How to Let Readers into Your Characters’ Inner Life

How to Let Readers into Your Characters’ Inner Life

How to Let Readers into Your Characters’ Inner Life

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One of the areas where I most often see manuscripts fail to engage readers deeply is with characters who may feel flat, wooden, or opaque to readers, rather than vivid, accessible, and alive on the page–a brick wall keeping readers from connecting directly to characters.

And probably one of the questions I’m most asked by authors is how to fix it.

My answer is generally some variation on “Let us in” (a phrase I must use more often than I realized, since an author had this mug made for me after our work together…).

Regardless of what POV you’re writing in, allowing readers to understand what’s going on inside your character is what makes a story immediate, direct, and vivid to us. If we don’t know how they react to things and how they process them, your characters might as well be game pieces we simply watch progress along the board. Readers want to feel we’re part of the game.

To do that we must understand the character’s perspective: how events strike her and what she makes of them. That’s the heart of the character’s journey—how you show them moving along their arc.

It’s stimulus-reaction-response: The thing happens, it affects the character in a certain way, and as a result it impacts their thinking or perspective or plans. If readers aren’t privy to the second and third parts of that equation, then your stories risk feeling like just a series of events unspooling one after the other, with no character throughline to connect them and give them meaning. That’s plot, but it’s not story, and it’s likely to leave readers feeling uninvested and unengaged.

But how do you let readers into the inner workings of your characters without bogging your story down in interiority?

Bring Your Readers Inside Characters’ Direct Experience

Here’s a simplistic, general example of issues I see frequently in creating immediacy and intimacy in stories.

Are we going to be okay?”

“I don’t know.”

We sat in silence for a while. Despair set in, and my tears began to fall.

There’s nothing overtly wrong with this passage. We have a clear conflict—there’s some kind of relationship crisis—and we know that the POV character is unhappy about it.

But readers may not be affected by this moment because it has a distant feel. We’re on the outside looking in because we’re not directly experiencing the character’s reactions—rather, they’re being narrated to us, as if the character were dispassionately standing just to the side of herself and reporting on what’s going on.

It’s “safe” writing, the way that we often protect our own emotions by distancing ourselves from them—“No, I’m fine, just feeling a little sad”—rather than risk letting people really see our pain, really letting ourselves feel it.

In story, we want to not only see characters’ pain—and joy and fear and excitement and anger and everything else—we want to feel it too. We read not to hear someone’s story related to us secondhand, but to live it right along with them.

Opening the curtain to a character’s inner life means giving readers not just a front-row seat to the character’s journey, but a backstage pass

For that, you have to bring us more deeply into their direct experience.

That doesn’t mean every story must be deep POV; you can open the curtain to a character’s inner life in every point of view. And it doesn’t mean swaths of navel-gazing self-reflection or inner dialogue. It simply means giving readers not just a front-row seat to the character’s journey, but a backstage pass.

The above passage makes three common missteps that can keep readers at a remove from a character’s direct perspective:

1. Misusing silence

As I’m fond of saying, silence is never empty; our minds are always processing, even when our mouths aren’t moving. And yet frequently I see authors employ silence as a mere piece of stage description, as in the above example, rather than utilizing all its juicy potential.

Something is going on inside your characters during their silences, even if it’s only reaction to the silence, like discomfort or anxiety. More often it’s when we’re processing whatever was happening right before the silence fell: the argument, the momentous piece of news, the screech of brakes, the thought-provoking comment—even just a piece of new insight or information.

In the silence our minds are churning: “Why did he say that?” “What does that mean?” “What happened?” “Now what?” or even just “What the hell do I say to that?” Our emotions are likely engaging too—we have a reaction to whatever just happened or was said, and we’re experiencing it: we’re hurt or angry or confused or offended or gobsmacked. Or maybe we’re just thinking.

Silences are processing moments—and readers want to be privy to the processing.

2. Labeling emotion

In the above example, “despair set in” is a shortcut to emotion, rather than allowing readers to feel what the character is feeling directly. As with the “I’m fine, just sad” comment I mentioned above, it’s distancing “tell” instead of the “show” of what’s going on inside the character that their higher-reasoning brain then assesses as sadness.

If you want readers to deeply invest in your characters and their story, then you have to not just tell them what the character is feeling, but rather let us feel it with him directly, or at least see intimately how it’s affecting them. It means giving us that all-access pass to the same experience the character is having, instead of just reporting on it.

I call this “lizard-brain writing”: conveying the instinctive, reactive amygdala reaction of a character rather than the intellectual conclusion about it that the higher-reasoning cerebrum draws.

Instead of the dispassionate labeling of the character’s emotion as “despair,” can you find a way to describe what the character is actually viscerally experiencing that their intellectual mind concludes means “despair”?

This usually involves what I often call “method writing,” the writer’s equivalent of Stanislavski’s Method acting where you recall a situation in your own life when you’ve experienced something similar to what the character is experiencing. Maybe you’ve never felt the black despair of a broken marriage, for instance, but because you’re human you’ve felt something at least despair-adjacent in your life: perhaps when you lost a job, or your dog died, or you heard a daunting diagnosis of someone you loved.

