Ian McEwan: What The Character ‘Saw’.

I used to read all of Ian McEwan’s books and then stopped, somewhere between ‘Saturday’ and ‘Sweet Tooth’. I find his writing precise, cerebral, often cold.  Some of the dialogue seems implausible, while some of his turns of phrase take my breath away. I admire his range. He covers a wide variety of subjects and is not afraid to tackle the female point of view which I think he does pretty successfully.  IMG_6966Lately I borrowed ‘The Children Act’ (published in 2014)  and noticed something that, if you enjoy writing fiction, might be worth a mention. 

It is a common thing for an author to invent characters who examine their feelings, or to present a situation that suggests how characters are feeling. Characters may confide in others in dialogue or overtly interpret the actions, words or body language of others. Rarely in contemporary fiction have I noticed a character SENSE the needs or desires of another character. And yet, in real life, we do this all the time, usually when we know someone very well but also when we are trying to ‘read’ someone we don’t know well.

I am aware of the technique of using a character’s gut response to interpret and convey the feelings of another and yet, because these are everyday responses we all make and are so easily taken for granted, I am not sure I have used them to my advantage in my writing and I’m sure I have overlooked many more instances of them in my, rather rapid, reading.

Here are some examples from ‘The Children Act’:

In this one, a man senses a change in his wife’s mood.

“He caught the flatness of her tone and looked at her differently.”   (page207)

And here he becomes aware of something beyond the surface pleasure he has taken in the sound of a piece of music.

“The Mahler he would need to hear again because he sensed an enormous reservoir of feeling in it but he couldn’t quite connect first time around.”  (page 206)

In the next two examples McEwan uses the word “saw” but this character is ‘seeing’ not so much in the sense of perceiving her husband’s response, as much as connecting with this man she knows intimately, from somewhere inside herself. Her sense of his need is an awareness of him at a much deeper level.

“She saw that his wish was to get back quickly to where they were before the concert, and she felt sorry for him. He was doing his best. Soon he would want to kiss her.” (page 205)


“He was wanting to fulfil the promise of a wonderful evening, to put their marriage back together, kiss her, open the bottle, take her to bed, make everything easy between them once more. She knew him well, she saw all this…”  (p207)

For all the distance between them at this moment they are deeply connected. Notice the words “was wanting”; it’s ongoing. She is sensing this as he stands in front of her.


A young Ian McEwan  from the back cover of his first short story collection: ‘First Love, Last Rites. Photo by Robin Cracknell.

 Human bodies and brains constantly create and respond to signals that allow us to intuit information (that may or may not be accurate). There is something  useful to be learned here; something that offers a writer the potential to create greater depth in, and resonance between, characters. Or, alternatively, to generate a schism between them.

Beginner writers are told that it is important to be aware of their five senses (touch, taste, smell and so on), when they write. But what of this sixth sense? It seems to me this one is especially important because it is so subtle and yet so powerful.

Have you tried this and found it a useful technique? If not, why not give it some thought the next time you are creating new characters.


About lesleyjjackson

Author, Short Story Writer and Poet - Offers help to new, confused and blocked writers
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