3 Common Interiority Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)



In today’s post, I’m going to walk you through three of the most common interiority mistakes I see writers make and how you can fix these mistakes if you’re making them in your draft. So, to set the stage, let’s quickly talk about what interiority is, and then we’ll dig into the three mistakes.



What is Interiority?

Interiority is on-the-page access to a character’s psyche as they process information in an interesting way. It’s that character’s thoughts, feelings, and subjective interpretations of events expressed on the page. And that last part is really important—it has to be on the page.

So, we’re not talking about your character’s physical reactions or their dialogue or anything external like that—interiority is all internal, and it’s all partial. So, it’s rooted in your character’s perspective, and since no two people’s psyches are the same, it’s something that’s unique to that character.  

I sometimes call it the novelist’s superpower because it allows you to reach the depths of a character’s psyche that no other storytelling medium can. This is what makes novels so awesome—and why we still choose to read novels while having access to so many other entertainment sources, right?

So, that’s a quick download on what it means to write interiority, and it’s super, super important to include it in your draft. Again, if you haven’t already listened to those other episodes on interiority, I have linked to them in the show notes, and I highly, highly recommend downloading them right now so you don’t forget.

Okay, so let’s dive into the three most common interiority mistakes I see writers make, and as we go through each of them, I’ll give you some strategies for fixing these mistakes if you’ve made them in your draft. Sound good?


3 Common Interiority Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)

Mistake #1: The character is too internally passive

If you’ve read any kind of craft book or if you’ve been listening to this podcast, you’ve probably heard that your protagonist needs agency. Agency just means that your protagonist must have the ability to make decisions, take actions, and then deal with the consequences of those decisions and actions. So, protagonists need agency, and agency (by definition) is not passive.

But sometimes, writers find their protagonists in a situation where their physical agency is taken away—so, for example, if a character has recently been captured or imprisoned, they might end up sitting around in their jail cell waiting for something to happen. But as a result of their inactivity, the whole story feels like it’s come to a screeching halt, and the reader might start to lose interest. 

Obviously, there will be situations like this in stories where a character cannot take physical action—and/or where a character needs to be passive in their actions. For example, a character might decide not to confront someone in the moment, or they might be the type of person who generally likes to seek counsel before they act. That’s fine to an extent.

But no matter what physical situation your protagonist finds themselves in, they should always crave agency—even if only for a fleeting and/or unconscious moment.

Let’s take a look at an example of a scene from A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin. This scene is from Jamie Lannister’s point of view, and he has just been taken (along with Brienne of Tarth) by Vargo Hoat (who also just cut off Jamie’s hand):

“The wench had the right of it. He could not die. Cersei was waiting for him. She would have need of him. And Tyrion, his little brother who loved him for a lie. And his enemies were waiting too; the Young Wolf who had beaten him in the Whispering Wood and killed his men around him, Edmure Tully who had kept him in darkness and chains, these Brave Companions.

When morning came, he made himself eat. They fed him a mush of oats, horse food, but he forced down every spoon. He ate again at evenfall, and the next day. Live, he told himself harshly, when the mush was like to gag him, live for Cersei, live for Tyrion. Live for vengeance. A Lannister always pays his debts. His missing hand throbbed and burned and stank. When I reach King’s Landing I’ll have a new hand forged, a golden hand, and one day I’ll use it to rip out Vargo Hoat’s throat.

In this example, you can see that, although bound, abused, and missing a hand, Jamie is anything but internally passive. In this bit of text, he’s remembering what’s important and plotting out his next steps. Internally, he is active.

So, the key takeaway here is that even if your protagonist is physically unable to take action, they should crave agency—they should want something, including the agency to take the steps to get it.


Mistake #2: The character is always in the present moment

I often see writers craft characters who are only ever focused on what’s in front of them, and because of this, they make decisions and take actions based only on what’s in front of them, too. And this just isn’t realistic.

In real life, humans are never fully present. We’re constantly associating what’s happening in any given moment with memories from our past, fears we’ve developed, biases we hold, hopes we have about the future, our goals, what we stand to lose or gain, what other people think, and things like that.

So, in order to write realistic characters, we need to show how their past and future impacts their present moment at any given time. And if you’re thinking this means you probably need to do some character development before you write effective interiority, then you are correct. If you need some guidance on fleshing out your characters, go check out episode #7, it’s called, and I will link to that in the show notes for you as well.

Let’s look at an example to bring this idea of the past and future impacting a character in the moment, and to do that, we’re going to look at part of a scene from An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir:

“By the time Helene and I reach Blackcliff’s belltower, nearly all of the school’s three thousand students have formed up. Dawn’s an hour away, but I don’t see a single sleepy eye. Instead, an eager buzz runs through the crowd. The last time someone deserted, the courtyard was covered in frost.

