One of the cornerstones of my writing craft philosophy is the concept of interiority. I always define it as a character’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and inner struggles, even in picture books, and even (perhaps especially) in a third person narrative. This tool, to me, is the most crucial one in a writer’s arsenal. Unfortunately, its interpretation and application are quite open-ended, which makes it easy to understand but more difficult to define interiority and teach it.
This article will be intended as a comprehensive interiority definition. An introduction to the topic, as well as my reasoning for why I consider this idea so terribly important to both writers and readers. If you sit down and read one Kidlit.com post in your life, I hope it’s this one.
What Is Interiority?
I define “interiority” as a character’s thoughts, feelings, reactions, and inner struggles, and how we access them, whether it’s in first person or third, a picture book or a YA novel. It is any moment when you dive into your character’s head to add context, meaning, humor, or emotion to a situation. That is the interiority definition. The moment in question can be big or small, the reaction can be casual or life-changing.
The important thing is to keep coming back to your character. Remind yourself that they are experiencing the moments you’re choosing for them (via your plot), and that, in real life, we react to stuff all the time. Whether it’s a private joke or a shift in mood, we go through our days very aware of what’s going on. You certainly don’t want to have every little thing elicit a reaction, but more often than not, characters don’t react enough (more on writing a reaction). Keep reminding yourself that your character is in the moment, experiencing it. Is there any reaction warranted that could add some depth to the situation or bring the reader closer to your character’s rich inner life?
Specificity is the Key
Everyone experiences emotions in a different way. My “sad” might look very different from your “sad”, and it might be caused by very different things. Too often, writers name an emotion, eg, “She felt angry” and move on. But simply naming emotions doesn’t give me much to dig into, as a reader. I know what my angry is like, but I don’t care much about me right now. I’m reading to learn about a fleshed-out and compelling character. So I want to know what her “angry” looks like, what thoughts cross her mind, what places she goes when she’s feeling worked up. (Tips on how to write emotions in a story.)
Besides, there are a million shades of anger and a million reasons to be angry (or whatever emotion). Imagine this: A father brings home a pony to surprise his daughter, and she’s angry. What? That makes no sense. Why? If the writer simply showed her storming off, we’d get no specificity, and the reader would be left in the dark. But if we were to go into interiority, we’d have access to something like, “He thinks he can just buy my love after what he did?” Ohhh, now it makes a lot more sense. I would much rather have that specific thought on the page instead of the zoomed-out view of her storming off to sulk. Or her heart rate rising. Or her stomping her foot. (All external.) Specificity is a big part of my interiority definition.
Which brings me to my next key point about interiority. There are two ways of discussing emotion, internal and external. Too many writers rely on external only, and this is a huge missed opportunity.
The Limits of Using Physicality to Discuss Emotion
Writers who struggle with interiority tend to render emotions instead via physical sensations, a lot of which tend to be cliché. We have tears falling and hearts thumping and stomachs clenching, but these images are so familiar that they don’t invite the reader to dig deeper.
I often tell my clients, “I don’t care that there are tears. I care about the thought that finally makes them fall.” We are all familiar with this phenomenon. We are on the verge of crying all day long, but it’s not until one thought or idea crosses our minds that we actually go over the edge. I am much more interested in that thought, because it is going to be very specific.
If your manuscript is littered with references to the physical body reacting instead of the mind, there are ways to change your approach. Imagine yourself accessing deeper layers to your character’s experiences. This can be done by asking some very basic questions.
Interiority is Digging Deeper, Asking Questions
Often, I jokingly refer to myself as a character therapist. Because I’m always sitting on my imaginary couch and asking, “And? So? How did that feel?” My notes to clients are littered with these questions.
Remember that your character is not an impartial security camera, recording events. Even in third person. We are going through their story because we want to know what the story is, sure, but because we also want to know how said story affects them. There’s a reason (or at least, there really should be) you chose that particular character to experience that particular story. How does one influence the other? That is what readers will attach to.
You are telling a story because you want readers to experience it. There is no better way to define interiority. It’s to have readers live vicariously than to have them read the experiences of their guide, the point-of-view protagonist. The deeper, more honest, and more intimate you can make your account of that experience, the closer your reader will feel to the character and the story. This is the core tenet behind pretty much my entire fiction craft teaching philosophy.
Interiority Resources From the Kidlit Blog
I’ve written a lot about interiority over the years, and I honestly hope to write a whole lot more. If you want to dig further, here are some of my favorite articles about it from the archives:
- Developing Character Interiority (how to tease interiority out)
- Interiority vs. Telling (a very important distinction)
- What “Show Don’t Tell” Really Means (crucial if you’re still wondering why telling is counterproductive to strong writing, and how interiority and telling are different)
- How to Write a Character a Reader Cares About
- Building Emotional Anticipation (how to use interiority to make your plot matter more)
- How Much Interiority to Use
- Interiority in Third Person Narrative
- Formatting Interiority (nitty gritty about how to actually put it on the page)
Want to dig deeper into interiority as it applies to your work? Hire me as your developmental editor, and get customized, actionable advice on how to use this powerful tool.
26 Replies to “What Is Interiority? An Interiority Definition, and Why It Matters”
Thank you so much for this. And thank you also for linking your link to ‘What “Show Don’t Tell” Really Means’ post as well.
Because that was my next question in regard to interiority. 🙂
Thank you! I glean from your posts every time and have for years.
I loved the work Mary did for me in the past. It was professional and accurate. There was bold confidence in her comments and I liked this. I also really appreciated the fact that she replied and responded as she had advised. She kept to her word. I am going to choose Mary again because of her integrity and skilled professionalism.
Wow! Thanks for explaining clearly what so many workshop leaders and speakers only allude to.
Mary, Thank you for ALL of these articles on interiority. Honestly, the many “external/physical” descriptions of my protagonist’s reactions were boring the heck out of me, so I can only imagine how a reader would feel. I am loving going through your edits in my manuscript. It’s truly an education, and, having your guidance and feedback is making the editing process a lot more enjoyable!
I believe there is a word missing in this sentence:
“It’s to have readers live vicariously than to have them read the experiences of their guide, the point-of-view protagonist.”