How to Reveal Your Character’s Inner Life on the Page
Novels are the only storytelling medium that invites us into someone’s mind and allows us to follow along as that person makes sense of what’s happening. As the character makes sense of what’s happening, so does the reader.
This kind of "on the page" processing is what it means to write interiority. And if you leave it out of your novel, readers are going to feel cheated. There’s no way around it. If you want to write the kinds of stories that move readers and create lasting emotional resonance, you need to become a master of writing interiority.
And I’ll tell you this… Once you understand what interiority is, and once you practice writing it into your draft, you’ll never look back. I see this in my clients and students all the time—it’s one of those things that, once it clicks, you’ll wonder how you ever wrote a story without it.
So, let’s talk about what interiority is so that we’re all on the same page.
What is Interiority in Fiction?
Interiority is on-the-page access to a protagonist’s psyche as they process information in an interesting way. It’s your character’s thoughts, feelings, memories, impressions, opinions, reactions, and inner struggles expressed on the page.
In other words, interiority is what a security camera cannot capture. So, it’s not your character’s physical reactions or their dialogue or anything external like that—interiority is all internal, and it’s all partial.
Now, what do I mean by that? That interiority is all partial?
Interiority is rooted in a character’s perspective, and no two people’s psyches are the same. Everyone experiences emotions in a different way—and everyone has their own unique worldview, values, priorities, hopes, fears, and biases that come into play when processing the world around us.
So, for example, your “angry” might look very different from my “angry,” and it might be caused by very different things. And not only that, but there are many shades of anger and thousands of different reasons why someone could be angry (or whatever emotion you’re working with), right?
Imagine you’re reading a story about a mother-daughter relationship, and the mom brings her daughter home with a brand-new dress. And imagine it’s a very beautiful, sparkly dress that, as you read the description of it, you’re expecting the daughter to love, but instead, she’s angry. What? That makes no sense. Why is she angry? Even if you showed the daughter storming off down the hallway, we’d still be left in the dark about why she’s so angry.
But by including some interiority, we’d have access to her thoughts and feelings, and maybe we’d read something like this… “She thinks she can just buy me a new dress after what she did? I should have never asked her to come to parent’s day at school!” Now it makes a lot more sense, right?
I would much rather have those specific thoughts on the page than a description showing her storming off down the hallway. Or slamming the door. Or stomping her foot. All of these are external reactions—and this is where many writers stop.
So, another way to think about interiority is that it’s any moment when you dive into your character’s head to add context, meaning, humor, or emotion to a situation. This is a novelist’s superpower because it can reach the depths of someone’s psyche that no other medium can. This is what makes novels so awesome—and why we still choose to read novels while having access to so many other sources of entertainment like Netflix.
What is the Purpose of Interiority?
Interiority helps readers connect with your characters by exposing their inner life—so, their thoughts, feelings, and subjective interpretation of events.
But interiority can also help you:
- Reveal who or what a character is paying attention to (or not)
- Show readers why a character is saying or doing something
- Establish the intensity of a character’s feelings about something
- Reveal a character’s expectations of what will happen (both before and after the conflict occurs)
- Show readers how trusting a character actually is on the inside versus how they act to other characters
- Establish what a character wants to be kept private (and why)
- Reveal a character’s vulnerability in any given situation
- And more…
In other words, with interiority, you can show readers exactly how someone is processing information—all the different layers of how they're processing—which reveals character.
And this is true whether you’re writing in first person or third, whether you’re writing for adults, young adults, or middle-grade readers. All stories (regardless of genre) need interiority!
An Example of Interiority
To determine if something is interiority (or not), you can ask yourself two questions: Could a camera objectively capture what’s happening? And is the passage neutral?
A "YES" to both questions means the passage is not interiority.
Here’s an example of what interiority does and doesn’t look like from the first chapter of Ugly Love by Colleen Hoover:
"This place seems more like a historic hotel than an apartment complex, with its expansive columns and marble floors." This is interiority because it’s the protagonist’s subjective impression of the apartment complex.
"I find the panel and press the button for the eighteenth floor, then look up at the mirrored wall of the elevator." This is not interiority because it’s just neutral movement. A camera could record this character pressing the button and looking up.
Recommended Exercise: I highly recommend looking for interiority in your own work-in-progress. Highlight where interiority exists and then compare it to the amount of interiority you see in published novels of the same genre. Don’t be surprised if you realize you need to add more interiority—this is almost always the case!
How to Write Interiority
Since interiority is rooted in your character’s perspective, you need to do the work to understand their worldview, fears, biases, hopes, dreams, goals, preferences, motivations, etc., before you can write meaningful interiority.
You’ll also need to develop your story’s plot so that your character has something to react to. Because even though our thoughts and feelings are private, they're rooted in (or triggered by) something or someone (including ourselves).
Once you’ve done the work to flesh out your characters and your plot, consider these questions as you write out your scenes:
- What is your character’s goal coming into the scene?
- What’s their motivation for pursuing this goal?
- How are they feeling as the scene starts?
- What do they hope will happen?
- What do they worry will go wrong?
- How do they feel about their ability to accomplish their goal?
- How do they feel once the conflict kicks in?
- How do they feel about the other characters in the scene?
- How do they feel when the scene ends?
- How do they feel about their place in the overall plot right now?
You do not have to address these questions in every scene, but you can train yourself to think along these lines when your character is experiencing emotions.
Writers who tend to struggle with interiority usually just use physical sensations to convey emotions, and their scenes end up feeling dramatic or cliche. So, instead, aim to dig deeper. Look for what lives underneath the physical reactions.
If you’re editing a finished draft, you can look for places where you’ve named emotions and elaborate to include interiority. For example, if you find a spot in your draft where you’ve told readers that a character feels anxious, show us why. What is your character nervous about? Are they worried they won’t succeed? Do they have low self-esteem? Will their ex-partner be in the room during a big presentation? Are they worried about a specific worst-case scenario that could give readers some additional context?
Is Interiority Telling? Isn’t Telling Bad?
A question I get asked a lot is... Isn't interiority telling? And isn't telling a bad thing?
Interiority can be telling. But it can also be showing. So, if you're worried about interiority being telling, do me a favor and get that out of your head.
A good story will have both showing AND telling—whether you're talking about interiority or any other writing tool. Giving us an inside look at how your character subjectively processes information is not optional!
As you can see, there are so many things beyond the base feelings that you can layer into writing, and that is where the depth of your character lives.
The important thing to remember is that your character is not an impartial security camera recording the events of the scene for readers—no matter which point of view you’re writing in.
You have to keep coming back to your character. Remind yourself that they’re experiencing the moments you’re throwing at them (via the plot) and that, in real life, people react to stuff all the time.
You’re telling a story because you want readers to experience it, too. And this is exactly what interiority will allow you to do. It’s how you’ll get readers to live vicariously through your characters—and how you’ll evoke the emotional experience they’re looking for.