5 Ways to Write Character Thoughts Worth More Than a Penny

One of the key benefits of written fiction is also one of the most difficult techniques to master: the inner narrative of the characters. This difficulty makes complete sense, of course, when we think about it (no pun intended), since the inner narrative of the characters—their thoughts put on paper—is the essence of fiction. Mastery of that essence equals mastery, in large part, of the art form. No wonder it’s hard! And no wonder it’s important. How can we create powerful character thoughts? And how can we frame them on the page to make them as effective as possible?

1. Let your characters think.

Too many inexperienced authors approach inner narrative tentatively (or not at all) because they fear readers will be bored and will want to return to the action as quickly as possible. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Interesting internal narrative, when appropriately balanced with action and dialogue, is the life’s blood of any story. Readers don’t just want to see what’s happening to your character; they want to know what he thinks about what is happening to him.

2. Show personality through word choice.

Your character’s narrative voice is his literary fingerprint. How much different does Stephanie Plum’s voice sound from Mattie Ross’s? Authors should be so in tune with the nuances of their character’s personality that the character’s voice on the page offers an inherently unique ring. Novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes (in an interview with Jessica McCann, The Writer, March 2011) made the point that she “can’t write the story until I get the voice of the main character in my head.”

3. Show personality through how the character views the world.

Telling readers about your setting is one thing; bringing it to life by using it as a unique tool to further characterize your narrator by allowing him to show the reader the setting as he sees it makes all the difference. In my short story “Light in the Shadows,” the 19th-century London setting takes on a sinister edge thanks to the narrator’s frenzied mindset:

Up ahead, the flame of a streetlight hung in the midst of the London fog like some kind of giant spirit. She hated the lights at night; they were too much like eyes watching her. Always watching. She broke out of the crooked skipping pace in which she had been running and shot a glance around the street for something to throw at the light.

4. Illustrate character arc through character thoughts.

Instead of just showing your character’s eventual transformation over the course of the story, give your readers a backstage pass, so that they can experience character arc from the inside out. Internal narrative is a key tool in helping readers understand motive and growth. Can you imagine Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment without the protagonist’s hysterical justifications for his crime of murder?

5. Choose the best way to punctuate thoughts.

Authors italicize direct thoughts, put them in quotes, preface them with an em dash, or sometimes just change the tense. However, doing so pulls your reader out of the narrative. Technically, in a deep POV, the entire story is the character’s thoughts. As a result, the most seamless way to share a character’s direct thoughts is to simply incorporate them into the narrative itself. Instead of writing, “Jack shot the bad guy, then stopped and thought, I can’t believe I just did that,” write, “Jack shot the bad guy, then stopped. Had he really just done that?”
Mastering your character’s thoughts—both by making certain he has thoughts worthy of sharing and by discovering the most powerful way to convey those thoughts—makes all the difference in the tone, scope, and immersive quality of your story. If readers are willing to give more than a penny for your characters’ thoughts, you know you’ve created a story that rings true from beginning to end.

Tell me your opinion: How are you making your character’s thoughts unique and interesting?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Great post. Some hints on how to do this was exactly what I needed right now. I’m trying to make character thoughts interesting, but kind of feel I’m not there yet

    Cold As Heaven

  2. This is such a great post! I’m still learning how to weave my main character’s thoughts throughout the story in a realistic way. Number 3 is something I really need to improve. Thank you for posting this.

  3. Great post! I LOVE deep POVs! It’s so much more flowing than the italics (which can look cluttery and overdone after a while for direct quotes), and doesn’t jar the reader from the story with all the “he thought” and “she thought” words.

    Have a great week!

  4. @Cold: Once you get the hang of it, internal narrative can be some of the mist fun stuff to write.

    @Melissa: Weaving is the key, since, not surprisingly, good internal narrative all comes down to balancing story elements.

    @Carol: Nothing wrong with shallower POVs, when the story calls for such, but I admit I’m partial to deep POVs myself.

  5. I find italicised thoughts very distracting and definitely prefer it when the character’s thoughts are integrated into the main narrative. Everything flows better that way.

  6. Occasionally, there are exceptions when italicized thoughts work better (usually for small, emphatic phrases), but, in deep POVs, this is the exception not the rule.

  7. I have a variety of methods including italicized – which I use for the ‘rational’ voice & the ‘silly’ voice .. all based on how I genuinely think *grin* yes I do hear voices!

    The Arrival, only .99c on Amazon
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  8. All the best people hear voices you know. 😉 In fact, some of the best character hear voices too.

  9. I, too, needed to read this today, as this is exactly what I’ve been struggling with for several months now. Thanks for the great post! It sure cleared some things up for me.

  10. Excellent post! I love delving into my characters deep inner thoughts. I’m so glad you wrote about this. 🙂

  11. @Eldra: Glad it turned out to be a timely post for you!

    @Kathi: Exploring character thoughts is one of the joys of written fiction. It’s what sets novelists and short story writers apart from screenwriters.

