Tracking the Inner Life of Your Fictional Characters

When many aspiring fiction writers think about the novel they want to write, they often think in terms of their proposed linear plot. This happens, then that happens, which causes the next thing to happen, and so on until the end of the book. In short, they piece together a credible story and if they’ve done a good job of piecing their story together, the book gets published.The writer has succeeded with his or her book on the story level. That’s good. Those books can sell like crazy.

But in my ongoing attempt to pinpoint what I prefer in a novel, I’ve come up with yet another way to describe this notion of going beyond the storytelling level and entering into the “felt life” level that Henry James championed. This new way is to suggest that just as a reader likes a book he or she can successfully follow (track) on the plot level, so too do most readers like a novel that allows them to track the inner life of the novel’s characters. (Without realizing that’s what they’re doing, of course).

The plot is what is happening in the story. But how are those events affecting the characters? I don’t mean does the fact that Joe dies in chapter one mean that we are then told that his widow Sally is sad (or happy) about his passing. That too, can just be something described on the basic plot level by giving us Sally’s facial expressions, dialog, and/or actions.

But to fully enter this next level of character development (that I crave as a reader), requires more than description, dialog, and actions. What more is there? you’re probably asking. And this is where it gets dicey. The truth is that it’s hard to infuse your fiction with this second level of “life.” Hard do describe and hard to do. It’s especially hard to do in such a way that the reader is tracking the character’s inner life on an intuitive level, not a linear level.

To be honest, I’m not even sure this aspect of characterization can be taught at all. But maybe it can. So in that hope, I’m going to offer some suggestions.

1. First of all, make sure you understand what I’m after. If you don’t get it, stop reading this blog entry and come back next week when I’ll be on to another topic. It’s not important that every writer understand this. I’ll settle for only a few.

2. Lack of an inner life in your characters may be simply because you don’t know them well enough. I’d suggest interviewing them about their past, their future, and how they got in this present predicament that is your novel. Most good characters are very forthcoming about their life. Some need coaxing, but it’s quite worth it when you get them to finally open up. Be advised that it’s often the interview questions that have nothing to do with the novel that are the most revealing. Ask lots of those.

3. Describe your characters, one by one, to a friend. Perhaps someone in your writers group. Let them come up with interview questions for your characters.

4. Read published fiction that has succeeded on this deeper level. And when you sit down to write, take a few minutes to warm up by typing word for word a few paragraphs from the book you’ve chosen. Particularly paragraphs that are themselves revealing of a character’s inner life.

5. One hint that your character’s inner life is boring is if their emotions are predictable. For instance in my example above (Joe’s death and his wife Sally’s reaction) the predictable response is sadness at the death of a spouse. But for a woman to be happy at her husband’s death suggests either something about Sally or about Joe that is worth exploring.

6. Find ways unique to your writing that will help you set on paper the words that will open up the inner life of your characters to your readers. When you find something that works, let me know or post it in the comments section. This process of tracking a character’s inner life is one of the most mysterious aspects of writing fiction that I know about—which is why few seem to attempt it and yet fewer succeed when they do attempt it.

If you have a finished novel that hasn’t sold, maybe this one single thing is what you need to do to break through and capture an editor’s heart. Go back through the book that you’ve completed on the primary plot level and this time write strictly to the second level–the deeper level. Ask yourself: is my character’s inner life worth tracking for the reader? If not, you need to do another rewrite and make it so. Just be very careful that this is all done invisibly…subtley…silently.

And even if you do master it, as I said earlier: Deepening the inner life of your characters may not help you sell your book to an editor—in fact, it may be a hindrance. Still, I want you to do it anyway. It will make me happy. 🙂

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18 Responses to Tracking the Inner Life of Your Fictional Characters

  1. Jan Lazo-Davis July 8, 2011 at 2:30 pm #

    Many nights I have spent discussing what I call back-story with my husband as he wrote his three children’s books on a re-creation of Santa Kloss – a realistic Santa. I totally believe it is imperative that a character be three dimensional and that can only work when one knows the life prior and consecutive to the story which is being told. Without this knowledge the author is stymied. They don’t totally know how the character will act in a situation. Unless the back story is developed – the characters can’t tell the Author what to do!!! Just my thoughts.

  2. Tami Meier July 8, 2011 at 3:10 pm #

    “…revealing of a character’s inner life.” Nick, is this like letting the reader unfold and discover the deep dark secrets, thoughts and motives of the heart—“the inner life” of the character? Showing who they truly are, not what they may be pretending to be or come across as to others? (Such as: someone putting their best foot forward and not truly revealing their true character?) Am I tracking with you? Smile.

