Developing Character Interiority

One of the biggest fiction concepts I champion, in first and third person, is character interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) as a way of getting to know character. (You can view all the posts I’ve written with an “interiority” tag here.) Now that you’re learning what it is, how do you foster it in your own fiction writing?

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Developing character interiority is where you want to work smarter, not harder. Make small changes to really reveal your protagonist to the reader.

Access to Emotions Is Crucial to Making a Reader Care

Some writers struggle with the idea of accessing a character’s emotions. When to do it, how much, whether or not it falls under the dreaded “telling” category, etc. But I maintain that access to your character’s thoughts, if done well, and at the right time, is one of the most important elements of getting a protagonist down on the page in a relatable and nuanced way. The thing is, you don’t have to revamp your whole novel.

Picking small moments where interiority can shine is key.

Developing Character Interiority Isn’t Intuitive for Everyone

Many writers have a sense of whether or not they excel at this. I recently worked with a client who came to me saying, “Dang it, I just don’t know how to render a character’s emotions.” It was true, and I appreciated her self-awareness.

Instead of accessing her protagonist’s head, she pulled out physical clichés as shorthand for his feelings. His heart was beating, so that meant he was nervous. His fists clenched, and he was angry. His cheeks flushed, and he felt in love. But when you’re simply letting your body parts do the talking for the character, you will never get to the emotional nuances underneath.

He’s nervous…about what in particular? About whether or not he’ll succeed? About a specific worst case scenario, which would give me additional context or foreshadowing about the plot? He’s angry…at who? The other character in the scene, who is a snake, or himself for believing the snake in the first place? As you can see, there are many things beyond the base emotions that we can name, and that is where the real meat of your character lives.

Checklist for Developing Character Interiority

If you suspect that you might struggle with interiority, write the following questions on a Post It note and hang it above your writing station:

  • What is your character doing right now (objective)? Why (motivation)? (The why is especially important.)
  • What do they hope will happen?
  • What do they worry will go wrong?
  • How do they feel about themselves?
  • How do they feel about their scene partner?
  • How do they feel about their place in the plot in general?

Obviously, you don’t have to address these questions in every scene, but you can train yourself to think along these lines when your character is experiencing emotions.

Explore the Emotional Nuances of Big Moments

For every big emotion they might feel (anger, fear, lust), there are probably two or three secondary emotions that you can tease out that serve to deepen our understanding of the character or increase tension. When you become better at looking through your protagonist’s eyes with these issues in mind, you can pick and choose whether or not to funnel some, all, or none of this information into interiority.

Emotions are tricky, messy, nuanced. They deserve a lot of attention as you craft your protagonist, and even secondary characters. At any moment, no matter what is happening, you could delve into their inner lives and discover some of these thoughts and feelings. Do you always need to share them? Of course not. But in bigger moments, where you really want to pull the reader in, try to hit some of these notes. Specificity is key. Take a scene you’re really struggling with, or that feels alienating, and try answering some of these questions today!

Character interiority is one of the most important concepts that I really drill into with my editorial clients. Check out my book editing services and see how I can bring my years of character development experience to your novel.

3 Replies to “Developing Character Interiority”

  1. Mary, I love your thoughts on developing interiority both on your blog and in your book. I have a formatting question though: should those inner thoughts be set off in italics? I’m sure different publishers/editors have their own style guides, but as I’m querying, entering contests, etc. I’d hate for confusing formatting to detract from the story. Thanks!

    1. This is a really good question. I’m going to answer it on the blog this week because I think there’s a bit more to it, and there’s an important point that I’ve pointed out to individual writers/clients, but never articulated more widely. Stay tuned, and thanks!

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