Inner Thoughts: Why Characters Need to Let Readers Know What's Up

By Stacy Melanie Jerger (@ApoideaEdits)

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I’ve read some books in the past where I didn’t feel that connected to the main character, even though the plot was going places, things were happening… Once I followed the protagonist head first into a gunfight after dodging danger right and left in the previous scenes. She ran up ahead, having the adventure of her life, and I could’ve easily sat down on a rock and waved her to go on without me.

I realized I was part of the adventure, but felt left behind from the character’s inner journey. The main character did not stop to inform me of her thought process or how she felt along the way.

I have the opposite problem in my own writing. I make sure readers know where the character stands emotionally—backstory, past experiences, present reactions—but I know I need to weave in more action, give my character purpose, and move the plot along.

Call me needy, but I want the main character to speak to me, to let me know what’s up. Sometimes it’s done splendidly, but other times I know what’s missing: internal narration.

Internal narration has a broader definition for me than just first-person POV in which only one character expresses herself confidentially to the reader. To me, it’s any character that tells their story (their involvement in situations and with other people) from their mindset, which can be done in first-person or third-person POV. It all depends whose head the author is visiting.

Internal narration allows characters to create and sustain emotional connections with readers. Otherwise we have this issue in which characters unintentionally distance themselves. I look for that connection when I edit a manuscript and I help the author sustain it to the last page of a book.

Here’s some of what internal narration provides characters with:

Mental Attitude

This is a character’s general mindset and I’m listing it here as a starting point, as a character’s foundation. We should let readers know the main character’s perspective on life, habits, and interpretations of other people and situations within the story.

Sometimes creating a mental attitude can be in the form of memories or digestible backstory. This is helpful when readers are introduced to new characters or need to know why the main character thinks or behaves in a certain way.

A mental attitude can change as the protagonist encounters obstacles, but readers should stay informed during those changes, too.

Explanation

We all have our reasons, and so do our characters. Sometimes characters need to explain themselves to readers—whether they’re reflecting on their actions and decisions or unburdening themselves to other characters. Explanations define character motives more clearly and give readers the ability to share a purpose and to sympathize.

Awareness

Characters let readers know how in touch they are with their reality and their situation in the fictional world. Readers aren’t just seeing the action, but understanding if characters avoid or accept what’s happening to them.

Pacing

Internal narration gives characters (and readers) moments to process all the action. It allows characters to have longer reactions before they make their next decision. If readers get thrown from action scene to action scene without any mental rest (like that gunfight I found myself in), emotional connection to the protagonist can weaken. And the last thing we want to do is lose the reader.

We don’t want to dumb down things or go on and on about all the feelings, but characters should still keep readers in the loop. Even if they don’t know it all, their thoughts have to include their audience in their emotional journey. It’s hard enough to bring characters to life, but that life has to touch other lives!

One of my most satisfying reading moments is when I finish a book and smile and think, “I had a really good time with that character.”