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  • Writer's pictureKaryn Fischer

Interiority: The most common mistake I see writers make


Glasses perched on a book

Do you know what the hardest part of fiction to get right is? The one I see most of my clients and slush pile contributors get wrong?


Interiority.


Interiority is a fancy schmancy word for a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Basically, all the internal in-the-moment stuff that a reader needs to know to fully understand and connect with a character. It’s their internal world, if you will. When an author uses interiority appropriately, readers know why a character makes the choices they make throughout the story.


Interiority is, in a lot of ways, the story.


As we’ve established before, a story is really about a character’s change. It’s about their move from one way of being, to another, and much of that work happens on an interior level. It’s tapping into the logic that the character is using to make decisions and getting it on the page.


And when I say it’s one of the hardest things for a fiction writer to get right, I mean precisely that getting that interiority on the page is particularly difficult. Why is it difficult? Because as writers, we already know our characters inside-out. We understand their logic, their emotions, their backgrounds and thoughts, and so many of us accidentally write in a way that assumes the reader will get it too. But the problem is that without those thought and emotion patterns, we are actually opening the door for readers to bring their own interiority, their own biases and experiences to our characters. Think back to what I talked about last week, with the character lens, and how all humans are a mix of a million different components. Let’s look, for example, at what would happen if a writer left out some interiority.


Say you have a scene in which two characters are out at dinner, on a first date. Your POV character is a widowed female, her date a man named Jack. Things have, until this point, been going okay.


“As Jack explained a story about his brother travelling overseas, I twirled the spaghetti around my fork, and popped it in my mouth. As I chewed, he stopped, smiling, and looked at a spot on my chin. Before I knew what was happening, he leaned over and swept his thumb gently across my face.

“Marinara,” he explained.

I swatted his hand away so fast it knocked over my water glass. Tears sprang to my eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, before I jumped up, grabbed my purse, and ran out of the restaurant.”


Woah! Why the big reaction, right? Does she just not like being touched? Did it trigger a memory of a trauma? Did something about the way he touched her make her skin crawl? Is she embarrassed about knocking over the water? Were things really not going well?


Readers feel left out, and—worst of all—emotionless. Because remember, the goal of books is to make readers feel.


Now let me rewrite this Pulitzer Prize-winning scene again (ha), adding more interiority:


“As Jack explained a story about his brother travelling overseas, I twirled the spaghetti around my fork, and popped it in my mouth. As I chewed, he stopped, smiling, and looked at a spot on my chin. Before I knew what was happening, he leaned over and swept his thumb gently across my face.

“Marinara,” he explained.

In that moment, I wasn’t on a first date with a perfectly nice accountant from The Bronx. I was back in Henry’s studio the night before he died, sharing the last slice of his favorite chocolate cake. He’d brushed a crumble from my lips and then leaned in and kissed me.

That was the last time any man had touched me in such a tender way and suddenly it was all too much…the candles, the roses, the fancy dress.

Jack was not Henry, and there was no way any man could come close.

I swatted his hand away so fast it knocked over my water glass. Tears sprang to my eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, before I jumped up, grabbed my purse, and ran out of the restaurant.”


Okay, so suddenly we have context. We understand what is happening in this character’s head in this moment. And lo and behold the story is on the page. Clearly this is a story about a woman trying to move forward after the death of her husband.


Now that we have a better sense of what interiority is, why it’s important, and what it looks like, let’s talk about a couple of ways to actually get it onto the page.


1. Have your character react to everything that happens.

Ask yourself: What are they thinking/feeling when [insert plot point/dialogue bit] happens? And what do they do about it. You can always pare this down later in revisions, but it is easier to cut than to backfill in, in some cases. How does whatever happens make them feel? What does it mean to them?


2. Check for logic

Can you follow the logic of what made a character behave in a certain way? Is the equation A + B = C on the page, or do we need to solve for an X? If readers have to solve for X, there’s not enough there. If anything feels out of the blue, you need to add in a line or two of interiority.


3. Check for a cause-and-effect pattern

Events >Thoughts > Feelings > Behavior. This is how humans make decisions and process information. Something happens, then our thoughts turn to feelings, which cause us to act. Do your characters have clear thoughts and feelings on the page? Is it understandable how they get from event to behavior? If not, add in some thoughts and feelings. Maybe even a small flashback to fill in the context (as in my example above).


If you’ve been following me for awhile, then you know I’ve been working on my own novel revisions. A few weeks ago, I sent off a big chunk of my manuscript to a trusty reader and do you know what her number one most common comment was?


“I don’t understand why she cares” or why she’s doing what she’s doing. Or what this means to her.


In other words, this is a facet of fiction writing that I struggle with too. It’s hard. But the more you work at it, the better your book will be, and the more readers will be able to connect with your characters.

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