Friday, December 13, 2019

Interiority? How Much Should You Show or Tell about Your Characters' Inner Lives?

Interiority or "internals" is a fancy way to describe the reader's view into your characters' thoughts, feelings, and inner lives.  Some genres require a lot of this (memoir), some much less (thrillers).  Interiority is what makes a character real to the reader.  Skilled writers reveal interiority in several ways.  It's important to know what your genre requires and how to plant and build the interior lives, without having them slow the momentum of the story.

One of my past students, Megan, worked for several years her memoir about the mystery illness she experienced as a child and how it changed her life--and her family's.  She presented the story factually at first, as she remembered from endless doctors' visits and tests and challenges at home. One of her big questions when we worked together was how to show other people who are very close to her--her parents, for instance.  Since proximity and familiarity can blind us to what the reader needs to see, my first suggestion was to get solid feedback, from peers (her writer's group) and instructors.  What was she assuming about interiority, and was it correct?  Did her mother's anguish really come across in that scene?  

She grew more confident at choosing scenes where interiority needed to be present--at a medical exam where new findings shocked her parents, the reader would need to see that anguish in her mother, for example.  To add this to every scene, though, would drag the pace. She got good at planting interiority for these major characters where it would bring out peaks of tension.

Now that she's wrapping up her final revision, she wants to double-check her own interiority on the page.  Memoir is about "me," after all, so showing the internal life of the narrator is required in this genre.  "One question I'm left with," she wrote me, "is the extent to which I should make my narrative arc explicit." If she includes the gestures, body sensations, and reflections of her thoughts or feelings in the setting, plus enough interior monologue, can she  assume the reader will be able to see her progress through the story?

It's so hard to tell, ourselves, isn't it.  When I wonder this about my own books, I know my only recourse is feedback.  I start with setting the manuscript aside for 6 weeks (the amount of time it usually takes to get out of my writer's head and gain distance).  Then I read through it aloud.  Aloud is the key--that gives me the reader's view.  How does it sound? Are there places where the interiority drops out?  Then I take a highlighter and mark where the interiority occurs in any form.   Finally, I chart these appearances of the inner life.  My chart might look as simple as this:  

page number
interiority marker

Markers could be something like "I felt the sting of tears but swallowed hard and made my voice as casual as possible."  That's interiority via a body sensation (feeling sting of tears) and a gesture (swallowing hard and casual voice).  Another marker might be interior monologue, which is more direct thought or feeling, like "I hated her in that moment."  Each of these lines or incidences goes on the chart.  After I finish, I have a list--a kind of map of the interiority in the book.  I can usually analyze the progress of the narrative arc, if the inner life grows and changes, or where it stalls out or disappears.  

In a novel, this can be done for any important character--the ones who grow and change.  

Making the chart is tedious.  It's an editor's tool that I often use and have found super valuable.  

The chart is also a great way to confirm feedback.  What if, as another past student just experienced, you are working with a mentor or paid editor or even writer's group at final revision, and one of them suggests that you make the main character's internal life more explicit?  Test it out.  Feedback is valuable, in that it gives you more about what a reader might want--which is hard to see yourself.  I never discount it but I do test it.  

Both students were asking about the balance of interiority (the inner life) versus the outer life in a story.  Outer story provides momentum, grounding, and stability via events.  Stuff happening.  Hard to have a book without this!  But interiority is the inner story, the way we readers relate to your people.  

One more suggestion for those still twisting over this.  Read good examples and chart them too.  I have a bookshelf full of great novels that I routinely take apart (chart and analyze) to answer these kinds of questions.  

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