Character Interiority in Fiction

Guest blogpost from Jennifer Rupp (who writes as Jennifer Trethewey, author of the Highlanders of Balforss Series)

I took part in another terrific workshop by Rebecca Makkai call Interiority Complex. I’ll try to summarize the most salient points that relate to fiction writing.

Internals (Interiority) are the things your character is thinking, not the action or the things that are happening. Thoughts tell the reader about the thinker. These internal thoughts can be about:

  • What the character observes objectively (without judgement)
  • What the character observes subjectively (with judgement)
  • What the character is thinking at the moment
  • What the character remembers
  • What the character is feeling or their emotional state
  • What the character is experiencing on a subconscious level

Techniques for writing your POV character’s thoughts. You can use these separately or in combination.

  • Interior Monologues: The character is talking to themselves. Ex: I should really lock the doors before I go to bed.
  • Tagged Thoughts: A thought written on the page that is tagged as a thought. Ex: Lock the doors before going to bed, she thought.
  • Free Indirect Discourse: A thought written on the page that is NOT tagged because the reader understands that the narrative is in the character’s head. Ex: She’d better lock the doors before going to bed or she’d never sleep.
  • Stream of Consciousness: A series of thoughts not always connected in a logical way. Ex: Front door. Locked. No. Check it again. Don’t want to wake up and find a stranger in the house. Jerry always had trouble sleeping through the night. Leave the light on.
  • Objective POV: Like a camera spying on someone detailing thought process. Ex: She knew if she didn’t lock the doors before she went to bed, she wouldn’t be able to fall asleep.

A person’s thoughts are constantly a product of the past, present, and future but in a nonlinear fashion. Think of interiority in terms of layers.

  • Top layer is surface thought. Character makes an observation. A red sports car.
  • Next layer, character makes a judgement. The driver must be rich or compensating for something.
  • Next layer, character remembers something tangential. Her ex was like that, always buying things to make up for the fact that he had zero personality.
  • Next layer, character makes some kind of decision or plan. She vowed never to date a guy who drove a red sports car.

Traps When Writing Interiority

Getting Caught in Observational Interiority:

Our early drafts are largely the top layer or observations the character makes about surroundings. And that’s fine, but on your second pass, look for those hinge moments when the character might make a judgement on the observation, or have a tangential thought, etc. Drill deep. Think of those hinge moments as hyperlinks, if you want. If you click on that moment, you can go deeper into the character’s thoughts.


The lie that your character remembers an entire memory from start to finish with dialogue and detail. The cliché that the character stops, gazes out the window, and remembers an entire scene. That’s not the way we remember. We don’t remember things in linear ways. We don’t have a transitional moment, then stand still while something plays in our head like a film and then transition out. Get rid of those cheesy flashbacks and memories. Use a summary instead. Ex: She should lock the doors first. It took months to straighten out her identity theft after last year’s break in. She slid the deadbolt home with a satisfying clack.

Physical Interiority:

Using a physical response to show interiority. His heart beat in his chest. His palms got sweaty. Her breathing was rapid. It’s a fast and effective way to show emotional state but, unfortunately, it’s cliché. Can you come up with something original?

Jennifer Trethewey writes sexy, sweeping, historical romance full of adventure and Highland heartthrobs. The four novels in the Highlanders of Balforss series, TYING THE SCOTBETTING THE SCOTFORGETTING THE SCOT, and SAVING THE SCOT, are available in eBook, print-on-demand, and audio formats on