Drawing Inferences in Fiction

Copyright 2016 © Laraine Flemming.

There's probably no better way to think about drawing inferences—or, more precisely, the kind of reasoning inferences require—than to consider how you go about interpreting, or understanding, fictional characters in novels or short stories. Drawing inferences, or reading between the lines to come up with an idea that the author suggests but does not state, is at the very heart of understanding fiction.

After all, fiction writers don't say to readers, "This character is cruel without meaning to be and therefore all the more dangerous." What writers do is to tell readers how a character looks, thinks, talks, behaves, and interacts with others. It's through these descriptive details that the reader comes to realize what kind of person is represented in a fictional work.

Here, as an illustration, is how the writer Daniel Woodrell describes the father of Ree Dolly, the sixteen-year-old heroine of his wonderful novel, Winter's Bone. Based on the brief description of what Ree's dad dreamed and what he did, can you tell what the writer wants you to infer about Ree's father, and, in fact, about Ree herself, who is the novel's narrator, or story teller?

Dad was tough enough but not much on planning. At eighteen he'd left the Ozarks to work for big dough on the oil rigs of Louisiana but ended up boxing Mexicans for peanuts in Texas. He slugged them. They slugged him, everybody bled. Three years later he came back to the valley with nothing to show for his adventure but new scars ragged around both eyes and a few stories men chuckled at for a while.

In just a few sentences, the author lets us know that Ree's father is a man disappointed by life. We know that because none of his expectations has been fulfilled. He expected to get rich from working on oil rigs. But that's not how things turned out.

We also know that, tough as he is, he's not held in especially high esteem. We know that from the author's reference to the "few stories men chuckled at for a while." With just those three words, "for a while," Woodrell suggests that Ree's father must have repeated the stories in an effort to get a laugh. But they weren't funny in the retelling, and he isn't important enough for anyone to pretend they were.

From the straight-forward, no-nonsense way Ree describes her dad, we also know something about her. Ree may be young, but there is nothing childish about her description of her father. She doesn't try to make him sound more admirable or glamorous than he is. She seems to be a young woman who can look life in the eye without flinching, even when what she sees is nothing to be happy about.

From this one brief passage, we have already started to piece together a picture of both Ree and her father. However, we wouldn't have that picture if we hadn't used the clues left by the writer, along with our knowledge of human nature to draw the inferences the author had in mind.

Different Details, Different Inferences

Here's another short passage from a very different kind of narrator, Sheriff Bell, the protagonist, or leading character, from Cormac McCarthy's violence-laced novel No Country for Old Men. Unlike Ree Dolly, Sheriff Bell is old. But he shares her character's unflinching view of the world.

Bell, though, is very different from Ree's father. As the details of the passage suggest, Sheriff Bell would not work at getting the attention of other people. He doesn't have enough respect for what they think to make that effort.

I read in the papers here a while back some teachers come across a survey that was sent out back in the thirties to a number of schools around the country. Had this questionnaire about what was the problems with teachin in the schools. And they come across these forms, they'd been filled out and sent in from around the country answering these questions. And the biggest problems they could name was things like talkin in class and runnin in the hallways. Chewin gum. Copyin homework. Things of that nature. So they got one of them forms that was blank and printed up a bunch of em and sent em back out to the same schools. Forty years later. Well, here come the answers back. Rape, arson, murder. Drugs. Suicide. So I think about that. Because a lot of the time ever when I say anything about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket people will just sort of smile and tell me I'm getting old. That it's one of the symptoms. But my feelin about that is that anybody that can't tell the difference between rapin and murderin people and chewin gum has got a whole lot bigger of a problem than what I've got. Forty years is not along time neither. Maybe the next forty will bring some of them out from under the ether. If it ain't too late.

Sheriff Bell is not a man who would tell stories twice just to get another laugh. He's too confident for that. He's a man who believes he knows what's right and what's wrong in a world where many people are still "under the ether."

Told that his despair about the current world is a sign of aging, he thinks the people who say that are slow-witted. Sheriff Bell is not easily influenced by the words of others. That's an inference about his character that we can make from just one brief passage.


Directions: Read the following excerpts carefully. Note the details used in the dialogue and in the descriptions of behavior and appearance. Then decide which inferences the writer expects you to draw about the character or characters described. Check your answers by hitting the Answer buttons.

Exercise A

Setting the scene. What follows is a passage from a novel called Doc by Mary Dario. The author chronicles the life of Doc (John Henry) Holliday, Wyatt Earp's friend and backup man in the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, where the Earp brothers took on the Clayton gang and almost died in the process. Holliday has gone down in history as a ruthless gunslinger. Do you get the impression from the following description of Holliday that Doc focuses on his life as a gunman?

The weight loss was subtle as well, for he was slender to start but there came a day when he realized uneasily that no clothing he had owned for more than six months still fit.

That winter a brutal chest cold left him with a deep and painful cough that interrupted examinations and made handwork increasingly difficult. Success
[in dental school] was proving too much for him; he simply could not keep up with the hectic schedule of patients. No amount of sleep made him feel rested. He was exhausted from the moment he awoke.

In June, he made the clinical diagnosis himself. Even before his uncle confirmed it, John Henry knew. Advanced pulmonary tuberculosis, the disease that had killed his mother. Two foci in the inferior lobe of the right lung, another developing high in the left. He might survive one or two more summers in Atlanta's soggy heat.

Six to eighteen months—that's all the Fates had left him.

He was not quite twenty-two.

How do you think the author wants you to view Doc's character? Does she want you to see him as

  1. tricky and manipulative?
  2. a smart and brutal con man?
  3. a sad and sympathetic figure?

Exercise B

Setting the scene. Below is a brief passage from E.L. Doctorow's novel The March. It tells the stories of various people involved in America's bloodiest conflict to this day, the Civil War. In the following scene from the novel, a photographer named Culp offers to take a picture of an ex-prisoner turned soldier named Arly and his friend Will, who has just died. When Arly balks at paying to have his picture taken and suggests the photographer has a profitable racket going, the photographer is insulted.

"But profit is only a means to an end. I am a photographer licensed by the United States Army," Culp said. "Why do you suppose that is? Because the government recognizes that for the first time in history war will be recorded for posterity. I am making a pictorial record of this terrible conflict. That is my contribution. I portray the great march of General Sherman for future generations."

"If the money don't mean that much to you, why not pay me if a photo of me is what you want?"

Culp laughed, showing a mouth of chipped teeth. "Now I've heard everything!"

"Leastwise you won't have to pay him
[Arly's dead friend]," Arly said, gesturing to the divan*.

"You are fortunate that I'm willing to make you a picture without remuneration. I agree to give you a copy. I will agree to that, but the rights in the photo will be mine. Now please, while the light holds sit yourself down as before, with your arm around the dead man."

Arly withdrew from inside his tunic the loaded pistol he had found in the photographer's wagon. He held it out at arm's langth, as if to feel its heft, and looked down the barrel at Josiah Culp. "I am in mind of a different picture," he said.

*A divan is a long, low sofa.

1. The photographer describes his work as a contribution. He will portray the Civil War for future generations. However, what detail does the writer supply to implicitly contradict the photographer's claim?

2. Would you infer from the passage that the photographer is a sensitive and compassionate man? Please explain.

3. How would you describe Arly's character and what details support your inference?

Back to Home Page

Last update of this page: May 20, 2016