One of the key benefits of written fiction is also one of the most difficult techniques to master: the inner narrative of the characters. This difficulty makes complete sense, of course, when we think about it (no pun intended), since the inner narrative of the characters—their thoughts put on paper—is the essence of fiction. Mastery of that essence equals mastery, in large part, of the art form. No wonder it’s hard! And no wonder it’s important. How can we create powerful thoughts for our characters? And how can we frame them on the page to make them as effective as possible?
1. Let your characters think. Too many inexperienced authors approach inner narrative tentatively (or not at all) because they fear readers will be bored and will want to return to the action as quickly as possible. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Interesting internal narrative, when appropriately balanced with action and dialogue, is the life’s blood of any story. Readers don’t just want to see what’s happening to your character; they want to know what he thinks about what is happening to him.
2. Show personality through word choice. Your character’s narrative voice is his literary fingerprint. How much different does Stephanie Plum’s voice sound from Mattie Ross’s? Authors should be so in tune with the nuances of their character’s personality that the character’s voice on the page offers an inherently unique ring. Novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes (in an interview with Jessica McCann, The Writer, March 2011) made the point that she “can’t write the story until I get the voice of the main character in my head.”
3. Show personality through how the character views the world. Telling readers about your setting is one thing; bringing it to life by using it as a unique tool to further characterize your narrator by allowing him to show the reader the setting as he sees it makes all the difference. In my short story “Light in the Shadows,” the 19th-century London setting takes on a sinister edge thanks to the narrator’s frenzied mindset:
Up ahead, the flame of a streetlight hung in the midst of the London fog like some kind of giant spirit. She hated the lights at night; they were too much like eyes watching her. Always watching. She broke out of the crooked skipping pace in which she had been running and shot a glance around the street for something to throw at the light. 4. Illustrate character arc. Instead of just showing your character’s eventual transformation over the course of the story, give your readers a backstage pass, so that they can experience character arc from the inside out. Internal narrative is a key tool in helping readers understand motive and growth. Can you imagine Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment without the protagonist’s hysterical justifications for his crime of murder?
5. Choose the best way to punctuate thoughts. Authors italicize direct thoughts, put them in quotes, preface them with an em dash, or sometimes just change the tense. However, doing so pulls your reader out of the narrative. Technically, in a deep POV, the entire story is the character’s thoughts. As a result, the most seamless way to share a character’s direct thoughts is to simply incorporate them into the narrative itself. Instead of writing, “Jack shot the bad guy, then stopped and thought, I can’t believe I just did that,” write, “Jack shot the bad guy, then stopped. Had he really just done that?”
Mastering your character’s thoughts—both by making certain he has thoughts worthy of sharing and by discovering the most powerful way to convey those thoughts—makes all the difference in the tone, scope, and immersive quality of your story. If readers are willing to give more than a penny for your characters’ thoughts, you know you’ve created a story that rings true from beginning to end.