Every student knows what’s coming. I clench and unclench my fists. I don’t want to watch this. Like all Blackcliff students, I came to the school at the age of six, and in the fourteen years since, I’ve witnessed punishments thousands of times. My own back is a map of the school’s brutality. But deserters are always the worst.”

So, in this example, we can see that the present moment is making Elias think of both times in the past when he’s seen a deserter punished and the upcoming moment when a deserter will be punished in front of the other students.

And this brings me to a key point that you can jot down about fixing the issue of an ever-present protagonist. In every scene, look for an opportunity to include a line showing the influence of your character’s past or future expectations, and/or try to show your protagonist’s internal clock—or like what kind of timeline they’re operating within. So, an easy example of this is, if they’re hurrying, we should understand that and feel the effects of them needing to hurry in the scene.

And also, just to clarify, when I say show the effects of your character’s past, this doesn’t mean to include a flashback—if you use flashbacks, use them very sparingly because this will stall your story’s forward momentum. Flashbacks literally take us to the past, so they will slow your story down. Just something to keep in mind.


Mistake #3: The character knows what the author knows

Sometimes, I see drafts where it’s obvious that the author’s knowledge of the overall story or how they see a character or situation is leaking through into the text. 

For example, I was recently working with a historical fiction author, and one of their characters was sharing their impression of their own time period as if they were comparing it to the present day. But if the character is living in the 1920s (or whatever historical period in time), they can only reference what happened before that period, right? So, you just need to be careful of stuff like this.

But the more common way this mistake manifests is when a writer fails to really get in their character’s head and process what’s happening in the moment. So, I want to give you an example because this is hard to explain, but it’s super important to identify where you might have made this mistake in your draft.

So, for example, imagine you’re writing a story about a 16-year-old ballerina who wants to make it big and perform in Paris. Let’s say this ballerina’s mom comes home one day and says, “Hi darling, guess what? I got you an audition on Thursday!” And let’s say the daughter responds with, “OMG, thank you, Mom! What do you think I should wear, the blue leotard or the pink one? I can't wait to tell dad about this!” And then she goes off to her room to pick out her outfit or whatever, right? 

So, if I were editing a scene like this, I would say something like, “Why doesn’t the 16-year-old daughter ask her mom where the audition is or who it’s with?” In this scenario, the author knows what audition the girl is going to, but wouldn’t the girl also want to know this information? What if it’s a “lesser” ballet company, and she’s actually not happy? Or what if it's the one she really, really wants that will give her an opening to perform in Paris? It’s not on the page, so we don’t really know.

And this happens all the time in the manuscripts I edit. The author is usually very clear on what’s happening, but it’s not on the page, so there’s a gap between the vision in the author’s page and what the reader sees, and it creates confusion. 

Here’s an example of what this looks like (when done well) from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling:

“Ministry o’ Magic messin’ things up as usual,” Hagrid muttered, turning the page.

“There’s a Ministry of Magic?” Harry asked, before he could stop himself.

“‘Course,” said Hagrid. “They wanted Dumbledore fer Minister, o’ course, but he’d never leave Hogwarts, so old Cornelius Fudge got the job. Bungler if ever there was one. So, he pelts Dumbledore with owls every morning, askin’ fer advice.”

“But what does a Ministry of Magic do?”

Notice how in this example, Harry asks a follow-up question about the Ministry of Magic, not about Cornelius Fudge or Dumbledore? He’s behaving like an 11-year-old kid would behave, and he’s focused on this one line of thought despite what else Hagrid’s saying.

Also, notice how Harry has to ask what the Ministry of Magic is because he doesn’t know. He’s from the Muggle World, so it makes sense that he’d need to ask for clarification about what the Ministry does and why.

So, if you find that you’ve made this mistake in your draft, look for instances where what you see in your head is not actually on the page. And when in doubt, especially in your first few drafts, it’s better to have too much information than too little. You can always pare things down later once you’re absolutely sure that your story’s on the page. 


Final Thoughts

So, there you have it—the three most common interiority mistakes I see writers make and how to fix them in your draft!

I hope you can see that understanding and effectively incorporating interiority into your scenes is crucial for creating a compelling story. 

By avoiding common mistakes such as creating internally passive characters, neglecting the impact of the past and future on the present moment, and allowing your own authorial knowledge to seep into the character's perspective, you can elevate your storytelling and immerse readers in a rich and authentic experience.

Remember, interiority grants you the power to delve into the depths of a character's psyche, offering a unique and captivating narrative that sets novels apart from other forms of entertainment. 

So, as you continue to refine your writing, embrace the challenge of capturing the complex and intricate workings of your characters' minds. By doing so, you'll create stories that resonate with readers and leave a lasting impression!

Savannah is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She also hosts the top-rated Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast full of actionable advice that you can put into practice right away. Click here to learn more →