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Using interiority to express a character's thoughts

As someone who started as a screenwriter, getting into a character's head has always been a bit of a challenge for me since I switched to novels. In class, we read Madame Bovary, Leaving Atocha Station, and Mrs. Dalloway and I wanted to break out what I took away for my writing.

Here are the bullets:

  • If you're going to have interiority, hype it up. Don't make a character's internal thoughts boring. They should be jumping places, overly dramatic (like we all are inside to a certain degree), and exaggerated.

  • Use the scene to "step into" internality. Have ramps into the character's thoughts from the scene. A dog barks & he thinks about dogs. And use the scene to punctuate internal thoughts.

  • Leverage subjective description for "double duty." Have the character describe things using his words and exaggeration.

(line by line notes below)

Line by Line:

As someone who is currently writing an action science fiction novel, I wasn’t sure how the interior lives of modern realist fiction’s characters would inform my work. Needless to say, I was surprised when I started using some of the techniques on my fiction work for other classes. I thought it was fascinating how the realist novelists were able to create so much drama from something that seemed so day to day. I never imagined that going to get flowers could be so packed with anticipation and suspense or that a student wasting away his days on his Fulbright could keep me turning pages. By getting into the character’s heads at the right times, the authors of these works heightened the drama in their novels, but what interested me even more was some of the techniques they used to do it, which I’ll also discuss.

First off, I want to talk about building drama from something that seems banal. Even in my action science fiction writing I’m finding just important this is. I’ve had to ask myself: what do I do in down scenes when I need to get some key information across between the big set pieces? I may not have had a good answer to that question in the past, but now, I plan to do what Virginia Woolf did in Mrs. Dalloway and hype up the internality. Calling the technique “hyping” may sound a bit extreme, but when a plane putting up a smoke advertising campaign is thought to be, “on a mission of greatest importance which would never be revealed,” hype is the word that comes to mind. (Woolf 21) It was an interesting this technique turn a scene which was externally dull turned into something dramatic inside the characters. I’m honestly not sure if I have the ability to manage creating so much drama using the internal world alone, but that’s where I found some of the insights from Leaving Atocha Station to be helpful.

Ben Learner didn’t just hype up the internal world to create drama, he used the characters quirks to infuse drama in external character relationships where there might have been none and even in some of the external scenes. For example, he talks to Teresa only in Spanish for a hyped up reason, “I told her this was to promote my acquisition of Spanish, but it was, in fact, to preserve the possibility of misspeaking or being misunderstood and to secure and amplify the mystery of that inaugural outburst.” (Lerner 83) Due to his insecurities, the character hyped up the impact of his one English conversation with Teresa, but what’s fascinating is that the author uses that to further complicate later scenes. Later on he believes his hype—that his English conversation with her was amazing—and he gets himself deeper into the hole of misrepresenting who he is by putting on another show for her about his Spanish language. This heightens the character’s “relationship problem” and makes the audience keep reading to see that lie will be resolved—hence drama from hype.

Beyond the power of internality to create drama where an externally oriented scene would have none, I was struck by a few techniques the authors used to create internality. One of the examples I used the day after I read it in Atocha was subjective description. This technique is sprinkled through all the books we read, but the example that really drove this point home for me was in Atocha. When Adam first meets Carlos, one of Teresa’s possible lovers, he gets extremely jealous. Carlos greets him in what the reader assumes is a normal way (no hype), but Adam, the narrator, injects his emotions into the description: “Carlos smiled a smile I experienced as triumphant, postcoital, and said hello.” (Lerner 133) This was a big a-ha moment for me. That line did so much work for the story: it created drama between the characters, showed us Adam’s feelings, showed us how untrustworthy he was to accurately describe the situation, and added just a little hype. I’ve been using subjective description like that in my novel more heavily now, and it’s been a huge help for me as I try to communicate the character’s internal worlds.

This next observation has less to do with “internal hype” that can help drive drama in less action oriented scenes and more to do with how to make a transition into the internal world flow smoothly. I really liked what Woolf did when describing Richard Dalloway bringing his wife flowers. We start in the external scene with Richard on his way home, “He stopped at the crossing and repeated,” then Woolf uses an em dash to lead us into his internal thoughts. He goes on to think about how he is “simple by nature, and undebauched…yet at the same time grown rather speechless, rather stiff.” That internal thought process is bookended by another reference to the scene, “he thought; hesitating to cross.” (Woolf 115) Then we dive back into his internal world. I thought these pieces of the external action were effective ways to lead us into the character’s internal thought and break up the flow of those internal thoughts into digestible pieces. In my writing I’ve been trying to ensure I have a scene description “ramp” into the subject’s thoughts before I just go in and start referencing them. Also when I’ve had stretches of my novel where characters need to spend a lot of time in thought, I’ve brought in pieces of the scene description or external action to punctuate those ideas.

Overall, I was a bit surprised at how applicable to action science fiction some of the techniques that realist fiction writers used for expressing and dramatizing the internal worlds of their characters. A well-developed internal world can make someone going to buy flowers have interesting stakes and drama, and I can only imagine what this kind of internal development and dramatization could do if rather than flowers, the character was battling some ferocious band of aliens. All joking aside, though, this just underlines how so much drama can be mined from the characters themselves, whether they’re hyping up a scene or just complicating their lives further because they believed the hype they made up earlier, the internal world is a mine for good storytelling. What’s more, I feel much more confident about accessing my characters’ internal worlds than I have before. Using subjective scene description from the character’s perspective has been super helpful to me in my most recent novel, and using the external action to punctuate the internal is something I’d never really thought about before. Long story short, these books have been a blast to read and learn from, and I’m excited to dig into the next batch!

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