How to write characters’ inner worlds: character development in fiction


The Da Vinci CodeHow do you create the inner worlds and interior monologues of characters in your novel?

Good character development means you must build a character, create their inner life for your story to resonate. Authors of genre fiction (thrillers, fantasy epics, etc.) can tend to neglect the inner life of a character central to the plot. Why bother with deep and meaningful stuff (they may say), if the point is a rollicking plot and plenty of action?

The truth is, no author can neglect the interior, because the interior is why readers read fiction at all.

Think of great thrillers. We do not just want to read a record of Robert Langdon saving the world in The Da Vinci Code. We want to feel what it’s like to really be Robert Langdon saving the world. Or Harry Potter saving the world from Voldemort, etc.

And we read for character. What drives a protagonist to keep fighting, a twisted antagonist to maim and hurt? If you have flat characters without drive, without inner life, your narrative will be blander for it, no matter the plot twists, turns and thrills you throw at us.

It is not just great plotting we read for. But if we read for character, how do you get this right?


Character development and your genre

As a general rule (but, be warned, this is very oversimplified), we find that:

  • Romantic or relationship-led fiction may tend to involve relatively significant amounts of inner-world writing;
  • Ditto first person narrative;
  • Ditto anything more literary (and literary novels can also carry more weight of flashback).

On the other hand:

  • More action-oriented fiction can have less inner-world-material, but that absolutely does not mean none at all;
  • Some thrillers may actually have some of the most compelling inner-world-writing you can find;
  • Third person narrative means taking advantage of free indirect discourse (or speech), and sometimes for characters other than your protagonist.


Character and interior monologue

OffredWhat is interior monologue? And why is it vital to character development?

Rumination, reflection, thought: the obvious way to convey the inner life, inner worlds of characters. But thought-writing must not slow down pacing. It must be kept relevant. (And if reflections turn to ramble, better to cut.)

In dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Offred has lost everything (even her name) to the hyperreligiosity of Gilead, living under surveillance in the Commander’s home, her former liberties gone. But Offred secretly tapes herself speaking about her life.

As we find out later, what readers read are Offred’s cassette recordings, literally an extended interior monologue. So, ruminating as she does, we live her inner life.

In one of Offred’s more introspective passages, we see why she records her experience and sense her hopelessness that someone may one day hear her, her hope this is a story she can gain control of:    

... I would like to believe this is a story Im telling. I need to believe it. ... If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. ... I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else. Even when there’s no one. A story is like a letter. Dear you, I’ll say. ... I will say you, you, like an old love song. You can mean more than one. You can mean thousands. ... I’ll pretend you can hear me. But it’s no good, because I know you can’t.

So these are not just random musings about the weather. They are included for a reason. Keep interior monologue writing grounded in relevance, linked to plot. (And if it’s not linked, cut it.)

Memory and nostalgia are also useful tools for evoking inner worlds of characters. In one scene, Offred walks with Ofglen and encounters two Guardians. Offred describes the tiniest rebellion, blending it with a memory:

... In returning my pass, the [Guardian] ... bends his head to try to get a look at my face. I raise my head a little, to help him ... a small defiance of rule, so small as to be undetectable, but such moments are the rewards I hold out for myself, like the candy I hoarded, as a child, at the back of a drawer. Such moments are possibilities, tiny peepholes.

Offred juxtaposes past with present, but this actually underlines how much more like a child she is now. Dependent on pleasing others, rebelling where she can. So this makes us hope with her. We know what needs to be gained (or regained). The added memory sheds light on Offred’s deeper frustrations and longings.

If you are adding memory to narrative, though, make sure it does not slow pace and serves action, i.e. the drama of what is going on now. (Don’t just add waffle.)


Characters’ inner and outer worlds (show, don’t tell)

Jane EyreWe read emotion in thought. We sense how a character feels when we read a stream of consciousness in books.

But physicality can also help translate how characters feel, especially in the immediacy of a moment. Visceral reactions to things help us understand the inner life of a character, so how can you convey feeling like this?

In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, settling into life as a governess, eighteen-year-old Jane paces as a release for boredom:

... My sole relief was to walk along the corridor of the third story, backwards and forwards, safe in the silence and solitude of the spot, and allow my mind’s eye to dwell on whatever bright visions rose ... a tale my imagination created.

More is revealed than Jane telling us she was bored before Rochester arrives, bringing her intellectual stimulation. Much of Jane Eyre is written as interior monologue, but Jane also shows, does not just tell, her wish for more.

Think also of Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Cathy ‘tossing about ... [tearing] the pillow with her teeth’, Heathcliff ‘[dashing] his head against the knotted trunk.’ Their shared anguish at not being together is not just spoken about (as it is at length in the novel). Gestures also convey their deteriorating mental health and inner turmoil (Heathcliff’s over a much longer time).

So you can also show what’s going on underneath in your novel, using actions to show or hint at what’s inside.

(More just here on show, not tell, how this helps convey a sense of characters’ inner life, too.)


Inner worlds and third person narrative

The Da Vinci CodeA thing called free indirect discourse means you can weave how a character thinks or feels into your third person narrative.

And this is not just a clever trick reserved for an elite few. You may already be doing this subconsciously in your writing. So if free indirect discourse sounds unfamiliar, let’s unpack what it means.

