114. From tiny tickles to character reveals: tropisms

What makes the inner world of a fictional character really sing? The author can, of course, have the character think ideas, speak, and carry out actions. But, besides and more interesting than this, is the way they respond to the world and understand things. After all, the universe inside every head seems magically different from the one inside my own.


I’ve just come across an author who tried to render that inner world, using an idea borrowed from biology. Plants grow towards the light. Biologists call this stimulus and response phototropism.


Encyclopaedia of Human Thermodynamics

The French writer Nathalie Sarraute used the metaphor of tropism to highlight the origins of actions, speech, and feelings in the momentary experiences on the fringe of consciousness.

In the first vignette in her 1939 book Tropisms, she writes

They seemed to spring up from nowhere, blossoming out in the slightly moist tepidity of the air, they flowed gently along as though they were seeping from the walls, from the boxed trees, the benches, the dirty sidewalks, the public squares.

This seems to be a plague of weeds or vermin. In fact, she is describing people staring into shop windows.  But these are not people as characters. Rather, stripped of identifiable shapes and personalities they become sensations. Sarraute eliminated plot or character from her work, in order to explore the “impulses, desires, processes that exist before speech, before comprehension, before consciousness”, as Allison Noelle Conner puts it.

nathalie Sarraute
Nathalie Sarraute

Sarraute would devote pages to exploring the mechanisms that intervened between the stimulus and the response.

The objective correlative

Though I don’t buy into Sarraute’s analysis that plot and character are conventional masks that prevent us exploring mentality, I do find something intriguing in her approach. T.S. Elliot had a similar insight in his idea of the “objective correlative”—a sequence of things or events which creates the sensation the writer is trying to summon in the reader. He described this: “when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”


Other techniques

This clearly has connections with the often tiresome writers’ dictum of “show, don’t tell”. But it takes this instruction further. It makes location, conversation, and events a means of conveying character.

It also might seem similar to Swain’s technique of the Motivation-Reaction Unit (MRU), which also works on a stimulus-response basis. However, these work on the basis of a chain from feeling to action to speech, whereas in tropism, all of these are preceded by a simple sensory experience. I wrote about my experiment with MRUs in a previous post.


A method for illuminating mentality

I’ve used the insight about pre-conscious stimuli to rework the opening chapter of my current book, The Star Compass. Robert, a bookish recluse, has come to the remote Pacific island of Yap. All his life he has avoided ever learning anything about the South Seas so he might believe there is one place on the planet where nature is bountiful and people are nice to each other. Now he is forced to have a confrontation with reality. The chapter begins:

He paused at the bottom rung of the stairway. Then stepped onto the tarmac and off the edge of the world.

Here all his maps ran out. Here be dragons.

The humid tropical night wrapped itself like a moist towel around his nose. The bulk of his body began to cook from the inside. Sweat pooled in his armpits, beaded his brow, and trickled down his spine. The perspiration felt clammy. He wanted to turn, run back into the plane, and get away from this island.

But he continued to shuffle forward towards the door of the tiny airport, keeping his place in the line of a hundred other passengers and urged on by those behind. The terminal complex was so small it lacked an immigration hall and they queued on the apron. Thankfully, it wasn’t raining, though puddles evaporating on the tarmac indicated an earlier downpour.

Things had happened here before he arrived. The island had its own hidden history. Anything might lurk here in the unknown South Pacific.

He reached the portal where souls were divided. One door for visitors, and the other for citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia. The sleepy official took his landing card, examined his passport. Robert Urquhart, UK citizen, fifty-one years old.

Yap airport
Yap International Airport

In making this revision, I hunted for small sensations in the draft and considered these as stimuli. I then checked that there was a response for every stimulus and a stimulus for every response. For example, the action of stepping onto the tarmac provokes the sensation that he’s stepped off the edge of the world. Or the stimulus of the humidity makes him want to turn and run. And the realisation from the rain puddle that the things have happened here before he arrived, triggers a fear that anything might happen here now. I aimed to render Robert’s profound unease through these small almost pre-conscious moments. Sometimes, it involved taking a small moment and expanding it.


I’d love to hear whether you’ve tried or come across anything similar.


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