Give Your Characters a Rich Inner Life

An important tip for writing authentic characters

The most common question I get is about how to write characters. If you’re struggling to write authentic characters, here's my most important tip:

Give your characters a rich inner life.

Real people have complex emotions, desires, and fears that shape who they are and what they do. They navigate the world with a sense of purpose, making their actions feel authentic.

Do the same for your characters by giving them rich inner lives. Flat characters are fleeting and replaceable, but characters with depth will stay with your readers.

Example:

In J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Severus Snape is a great example of a character with a rich inner life. At first, he appears to be a one-dimensional villain. Later on, as we learn about his tragic past and his unrequited love for Lily Potter, we realize why he is mean-spirited but still protective of Harry.

Severus Snape’s motivations are deeply complex. This inner richness makes him a memorable and authentic character.

Counter-example:

In Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, Bella Swan starts off with little inner richness. She's a one-dimensional character defined by her relationships (Edward, Jacob, etc.). Worse, she lacks clear motivations, desires, or fears beyond her teenage romantic interests.

Even if Bella had a rich inner life, we’re not shown it through her actions. Bella is often rescued or protected by others, rather than taking action herself. This lack of depth makes her a less memorable and less relatable character.

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The Best Way to Add Inner Life:

Got a flat character? Give her a rich inner life by answering these two questions:

  1. What is the one thing she wants more than anything else in the world?

  2. What is she afraid will happen if she doesn’t get it? (ie. what she stands to lose)

These questions tap into a character’s deepest desires and fears. (Something we all have.) Answering them creates a natural inner tension. You can use this tension to explain a character's actions.

For example, say you have a insatiable billionaire as your story’s villain. Being obsessed with money and success is one-dimensional. Instead, give your villain a desire to be loved and accepted. Make him afraid that if he can’t maintain his success, he’ll end up alone. This inner conflict will make him more relatable, nuanced, and memorable.

Note: Don’t depend on inner monologues to add depth to a character. Inner thoughts are difficult to write, and when done incorrectly, can be quite boring. Mix it up!

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