Your characters will make or break your novel. Readers will either resonate with their struggles, root for their triumphs, and feel the tug of their heartaches, or they won’t give a flying hoot what happens to them. Understanding how to reveal character interiority can elevate your narrative and engage your curious reader.
Being on the right side of this equation requires a complex understanding of the fictional people you create; that is called interiority.
Also referred to as internality, interiority is the umbrella term for all the things going on inside a character’s mind. All of their emotions, worldviews, values, priorities, dreams, fears, biases, and anything that contributes to their “inner world” are represented through their internal narrative. Unlike the limits of films, which can only capture the external world, novels have a unique opportunity to go deeper. There’s a reason the movie is never as good as the book—and that reason is character interiority.
Embracing this concept can feel a little taboo for writers who’ve been told to follow the old “show, don’t tell” rule. So, if you’ve felt tethered to using only neutral action and dialogue to move the plot forward, it’s time to break free. By injecting a character’s internal world into your story, you’ll create an immersive experience your readers won’t soon forget.
What is Interiority and Internality?
In novel writing, internality is the act of expressing characters’ rich inner lives on the page. It’s allowing how they perceive the world to influence the way you convey the story. You can do this via a singular first or third-person point-of-view (POV) from your protagonist—i.e., writing everything through the lens of how they feel and think—or by incorporating multiple characters’ thoughts and feelings into the narrative.
Whether you’re illustrating the innermost thoughts of one or many, the goal of internality remains the same: to give readers an understanding of your characters from the inside out.
Examples of internality (or interiority) include:
- Describing the character’s feelings, reactions, and inner monologue
- Exploring their memories or associations with certain places and objects
- Showing how they make sense of their circumstances through internal dialogue
Interiority vs Exteriority
Interiority and exteriority are the two sides of a coin in novel writing. Interiority dives deeper into a character’s inner world, while exteriority focuses on their external actions and environment. It’s important to have both for an effective story, but you need interiority to drive the story forward. Without it, your characters’ actions (and reactions) will feel arbitrary, and your plot will lack a cohesive thread.
Say, for example, your protagonist is walking down a city street at night. A novel that lacked internality might just say, “She walked down a dark street and shivered in her coat.” But a novel that embraced internality might say something like this:
“She shivered in her coat as she walked down the deserted street. An uneasy feeling had been growing inside of her since sunset, and she promised herself she’d never stay out this late again.”
See how much more you learn about the character in the second example? That’s the power of internality.
How to Write Internality
The key to writing internality is getting out of your head and into your protagonist’s. Ask yourself questions like:
- What keeps them up at night?
- Why do they make certain decisions?
- What fear are they constantly working to overcome?
- How do they see themselves?
- What past hurts continue to influence their present struggles—even if they don’t realize it?
I discussed Action and Sequel scenes in detail in this post.
Additionally, I find the Scene and Sequel formula detailed beautifully in this post by Dabble Writer‘s blog to be an excellent tool for incorporating internality into the narrative. This formula breaks up a scene into two parts:
- The Scene: the external plot-moving action
- The Sequel: the dive into the character’s inner world that shows how they’re feeling in response to what happened in the scene before
Using this structure helps you stay focused on the character’s interiority by continuously asking yourself questions about how they’re experiencing the events of the story. The Sequel can be a welcome reprieve from relentless action, adding depth to the motivation and stakes as well as setting up the motivations and plans for the character’s next steps.
Setting up narrative movement in this way helps underscore the significance of upcoming obstacles and stakes. Highlight internality does not slow the action; it supports the action’s emotional impact. You will also answer the reader’s questions about this character and help increase reader empathy.
The Taboo of Show, Don’t Tell
The phrase “Show, Don’t Tell” is age-old advice echoing through writing communities. It cautions writers to depict emotions via actions rather than stating them outright. The logic is clear: showing fosters an immersive reading experience. Yet, taken to an extreme, this maxim hampers narrative, mutes character complexity, and misses an opportunity to layer in backstory.
Consider the sentence, “Maddie was nervous.” A more vivid version might say, “Maddie hid her trembling hands behind her apron.” The latter brings readers into Maddie’s emotional state. But what if Maddie’s nerves are rooted in a childhood trauma of rejection? That’s where the underrated power of character interiority shines.
The strict adherence to “Show, Don’t Tell” often disregards human psychological complexity. People aren’t simple; they’re a tangle of thoughts, fears, and histories influencing their actions. When you limit yourself to showing, you risk reducing characters to mere action figures, void of an internal life.
Here’s a surprising twist: telling can be a form of showing. Skillfully used, interior monologues and flashbacks can expose a character’s inner conflicts in ways actions can’t. Imagine describing Maddie’s sweaty palms as she remembers a humiliating childhood rejection. Such a moment opens new layers of her character, fostering deeper reader empathy.
If “Show, Don’t Tell” is a hard rule, you could miss chances to delve into a character’s psychological nuances. A more nuanced approach is needed, one that allows both showing and telling. The goal is to “tell” when it deepens the story, offering glimpses into the corners of a character’s soul unreachable by action alone. It clarifies the ‘why’ behind the ‘what,’ enriching the narrative texture.
It’s time to reframe the conversation. Rather than seeing “showing” and “telling” as opponents, think of them as complementary tools. Each has its strengths and limitations. When harmonized, they construct a narrative as compelling as it is authentic.
Breaking away from a rigid interpretation of “Show, Don’t Tell” is not a rebellious act; it’s an act of narrative sophistication. By integrating interiority, you not only free your storytelling from prescriptive constraints but also infuse it with a lifelike complexity that resonates deeply with readers.
Struggling with Character Interiority?
Adding internality into your story is more than just sprinkling a few descriptive adjectives here and there. It’s an exercise in empathy and understanding—i.e., putting yourself in the shoes of your protagonist and exploring how they experience the world.
If you’re struggling to tap into this level of understanding, working with a book coach can help. At PD Hines, I offer customized support for fiction and nonfiction authors who feel alone on the path to publication. Together, we’ll unearth your character’s internality so you can create a powerful story that resonates with readers.
Ready to make magic with your characters? Click here to learn more and book your first session today.