  3. Nick July 8, 2011 at 3:48 pm #

    Not exactly, Tami. A character’s inner life isn’t necessarily full of deep dark secrets. Normally a character is as average as you and me. 🙂 It’s the revealing of the inner life and how it changes (IF it changes) during the story that’s important.

  4. Maril Hazlett July 8, 2011 at 5:59 pm #

    OK, I’ll try it. But just to make you happy! 🙂

  5. Nick July 8, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    Judy Morrow asked me for examples on Facebook. I’ve mentioned these authors before in regard to this same issue. I think four CBA authors who are the nearest to what Imean in terms of characterization are Susan Meissner, BJ Hoff, Roxanne Henke, and George Bryan Polivka. All four are excellent writers and I recommend them highly. A couple of my favorites of Susan’s are “In All Deep Places” and “The Remedy for Regret.” Among BJ’s books, I think her recently re-released Emerald Ballad series will move you deeply. One of our proofers–who tries to remain objective as she looks for typos and such–was drawn into one of the books in this series despite her efforts to remain aloof from the actual story. Anyone attempting to become a successful author will want to read “Becoming Olivia” by Roxanne Henke. It’s the final book in a five-book series. Although you’ll love all of them, that book hits home the strongest for writers. George Bryan Polivka writes fantasy, but oh gosh what fantasy! His Trophy Chase trilogy is simply wonderful. Go on Amazon and order some of these books. A few may be out of print, but I bet you can pick up a used copy. Also, Harvest House is converting quite a bit of our backlist into ebooks, so perhaps you’d prefer to read it that way. I’m choosing Harvest House authors because these are authors I’ve edited, but there are others out there too. Feel free to chime in.

  6. Tami Meier July 8, 2011 at 7:53 pm #

    What is your favorite book or sample paragraph that best illustrates “inner life”? I would love to see a sample.

  7. Nick July 8, 2011 at 8:37 pm #

    For the books I mentioned, I may have to wait until Monday. All my copies of those books are at work.

  8. Jeff Adams July 9, 2011 at 10:10 am #

    Even insane people have reasons for what they do. What makes us, and our characters, tick adds a dimension that makes a story richer, well worth reading. Thanks, Nick.

  9. Mary Kay July 9, 2011 at 8:38 pm #

    I thought of Susan Meissner’s books as I read your post, Nick. I’ll have to read some of the others you mentioned.

    Thanks for discussing this. I’ve noticed some authors consistently unfold stories populated by characters with rich inner lives that we see change, and others consistently don’t. It helps to hear that both types of book are chosen by editors and sell, because I’ve often wondered when I read books that are more surface, plot driven: What am I missing here? [Don’t mean to sound critical or snarky; just that we yet-to-be-published writers can be confused about the business side of things.]

    I did an exercise to explore motivation in one of my antagonists (evil dude–or so it appeared). Working on this made him so much more interesting and believable as a villain. Even made him scarier in a way, but definitely enhanced the story. So I will honor your request! 🙂

  10. Nick July 11, 2011 at 8:11 am #

    After having offered to put up some sample paragraphs, I’m changing my mind. It’s hard to offer snitches of writing here and there when it’s the sum total of those parts that really matter. The authors I like get me into the life of a sympathetic character right away and compel me to stick with that character through thick and thin until the last page. HOW that happens is the mystery of writing. How can some authors tell a good story and yet fail to interest me in what happens to the character? How can some authors create compelling characters that I will follow through the thinnest of plots?

  11. Marcy Weydemuller July 14, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    If it’s not too late to make a comment, I compiled a list of journal exercises, from various sources, for my students and myself to use as writing prompts, and/or to get to know your characters from the inside-out. It’s available for free on my website. Just scroll down under Resources to 31 Creative Freewrites.

  12. Nick July 14, 2011 at 3:58 pm #

    No, it’s not too late, Marcy.

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  17. cheri powell October 24, 2016 at 10:02 am #

    I know this post is old, but I just signed up for a workshop on writing the inner life of characters and the presenter asked us to bring a two page sample to the class. I’m trying to figure out how to do that.

    What sorts of things should the inner life reveal? hopes and dreams? unexpressed emotions? regrets? past not spoken about?

    In delving into myself, I can see all these possibilities and more. Am I on the right track?

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