Read more: “The Best Character Tool You May Not Be Using

Can you remember what that felt like inside you, or imagine it, or extrapolate from it? Every human is marvelously unique, so your version of what despair feels like will be different from anyone else’s, but put that direct experience on the page rather than the intellectual description and you will let readers feel it right along with your character.

3. Letting physical or physiological description substitute for insight

Every writer probably knows the struggle of trying to find yet another tangible way to describe intangible reactions and emotions: “her throat closed,” “his stomach tightened,” “she frowned,” and my least favorite, “bile rose in his throat.”

Besides being overfamiliar to the point of cliché, these shortcuts bypass actual direct emotion for a dry commentary on its manifestation, a DSM of presenting symptoms.

These visceral reactions are useful—they actually can be a tool for letting readers understand the effect of an emotion rather than labeling it. But used without some insight into why the character is reacting that way, they can leave readers in the dark about what’s going on inside them.

In the above example, yes, we know the character is crying, but that’s simply a physiological fact. It doesn’t get at the actual cause. The author told us that these are tears of despair, but despair of what, exactly? Does the character think this heralds the end of the line for this relationship? Is she frustrated at the impasse they seem to be at? Does she no longer see the point of trying to fix things?

Without concrete, specific insight into the character’s reactions, thoughts, feelings we don’t know. All we have is a reporter’s recounting of general events.

We want to be in the scene—to experience what it’s like to be at the nexus of the action. We need some glimpse into what the character is making of what happened, how it affects them­­, how they’re processing it, what they think that is creating what they feel. We want to know what impact this occurrence has, how it shifts their reality, moves them along their arc to the next action they will take.

Read more: “The Want, the Action, and the Shift

And all of that lives inside of the character, opaque to us unless the author invites us in.

How to Open the Window to Your Characters’ Inner Life

None of this means we need paragraphs of exposition or purple prose—don’t overcorrect. Just stop and process along with your characters throughout the action of the story—what they might be thinking and feeling, how they might be reacting, and what that experience might be like.

In the case of our original example perhaps that looks like this:

Are we going to be okay?”

“I don’t know.”

Silence fell like a child’s ball down a well, vanishing into darkness. Hot hopelessness swam up my throat and behind my eyes, but tears wouldn’t save my marriage any more than a child could retrieve a favorite toy lost forever.

This version isn’t so much better writing as that it opens a wider window to the character’s inner life that draws us into her experience directly: We sense something of the character’s reaction in the nature of the silence—dark, empty, lost. We viscerally understand what she is actually experiencing as she cries, not just the fact of her tears. And her metaphor of the ball in the well gives the reader specific insight into why she’s crying: her marriage feels hopeless, irretrievable.

It doesn’t matter what POV you’re writing in—even omniscient (go back and recast each step of this example in other POVs and you’ll see what I mean). If you want your readers to feel directly engaged in your stories, put yourself inside the characters’ head, behind their eyes, and imagine—the writer’s greatest tool.

What’s your take, authors? How do you find the balance between opening the window to your characters’ inner lives to invite readers in without spoon-feeding them or overwhelming the story with interiority?

(A version of this post previously appeared in the Writers in the Storm blog many moons ago.)

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • Sharon Snyder
    June 20, 2024 12:28 pm

    Thank you! This article re-utters what my mind tells me daily. However, what do I know, right? I don’t listen to myself. It’s exposing my own feelings, which I’ve spent a lifetime hiding. When my husband says, “This is good.” I repeat, “No, I’m not exposing my true feelings.” He looks at me like I have three heads. He doesn’t expose himself, either. I am working on it, and I know I will not be a good writer until I do. Thank you, thank you for releasing my thoughts and exposing them to the light.

    Reply
    • I think one reason it’s hard to write characters who feel real and accessible is exactly this, Sharon–so many of us are inculcated to do the opposite in our own lives, and hide our underbellies. Your characters may do that too–but readers should have more access than we might be inclined to give to other people in our own lives. But good for you for recognizing that in your work–you can’t address issues until you see them, so it’s great that you see them.

      I like to think of it as vicarious therapy–revealing the more naked, vulnerable parts for characters that I may not want to expose for myself. 🙂 Thanks for the comment, Sharon–glad the post resonated.

      Reply
  • My detective tends to reflect on things at moments of high emotion. And other times. When he learns that his client, a likeable young woman, has died in an accident, he says to himself that it’d been easier to deal with if he’d been shocked. He’d been pretty sure it wouldn’t end well, but it felt like such a dreadful waste of a life full of promise.
    I love your method writing. Comparing a the pain of a broken relationship with that of a lost toy would, I’m sure, have elicited great praise from Stanislavsky.

    Reply
    • Love that, Bob–that sounds like just enough insight into your detective’s reaction to elicit one from readers, without feeling like too much for the character. It can be a tricky balance to find between enough insight and not enough, but the better we understand our characters–what they think and feel, but also what they hide and why–the easier that gets, I think.

      It’s weirdly masochistic sometimes, writing, isn’t it? We have to kind of inflict suffering on ourselves–or at least access the painful parts, the uncomfortable parts, the unspoken parts, to create fully fleshed characters. But what a ride! 🙂

      Reply

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