Writers in the Storm

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August 22, 2022

How to Let Readers into Your Characters’ Inner Life

by Tiffany Yates Martin

Inner mind from Colors of the Mind series. Colorful abstract shapes symbolize mind, reason, thought, emotion and spirituality.

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 in impacts their thinking or perspective or plans.

But how do you let readers be privy to the inner workings of your characters’ lives 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 a little sad”—rather than risk letting people really see our pain.

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 with them. We read not to hear someone’s story related to us secondhand, but to live it right along with them.

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 this 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. 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.

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?

We don’t know—all we have is a reporter’s recounting of general events. We want to be in the scene—to feel firsthand 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 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.

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 that means we need paragraphs of exposition or purple prose—don’t overcorrect. Just stop and process along with your characters—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: 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 books have you read where the author does a great job of bringing you inside the character's head? What questions do you have for Tiffany? Please share with us down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Tiffany

Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York TimesWashington PostWall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers. She is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing and leads seminars and workshops for writers around the country. Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she's also the author of six novels, including the recently released The Way We Weren't(Berkley/PRH). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com or www.phoebefoxauthor.com.

Top photo from Depositphotos.

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26 comments on “How to Let Readers into Your Characters’ Inner Life”

  1. These days, when I read, I find my writer brain tags along to the theater, puts her feet up on the seat ahead, and makes rude comments about the story. Even if they're true, they're annoying. The thing is, if the story pulls me inside, there's no outside. All the world falls away and writer brain quiets. Sometimes, I even hear her sniffling. Sometimes, her admiration for the story is so great that her comments somehow add to the experience. Those are the stories I seek.

    I most often find them in women's fiction, in books like True Places, When the Forest Meets the Stars, The Upside of Falling Down, When We Believed in Mermaids, or A Day Like This. I sometimes find what I seek in tales that are historical or possess a touch of fantasy, which I adore. Stories like A Splendid Ruin, The Raven Spell, The Quarter Storm, Bone River, or A Beautiful Poison.

    For someone whose teenage refuge was Tolkien, my writing goal since 2015 has been to meld women's fiction with fantasy, to combine depth of heart with a mind's wonder. Your post strikes at the core of what I seek. Thank you.

    1. This is a great post because I know we all try to get into our characters' heads and feel what they're feeling and then try our best to write it down on the page so the reader feels everything along with us. It's such a good example that you gave about "she feels sad". Well, that's all well and good but "telling" us how she feels isn't the same and as "showing" us how she feels. And haven't we all heart THAT forever when people give advice about our manuscripts - show don't tell. This post shows us what that means.

    2. Ha, you have your own Mystery Science Theater 3000 in your head. 😀 I have a similar hard time disconnecting my "editor brain" when I'm reading--and the stories that overcome that deeply ingrained instinct also delight me. You name many that I love also.

      Thanks for the comment, Christine--I'm glad the post struck a chord.

    3. "writer brain"...yes! I am finding it's practically ruining the pleasure of reading for me. I think we need a whole post devoted to this!

  2. I tend to follow authors who really immerse me in the story. Harlan Coben, JD Robb, Pat Conroy, JK Rowling, Christina Lauren, Barbara O'Neal, Marian Keyes, Grace Burrowes, Lucy Score. I also follow a bunch of other mystery, women's fiction and historical romance authors.

    Probably the most fun I've had in a series in recent memory was The Rosie Project trilogy by Graeme Simsion. Maybe it's because I used to teach autistic kids, but I dearly loved being in that main character's head. He was a hot mess and it was awesome.

    1. I LOVED The Rosie Project! And you've just blown my mind because I didn't realize it was a series. Now I know what's next on my TBR pile.

      I agree, Jenny--I love stories that suck me in, make me part of the character's experience. Those are the ones where I lose track of reading a story--I'm just living it with them. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Fantastic post, Tiffany!
    I never put together the puzzle pieces until reading this article. The writing equivalent to the Stanislavski Method is exactly what I do!
    When I'm reading I want to be involved with the characters. I appreciate when writers really dig into the emotions so I can lose myself inside the story.

    1. Thanks, Ellen! It helps that I used to be an actor. It's startling how many similarities there are between finding the character you're portraying and creating one on the page.

      I agree--I don't need swaths of navel-gazing emotional soliloquy, but if I feel "blind" to what's going on inside the character, I feel a distance from them.

  4. I just finished reading The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki and there were SO MANY good parts like this. I keep a notebook with me as I read and write down any really good deep POV/show-don't-tell moments that jump out at me so I can go back to them easily and be inspired. Here are a couple that I totally felt myself as I was reading:

    (p. 55, hardcover)
    The arts-and-crafts superstore was just another large retail chain, but it worked on her like a fast-acting drug; her blood quickened, her heart began to race, and a dreamy lassitude came over her as if her bones were melting.

    (p. 97, he = the 14 y.o. son, Annabelle = his mother, and the her mentioned above.)
    When he opened the door, Annabelle looked up quickly from her magazine and the force field of anxiety radiating from her body hit him in the face.

    (p.107) He could smell the sweet and slightly sour sweat from her skin that he identified as the scent of his own sadness, and he stayed like that for as long as he could bear it, until the feeling of dissolving into her became intolerable and he had to push her away.

    There were so many more. I highly recommend this book!

    1. Thanks for the book recommendation, Judy--that does sound good. I love that you flag moments and lines that jump out at you--it's such a great way to dissect how an author conveys emotion on the page.

      And thanks for your kind words about Intuitive Editing! It's my passion project--and recording it was more fun than I expected. 🙂

  5. P.S. Tiffany Yates Martin: I just finished your Intuitive Editing book (on audiobook) and it was amazing! So much valuable information, examples, references. Everything!

  6. As one who plays out my own thoughts conversationally in my head and who favors 3rd person Omni, I don't find much difficulty in sharing my character's thoughts. Mostly, I show their reactive thoughts as brief, unspoken sentences. And these I leave the font in block style, her words, but my narration. However, for knee-jerk reactions I go to shorter, common, emotional expressions, and I use italic style font. Her gut emotion more in the moment, with my narrator nowhere to be found.

    The ideal though is simplicity and brevity. I don't think it will do to have the character interrupt the scene with long analysis or speculations.

    1. I think it can depend on a lot of things--the character, the author style, the story, the scene. Long passages of introspection can be distracting and slow pace, I agree--but sometimes readers need more than just a brief description, I think, and too much direct inner dialogue can sometimes call attention to itself. Like everything in writing--it's a fine balance! Thanks for sharing your process, Jerold.

  7. Thank you for this, I found it really helpful and backs up thing's I'm trying hard to do in my own word! Characters really help make or break a story I feel, so being able to let the reader into their inner world is a powerful thing. 🙂

    1. It really is--it's the difference between readers feeling directly engaged with the story, or standing at a distance from it looking in. It can be a tough balance not to overshoot in either direction--and different for every story, author, and genre. Glad this was useful!

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