If you’re telling a story in third person narrative, ditto if it feels more action-driven, it is still possible to convey the inner worlds of your characters through free indirect discourse. In Angels and Demons, we get an insight into the mindset of Robert Langdon as Dan Brown ties character thinking into the narrative. So these terse phrases aren’t the narrator’s, they’re Langdon’s, his almost-too-fast-to-process revelations at a key point, just as they come to him:

... Langdon realized, it meant Vittoria had to be right. ... Implications came almost too fast for Langdon to process. Bernini was an Illuminatus. Bernini designed the Illuminati ambigrams. Bernini laid out the path of Illumination. ...

This Angels and Demons example is only a stepping stone to what you can do. It’s possible with free indirect discourse to get a deeper insight into the minds of your cast, shed light on the specifics of their mindset. This goes for protagonists, antagonists and your supporting cast.

Harry PotterHarry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone begins with Harry’s Uncle Vernon going about his day and spotting an odd cat lurking near his house, as J.K. Rowling laces action with free indirect discourse.

J.K. Rowling gives us an insight into Vernon Dursley’s rigidly stubborn, unimaginative mindset, whilst he ‘watched the cat in his [car] mirror ... now reading the sign that said Privet Drive – no, looking at the sign; cats couldn’t read.’

We know those words (Vernon correcting himself) are Vernon’s own, clearly not an omniscient narrator’s. Almost all free indirect style passes after this to Harry. Through him, we absorb the wizarding world and all that happens. But free indirect speech can also be used give your readers insight into your antagonist, too.

Look at this extract from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, as Voldemort learns Harry has been destroying Horcruxes (i.e. magical tethers to immortality):

... His wand fell, and those who were left were slain, all of them, for bringing him this news. ... They passed before him in vision: his treasures, his safeguards, his anchors to immortality – the diary was destroyed and the cup was stolen; what if, what if, the boy knew about the others? Could he know, had he already acted, had he traced more of them? Was Dumbledore at the root of this? Dumbledore, who had always suspected him, Dumbledore, dead on his orders, Dumbledore, whose wand was his now, yet who reached out from the ignominy of death through the boy, the boy – but surely if the boy had destroyed any of his Horcruxes, he, Lord Voldemort, would have known, would have felt it? He, the greatest wizard of them all, he, the most powerful, he, the killer of Dumbledore and of how many other worthless, nameless men: how could Lord Voldemort not have known, if he, himself, most important and precious, had been attacked, mutilated? ...

Series readers understand Harry has known a long time about Horcruxes. That no one needed to be killed by Voldemort for ‘bringing him this news’, etc. But we see these are Voldemort’s words. We read his deranged stream of consciousness.

Yet this passage does not detract from pace, or thrill us less. It actually heightens tension, exacerbates the action quickly for Harry, Ron and Hermione from this point until the finale of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

So if you’re penning a fantasy epic, mystery or thriller, and thinking inner world writing does not matter much, think again.

Writing like this may actually enhance your plot.

Red DragonIn thriller Red Dragon, Thomas Harris writes through free indirect speech how lone-killer Francis Dolarhyde decides: ‘if he worked at it, if he followed the true urges he had kept down for so long, cultivated them as the inspirations they truly were, he could become.’ And ‘before his Becoming, he would not have dared any of this. Now he realized he could do anything. Anything. Anything.’

Obviously, Dolarhyde’s evil actions are not inspirations. He is not ‘Becoming’ anything. But, crucially, we see his warped psychology.

More often than not, in a compelling crime novel, it’s not just events gripping us. It’s the characters: how can even a protagonist like Will Graham cope with events to come, what drives an antagonist like Francis Dolarhyde, in a novel like Red Dragon?

These questions (not just what may happen in the plot) keep us turning pages.


Checking your writing

Take a random few pages of your text as it stands, and check it to see if you have:

  • Any mention of character thinking, including free indirect discourse, i.e. Uncle Vernon scolding himself. But count only those thoughts that are clearly specific and particular to your character in question.
  • Any mention of character feelings. Again, things like ‘he felt hungry’ do not distinguish that character from the rest of humanity. You’re looking for things to distinguish your protagonist’s inner world from the rest, like Voldemort’s wrath for being brought bad news. (And for more on how to show feelings, take a look at our advice on showing, not telling, readers.) 
  • Any mention of physical sensations. Here you’re looking for sentences that tell us about how a character feels inside his body. Like Jane Eyre, pacing at Thornfield. Think also of the smells they may come across, sounds, etc. Again, disregard the obvious. Look for things unique to your character.
  • Any discussion of memory or past. We are people shaped by our pasts, so don’t forget to give your character a strong, individual past. Like Offred, who remembers hoarding candy. But don’t slow the book down by having too much flashback. If you're unsure on this, I'm afraid there are no guidelines we can offer. Every book is different. Harry Potter’s sojourning through other characters’ memories works due to the magical Pensieve, and without slowing pacing.

If you do not find any interior monologue or inner world mentions, then you have a major problem. Go back through your whole book and make sure that you bring these inner worlds to life. You will not succeed otherwise.

Before you do this, you need to make sure you have a firm grip on your characters. (More on character building just here.)

If you have some mentions, but not many (say just one or two per page), then you have probably undercooked your inner world. Review your novel carefully and with a view to building this aspect. But if you have mentions on every page, then well done, you.

Remember you can always sharpen your know-how by taking one of our writing courses, or get honest and constructive feedback on your work so far.

We can help, either way. Just get in touch.


Back to writing advice