For a word that’s been around some 300 years, INTERIORITY had never even cleared my event horizon until I discovered it in agent Donald Maas’ top tips for writers.
In his 2012 presentation to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA), Maas told his audience about the importance of emotions in connecting readers to our characters. “What engages your heart will engage your reader.” On the surface, this could simply refer to the emotions experienced by our characters in response to the events of the plot. Well-crafted responses, of course; shown, not told.
But apparently, Maas means more than that. He also advises the writer to create the story’s “interiority,” specifically the “emotional landscape” our characters travel through.
THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE
Now I didn’t attend this particular workshop. But I have attended a Donald Maas workshop and I know he probably went into a great deal of detail, with examples, of what he meant. I can’t speculate about that workshop material. But I can tell you what an eye-opener the concept of interiority was for me.
A landscape is so much more than just the path we’re on. It’s all the things that catch our eye along the way. To be literal, it’s even the stuff we never notice, like bugs in the grass and shadows from the birds flying overhead. It’s ALL landscape. Or, you could say it’s all background.
Taking that metaphor to our writing life, the emotional landscape our characters experience becomes much more than just their reactions to the events of the story. It’s the love of family that sustains them in crisis, the fear of falling that makes them take the safe path, the faith in human nature that rules their relationships, the passion for science that leads to their career choices, etc. In other words, it’s the emotional background of their lives, shaped by events that may be long forgotten or even unnoticed.
A VITAL UNDERPINNING
If all we are is just reaction (present us with a problem and see how we respond), then everything that defines us is out there on the surface. Anyone can watch us and know us. If we make a bad choice, it defines us. Talk about superficiality!
This isn’t the way we want the world to work. This isn’t the way we want readers to judge our characters, either.
So we have to give readers more than just character reactions. We have to let the audience know our characters so well they can predict reactions, sympathize with our characters so much they will cry with them, and hope right along with our characters so much they’ll be jumping up and down at their victories. (And just keep turning those pages!)
NOT THE SAME AS BACKSTORY
But, like the unnoticed bugs in the landscape, some of the interiority of a character may not depend on a past event. So revealing it can’t be done through backstory. Here are some ways I’ve thought of to accomplish the emotional landscape reveal:
- Dig through the grass. As a character is outwardly reacting to a comment or action, reveal the tiny physical/conversational responses that give a clue to the character’s true interior reaction. For example, the stutter that only happens when they’re excited, the blush when they’re embarrassed, the muscle twitch when they’re nervous, the facial tick when they’re angry.
- Use a wider camera lens. In some scenes, add tell-tale details that might not be necessary for the plot but reveal something about the character’s values/hopes/goals. You might briefly mention the family photos on the desk, the brochure about trekking in the Himalayas, the open Bible on the nightstand.
- Use a strong flashlight. Put a spotlight on significant details that reveal interiority. Surround the detail with other important bits the reader is sure to remember, such as a turning point decision, a deliberate lie, a relationship-changing argument.
- Squint. Spend a short time focusing on the character’s interior life. Add a scene that shows the character hoping, fearing, avoiding, lying to him/herself—doing the one thing that most defines them. Don’t take it too far from the plotline, but it doesn’t have to be vital to the plot as long as it advances our knowledge of the character.
I’m currently rewriting a book that didn’t succeed. I’m pretty sure the fault lies with my characters. This time, I’m going to make them have richly emotional interiority.
P.S. Donald Maas’ latest book, The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great (May 2009), looks like a great new craft book to explore.