(This began as a facebook conversation. I have not posted the comments by other people, since I don’t have permission.)
A reader wrote to me, asking why I only described action and conversation in one of my novels. No interior monologues. I actually think I put in thoughts at certain points. But I am not going to go back and read an ancient novel to be sure. Anyway, I no longer know why I did it. Influence of the Icelandic sagas would be my best bet. Though the interior story is fairly recent, isn’t it? From the development of the bourgeois novel? I grew up on all kinds of literature: fairy tales, myths, medieval legends, 19th century novels, mysteries and science fiction. A lot of these were not especially interior.
I guess the next question is, do we know how much people had interior monologues before recent times? (Shakespeare. His characters have a lot of stuff going in their minds.) I’m not arguing that people in the past were stupid. But it’s possible that you need training to over-think.…
I can imagine a saga character thinking, “I have to kill Thorvald. I have to kill Thorvald. I need to get the hay in. That colt looks promising. I have to kill Thorvald.”
He might — or might not — get more complex than this. Thorvald said something snippy to him at the Althing, and that requires revenge.
I think Shakespeare shows us that people were capable of complex thought before the modern novel. But in the sagas, you mostly get the complexity through conversation and action, and you are supposed to know enough to figure out what is never said or said very quietly. What I suspect is that the modern novel and modern psychology may lead people to keep a little Freud in their brain, which the vikings did not have. (“Am I butchering this Englishman to get his silver, or am I doing it because he reminds me of my father?”)
I think I need to drop the idea that earlier generations didn’t have psychological complexity. (I never meant to say they had different brains.) Maybe what has changed in how this is portrayed. In the Laxdaela saga the heroine is asked, late in her life, which of her three husbands she loved the most. She replies, “Him that I treated worst I loved the most.” That one line tells you a lot that you haven’t known previously. There is certainly complexity in this.
Why did I rely on exterior descriptions in my first novel? Heaven knows. I don’t. Too much of what I write is unplanned and never verbalized. I’ll say it was the influence of the sagas and folk tales and myths, all of which I love. They are all in one way or another laconic. And, as one of the people commenting on this facebook post pointed out, Minnesotans of Nordic descent are known for leaving things unsaid.