular Wood cites Macbeth, which introduced the idea of retrospective thought, not just internal calculations. Dostoyevski’s character Raskolnikov acts as a kind of hybrid approach. Here the audience has complete access to the character’s mind and is all-seeing until God makes an appearance at the end of the novel.


This is an interesting chapter because there are pros and cons to the idea of being privy to a character’s inner mind. When a character is not internally accessible, the readers must create a narrative like assembling a puzzle. When a character is totally internally accessible, the readers can be more analytic.

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.