A week ago, I talked about why the portrayal of a character’s internal thoughts and emotions is inherent to the novel, and how excluding that component can hinder the potential of your story. However, crafting a distinct, compelling POV (point-of-view) isn’t as simple as inserting more of your character’s emotions or thoughts into the book. We’ve all read that novel where a character overanalyzes something to death or is so emotional that the whole book becomes melodramatic and annoying. It’s important to portray characters’ thoughts and emotions, but it takes practice and skill to do it well.

Here are four tips to help you accomplish this.

1. Capture the Character’s Ethos

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when delving into a character’s mind is to be generic. Bland. Normal. Boring.

It isn’t enough to give your characters interesting moral dilemmas and questions to wrestle over. Those certainly help to flesh out characters, but their voices also need to be compelling and distinct.

Consider this: if two characters in your story were struggling with the same moral dilemma, would the two inner narratives sound any different, other than the logical arguments being used?

Allegiant serves as a helpful, though negative, example. In the last book of her popular Divergent trilogy, Veronica Roth chose to alternate chapters between two different POV characters. This had the potential to deliver a more compelling story since it was being told from two different perspectives, which initially intrigued me. However, it became problematic when I constantly got confused about whose head I was in. Because both POV characters sounded identical, I would often not realize till halfway through the chapter that I was in Tris’s mind instead of Four’s and vice versa. Many other readers felt the same way about the alternating POVs too.

POVs cannot be generic—especially if you have multiple POV characters in your book. Maintaining a unique, consistent voice for each character is important, so you’ll need to capture the character’s ethos. I suggest beginning the development of your character’s internal life by contemplating the following questions:

  • Does your character think quickly or slowly?
  • How much do his emotions affect his thinking?
  • Does she overanalyze situations or never have a second thought?
  • How judgmental is she of the people around her?
  • What type of humor does your character have?
  • What frame of mind is your character in? Is he often happy? Depressed? Afraid?
  • What excites your character?
  • What does your character notice first about a person or place? What does she rarely notice?

2. Show Your Character’s Thoughts, Don’t Tell Them

I imagine that most writers have repeatedly heard the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule. Delving into your character’s mind doesn’t mean you tell the reader more often what she’s thinking. It means you directly show her thoughts and emotions.

Consider the following narrative:

Jake was mad. He hated how much Nick could get away with without suffering any consequences. He stomped away, frustrated.

Although we do get a glimpse of Jake’s emotions and general thought process, we haven’t actually gotten into his head. We have a superficial understanding of who he is instead of an up-close and personal understanding. Compare the above narrative to the one below:

Jake balled his hands into fists. Did Nick really just do that? If anyone else had done that, the principal would have stopped them. But there was Nick, leaning against the wall with his trademark expression of feigned disinterest while he bragged about his accomplishment to his friends.

Jake stepped toward them. All it would take was one blow. One strike to the face to wipe away Nick’s smug look. But of course that would require having guts in the first place.

Jake turned on his heel and walked away.

This isn’t a perfect narrative, but now I’ve given the audience insight into Jake’s mind by describing his physical reaction (“balled his hands into fists”), relating his direct thoughts (“Did Nick really just do that?”), and showing his perspective on the events in the story (“trademark expression of feigned disinterest”). Then I allow the reader to fill in the implication (Jake is afraid to stand up to Nick).

By putting the reader directly into Jake’s head and forcing the reader to interpret Jake’s emotions, the narrative becomes much more engaging.

3. Err on the Side of Less

I know that this two-part article series is supposed to convince you to develop your character’s internal life more. But sometimes less is more. Be careful not to overdo it.

Remember that you’re writing to contemporary readers. While classical authors like Hugo or Dostoevsky could get away with long scenes exploring the inner workings of a character’s mind, readers today aren’t so patient.

It’s better to have your readers wishing you included more internal depth than boring them with pages and pages of your character’s thoughts. Find a balance of enticing the reader while developing your character’s inner life, and you’ll be well on your way to a solid depiction.

4. Cut Scenes to Build Suspense

Just because you’re inside the character’s head doesn’t mean the reader needs to know everything. Allow the POV character to keep secrets from the reader. Whether this is achieved by using an unreliable narrator, or by cutting out of a scene before the reader fully realizes what’s up, few tactics are better for baiting and fooling the reader.

Cut the inner monologues in a way that builds suspense and forces the reader to guess about your character’s inner motivations. (And try to encourage the reader to guess wrongly so that you can spring a twist on them later.) Avoid translating scenes and force the reader to do the work, similar to my example in point two.

Following these techniques will build up more mystery about the character. It will make them seem more deep and complex. And the outcome will be more effective when you pull back the curtain and unveil the truth that the character was hiding from the reader all along.

Remember the End Goal

Hopefully these four tips help you as you seek to develop the inner lives of your POV characters. Portraying this inner life isn’t easy, and it often takes a lot of work. But remember that you don’t want to write a book that readers breeze through and quickly forget. You want to create something memorable, and one of the best ways is to give the reader intricate, fascinating characters.

The greatest books either rise or fall based on how much their characters interest the reader. So go the extra mile. Develop the inner lives of your characters, and do it in a way that showcases their uniqueness.