Writing Fiction: To Create Real Characters, Remember Their Inner Life

Years ago, when I started writing fiction, I wanted to make my characters real. But how? I had no idea. Although my novels were published, I had zero knowledge of the craft of fiction.

It took a while, but finally, I realized that fictional characters need an inner life. Just as we do, they have joys and miseries, doubts, excitements and fears.

So, a BIG tip: give your characters an inner life. Reveal their thoughts. We’re all thinking, all the time, your characters are too.

Writing fiction: you’re thinking, so are your characters

I’m a huge fan of historical fiction; Hilary Mantel is my hero. Last week I thought I’d lucked onto a new author of historical adventures. They wrote well. After a long day of writing, I sat down to read their book for pure enjoyment.

All went well for a while. I love that particular historical era. The author’s plot was interesting; a page-turner. Happy days.

But… After around 30 pages, I looked up from the book. Something was wrong.


  • Interesting period of history? Check.
  • Capable research? Check.
  • Characters? Ah…

It hit me. Our New Author had created at least four interesting main characters, but they had no inner life. None at all. One character remembered his wife, who lived at his country estate several days’ travel from his home in the city.

The character remembered his wife several times over the course of several chapters: in a sentence. Literally, a sentence. Did he trust his wife? Or not? Who was managing his estate? The wife? Did they have children?

Similarly for the other main characters. The dialogue was fine, but the characters were walking, talking mannequins. Puppets. They acted, but what was their motivation? The author zoomed through the plot; we had no idea how the characters felt.

Sadly the author had lost my interest, so I read the ending. Huh. Although the character’s wife showed up at the end of the book, the character still didn’t reveal how he felt about her.

I was disappointed in the novel, because I’d been looking forward to reading it. The author could have written an amazing book. Surely someone, at some stage, an editor or a beta reader, must have said: Hey mate, great characters, but WHO ARE THEY?

(Sigh.) Apparently not. I hope this author develops his craft, because he’s an excellent writer; he could write a bestseller, and I’d love to read it.

New authors, especially in plot-heavy genres, such as thrillers and adventure stories, tend to focus on plot.

That’s fine, but your plot is what your characters do. And they do whatever they do because of their motivations.

Your plot is what your characters DO. They act, because of their thoughts

Characters act because of their thoughts. Their desires. What each character wants—you settle this in the setup phase of your novel:

… in most novels, you’ll devote the first 25% of the novel to the Setup phase: you’re setting up the characters and the situation of the novel. Readers meet your main character in his everyday life. With luck, they’ll empathize with the character.

Consider this: thoughts equal character motivation.

Thoughts equal character motivation

If you’re struggling with how a character’s thoughts impact the plot—here’s a masterclass in character creation and plotting in Shakespeare’s Othello.

It’s worth reading the play, or listening to it. Iago manipulates Othello, and Othello kills his innocent wife because of the thoughts Iago plants in Othello’s mind.

Iago has planted those thoughts, and poor suggestible Othello acts on them. That’s the entire plot: Iago’s manipulation of Othello, via Othello’s thoughts.

It’s believed that Shakespeare wrote Othello, the Moor of Venice, in 1603, over 400 years ago, and the play is as powerful today as it was to audiences then.

When you’re writing fiction, thoughts matter.

When you’re writing fiction, you’re creating fictional people

You can make those characters feel real to your readers when you include their desires and motivations, and reveal them to readers. Often, you’ll do that via thoughts.

A bonus: when you get deeply into motivations, not only will your characters become more real to readers, but they’ll be more real and interesting to you too.

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