By definition, what is a novel?

At first glance, the answer may seem simple: it’s a prosaic work of fiction that meets a certain word count and is bound up in book form. But if you look into the issue more deeply, you’ll see it’s trickier to explain what makes a novel distinct. Epics, plays, short stories, and poems all represent other forms of literature that existed before the novel was essentially invented by Miguel Cervantes in 1605 with the publication of Don Quixote. When compared with these other forms of literature, what unique qualities does the novel have to lend?

Last semester, I took a college course that explored the attributes of the novel. The more we studied the novel in the course, the clearer it became to me that the novel is distinct for its focus on the inner minds of its characters.

Properly expanding the inner lives of characters can be a difficult skill to master for writers. If we delve into it too much, it’s easy to make our characters seem melodramatic and angsty. So it can be tempting to avoid such a portrayal by describing characters through their actions only.

My contention, though, is that such a choice can be equally bad.

Portraying a Character’s Inner Life is Exclusive to Prose

Before I explain why omitting inner thoughts can hurt a novel, I will demonstrate why the inner life of the character is so essential. (Note that all of this applies to short stories as well, but the opportunity to display the character‘s inner life will be more limited.) In a fascinating article titled “The Novel as Protestant Art” published in Books & Culture, Joseph Bottum argues the following about the novel:

Feelings and internal consciousness become more than important—they become vital—in the modern turn to the self. This is what the novel as an art form emerged to address, and what the novel as an art form encouraged into ever-greater growth. The inner life, self-consciousness as self-understanding, becomes the manifestation of virtue and the path for grasping salvation. It’s there in 1813 when Jane Austen has Elizabeth Bennett declare, “Till this moment I never knew myself,” at the great turning point of Pride and Prejudice… The self-investigation of the self, the attempt to discern the truth amidst the clash of feelings with perceptions of social and physical reality, emerges as the proper spiritual journey of individuals and the true [rightening] of their souls. (Emphasis mine)

Bottum posits that the novel as a genre was created to better express feelings and internal consciousness in fiction. This isn’t an airtight case, as not all early novels necessarily did this. But it’s true that the exploration of characters’ inner lives is exclusive to the novel and prose in general when short stories are considered as well.

Compare the novel with any other form of literature. Because plays and movies are performed on stages, the inner lives of the characters can’t be shown directly. Skilled actors can certainly communicate a lot through their actions, but the audience is forced to understand the characters solely based off their outward behavior.

Although poetry and epics technically have the potential to do this, they rarely do. Epics tend to be more focused on overarching plots and exhilarating themes, and thus generally don’t portray the deep thoughts of the characters. Likewise, poems tend to use analogies and similes to describe characters instead of dwelling on a character’s internal thoughts.

All of this indicates that prose exclusively deals with the inner lives of its characters.

Writing that Does Not Portray This Inner Life Suffers as a Result

If exploring the inner lives of its characters is central to the novel, novels that lack this component will languish. As a general rule, you want to capitalize on your strengths. Since this portrayal is one of the novel’s greatest strengths, avoiding it deprives a novel of its full potential.

If you survey all the best writers—whether classic or contemporary—almost all of them without exception capitalize on this inner life. They don’t all handle the inner life of the character the same way—fantasy and sci-fi novels, for example, usually examine the inner life much less than a work of literary fiction. But even in genres that don’t emphasize this inner life as much, the best novels are still the ones that explore it.

Novels that don’t delve into characters’ minds are often more shallow. As Bottum points out later in his article, fiction that lacks “thick characters with revealed interior lives” tend to have characters that are less unique and realistic.

This should be rather straightforward. A character whose thoughts and emotions are explored will be more interesting than an identical character whose thoughts and emotions are completely hidden. The latter technique works well in plays and movies. Subtlety is key for characterization in such visual adaptions. But if you try to write a character in a novel the same way you would for a screenplay, your novel will suffer. Characters in novels and short stories aren’t meant to have concealed inner thoughts and emotions.

For example, one of the best scenes of Revenge of the Sith is halfway through the movie when Anakin is contemplating turning to the dark side to save Padme. The scene flips between Anakin and Padme, each on opposite ends of the city, staring out the window in each other’s direction as they ponder their future. The scene is latent with deep emotions and thought, and is well acted.

For a novel, though, this scene would have to be significantly revamped to include more inner thought and dialogue to make it compelling. Look at many of the different scenes in Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov ponders what drives him to kill the old woman, the party scene in Golden Son where Darrow wrestles with the morality of planting a bomb to assassinate all the nobles, or the scene in The Way of Kings where Dalinar considers stepping down from power. All of these scenes contain a certain subtlety, but also delve deep into the character’s thoughts in order to powerfully portray the character’s motivations.

Genre is important. Last year, after reading on screenwriting techniques, I decided to cut out a fair bit of the inner dialogue in my novel in exchange for showing emotions “visually” via descriptions. After studying the novel as a genre and thinking more about this issue, however, I realized I was going entirely the wrong direction. What works for a movie doesn’t necessarily work for a novel. The strength of the novel is found in the interiority of its characters. As prose writers, we ought to embrace that.

No other form of literature has the ability to show the full depth of a character arc like a novel. No other form can probe into characters’ thoughts and emotions. As Christian writers, this gives us a great tool that we should use to our advantage. If we use this wisely, we can tell stories that are much more powerful. Develop the inner lives of your characters, show the reader their motivations, and your story will soar.

This may lead to a question though. It’s one thing to say that you should expand the inner lives of your characters to revolutionize your writing. It’s another thing to know how to practically do it. So how do you properly portray this inner life? That’s a question I’ll be answering in my follow-up article next week.