“What Are You Thinking About?”: How to Create Character Depth Through Inner Monologue

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A couple years ago, I attended an online conference session about developmental editing. The presenter mentioned a tactic she used to filter out various writing principles that make for a strong story. She prints out the entire manuscript and uses colored highlighters to notate where a particular principle appears. It provides a visual of where that principle appears too much or not enough.

I’ll admit I thought it was irrational. The amount of printer paper and number of highlighters she must go through in a year boggled my mind. Not to mention the time investment!

A story coaching client I’m currently working with recently struggled to understand what I meant by “show versus tell” and how first-person point of view (POV) affected that principle. I sent them the first chapter of my current work-in-progress, with each sentence a preassigned font color indicating each writing principle my story uses.

Okay, so maybe that webinar presenter was onto something. In doing this activity, the visual allowed me to not only help my client, but to see where placing the internal monologue helped or hindered both my character and the scene’s momentum.

What does this have to do with your manuscript? Inner monologue, as the term suggests, reveals a character’s internal thoughts and feelings about, and especially their reactions to, the various conflicts they face in your story. It gives your readers an inside look (literally) at your character’s private impressions, desires, frustrations, or dilemmas. Here are three ways you can use inner monologue to create the character depth your readers crave.

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Weigh Outcomes

Your characters should make a decision on each page of your novel. These decision choices should be clear to your reader. It doesn’t have to be a life-or-death choice, not unless you’re closing in on your climax or writing an action- or thriller-centered story. The decision, though, should be something that the character struggles to work through.

Conflict—internal or external—is an excellent path to creating realistic and engaging inner monologues. Indeed, each outcome must be the result of your character’s internal debate as well as serve as the beginning of a new conflict they didn’t anticipate.

Direct interior monologue tells your reader the exact thoughts of your protagonist, the precise words they’re thinking in the moment. Indirect interior monologue provides an approximate summary of that character’s thoughts, without the word-for-word transcription. Mix direct and indirect inner monologues, add in some action and external dialogue, and sprinkle in sensory descriptions to keep your readers engaged with the character and the story.

Show Growth

The purpose of fiction is to watch a character go from living their Lie to accepting their Truth. One of the most profound ways to show their character arc is through that inner change process. The way your characters think of or talk about themselves on Page 1 should not—must not—be how they do those things on Page 300.

To add depth and complexity to your characters and their story arc, reveal their changing perspectives, their doubts, even their pivotal self-discoveries at key points in their journey. The reader should be able to tell when a Big Moment is happening in your character’s life. Showing their inner monologue gives the reader a chance to experience that moment right alongside your character.

Everything your character thinks at various points in their journey will make them either sympathetic or unsympathetic. More importantly, those inner thoughts will affect how your readers perceive them. Choose carefully.

Weave in Voice

Just as you create a unique Spoken Voice for your characters, they must have a unique Inner Voice to match. Align their thoughts with their speech patterns, education or intellect, family makeup, race and ethnicity, regional origins, and personality.

Your character’s thoughts shouldn’t sound like you. Developing unique voices for them takes forethought and practice.

Cheryl St. John

Voice and POV are inseparable in fiction. Each character in your story has a unique view of their experiences. They should use different vocabulary, tone, and physical movement to portray those views. As such, their Inner Voice should reflect their POV, and their POV should reflect their Inner Voice.

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Last week, I provided three tips on how to use dialogue effectively in your manuscripts, especially in those early drafting stages. As a refresher, dialogue is two or more characters having a conversation.

Inner monologues, though, remain an overused principle in contemporary fiction. Even in third-person omniscient, readers are still only looking for that moment or three spent inside a character’s mind in between more active scenes. It’s what allows readers to relate to that character despite the narrative distance.

Author and story coach K.M. Weiland says, “Internal monologue, when done correctly, can add layers upon layers of intrigue and emotion to a story.”

The three tips above can get you started on connecting readers to your protagonist, so they get invested in that character’s journey. Without being invested, they have no reason to reflect on your story one word at a time.

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