Currently Reading: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
I've been reading about my favorite subject lately, imagery in literature, and I keep coming across the term objective correlative. As I delved deeper, I realized that was exactly what my current work in progress is missing.
Objective correlative is a term coined by T. S. Elliot. He said:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.
What does that mean? Essentially, an objective correlative is a type of metaphor where certain symbols or objects are used to express or allow an understanding of usually incomprehensible emotions or feelings.
In our current world of show but don't ever upon penalty of death tell, it's easy to get bogged down in trying to describe the physical traits of sadness, regret, nostalgia, etc. Tears, a sinking feeling in the stomach, furrowed brow--these are all becoming cliche. So how do you show what your character is feeling without being cliche?
Objective correlative! Here are some examples:
I just saw the movie The Eagle wherein a young man wants to redeem his father's name and restore honor to his family. As a child, his father gave him a carved amulet of an eagle--symbolic of the great golden eagle standard and of his father's honor and love. When the audience is meant to feel the main character's desire to recover his family's honor, he fondles the amulet and immediately we know what he is thinking and feeling. The eagle amulet is an objective correlative.
In one of my earlier novels the main character feels tremendous guilt for the death of her boyfriend in a car accident. She has a scar from that accident, and when I want to show that she is feeling shame and guilt because of what she did, all she has to do is reach up and try to cover her scar. The act of covering her scar is an objective correlative.
In Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is conflicted about his place as king. He feels unworthy because of the treachery of his ancestor, Isildur, who kept the Ring for himself instead of destroying it when he had the chance. Aragorn worries he will also become weak and susceptible to similar corruption when faced with an opportunity for power. All the audience needs to see is a quick flashback of Isildur's treachery to know exactly how Aragorn feels. That quick glance to the past is an objective correlative.
So when my critique group told me my main character was too whiney in my last chapter. That's when it hit me, he doesn't have his objective correlative yet. He needs that symbol to show without telling exactly how he feels.
After all, a picture is worth a thousand words. In literature, an objective correlative is just a written picture.