  12. One of the hardest things for beginning writers to realize is that no one is the same “person” all the time, nor are the thoughts always cut from the same mold.

    Don’t you notice how you’re one way with one friend and another with your boss. Your thoughts, perceptions, and attitudes differ from role to role that life places you in as well.

    Even Hamlet displayed a sense of humor at times. LOL.

    This was an excellent post, K.M.
    Roland

  13. Internal narrative is where an author really has the opportunity to dig into the heart of his character – and, in so doing, the heart of what it means to be human. This is where we really get to mine fiction for the truths of existence – which, in a sense, is what writing is all about.

  14. Thank you for these tips

  15. You’re always welcome.

  16. I hope so. I find my character’s thoughts fascinating, but then it’s hard not to, given that they have minds of their own.

    😉

  17. In the end, I think that’s why we write – or, at least, it’s why I do. I discover these fascinating people and want to figure out what makes them tick.

  18. your timing, as always, is impeccible! 😀 I’m working on this right now in a current MS, and these points have given me some great thoughts… Thanks, KM! :o) <3

  19. The handy thing about blogging writing tips is that that almost *all* tips apply to practically any stage of writing.

  20. thank you. this is an excellent reference. i’m bookmarking it to refer back to.

  21. Thanks for stopping by!

  22. Enjoyed your post!

  23. Glad to hear it! Thanks for reading.

  24. Your posts always give me something to think about. I have been working on a memoir in first person – so thoughts are crucial to advancing the story. I italicize them. What has been happening in the internal dialogue, since it is a story of child abuse, is that the thought are gradually changing from “ow” or “I hope I don’t get hit. What should I answer?” to more mature and rebellious thoughts as I mature. I just wrote a scene where my parents were commenting on the sexual performance of Jim Morrison and his gyrating hips, to me being asked to touch my father’s private parts, and I think “And you’re complaining about Morrison?” Without internal dialogue, the story would be flat.

    Again, thanks for your posts, they are one of the few I avidly seek out and save for future reference.
    Heather

  25. Internal narrative drives a memoir even more than a novel, so it’s an important facet to master. I’m glad the post was able to be of assistance!

  26. I’ve always liked a close third person narrative when the way a specific character is thinking is important to the plot, actually. I know it’s become a little archaic, but I think that that’s largely because people are afraid to approach it. No-one wants to have to stand up to a comparison to Jane Austen, after all.

    Otherwise, I just italicise direct thoughts.

  27. I think you may be confusing a close POV with an omniscient POV (which is what Austen used). Close (or tight or deep) POVs, which are all the rage right now, utilize a narrative in which the entire book is written as if the narrating character were thinking it.

  28. Since you asked for examples, I’ll stop my nervous tick and post the beginning of my WIP:

    He was ready to go but delayed slipping the bonds for a moment as he bid farewell in his mind to the daughter he’d never met. He knew his work for the Angan Corporation was critical—leader of the first expedition to another World; but, Velu, his unknown daughter, would probably not know he’d done it.
    “Rednaxela”, said his Artificial Intelligence unit from its space on the console, “we are fourteen seconds past the time set for slipping the magnetic bonds.”
    “Yes, Morna, my dearest AI, I know; bidding farewell to folks in my mind.”
    “The part of your mind I will not let myself access.”
    “Yes, Morna, the only part of myself that’s still private.”
    “Twenty-five seconds past bond-slipping.”
    “Initiate, Morna.”

    Not too far along in the story, Rednaxela does let Morna into his private thoughts 🙂

  29. Nice job. Your opening paragraph is a splendid example of how to work a character’s thoughts directly into the narrative. No need for italics here!

  30. Great insight! I wonder how many pages I would have if I just scripted my thoughts during the course of a day.

    My main character tends to be a thinker. I usually have to skim down her inner dialogue 🙂

  31. Interesting notion! In my case, the real question would be: How many of those would actually be worth reading? :p

  32. This comment has been removed by the author.

  33. Jasper Fforde is a champ at using characters’ views of their surroundings and how said surroundings are interpreted to create depth in both the characters and their whereabouts.

    There is a chapter in one of the Thursday Next novels, either The Eyre Affair or Lost in a Good Book, in which a chapter begins in a character’s voice other than that of the narrator. The shift gives the reader (and the character) pause because the two voices are so jarringly different from one another.

    For an excellent example of voice and satire, I would recommend any of the Thursday Next novels or any of the Nursery Crimes novels.

  34. K.M.: Thanks for this article. I’ll lead some of my clients to it. In response to your question, I’ve worked with first-person persona narrators whose voices usually bowl me over. I usually begin by trying to hear the cadence and rhythm of how they think (the syntax of things), what images keep crawling into their thoughts, and what obsessions – often unknown to them – they have.

    I appreciate your work here.
    – Jeffrey

  35. Thanks! I appreciate your sharing the post. Finding a character with a voice so strong that it dominates your writing without even much conscious effort on your part is always exciting.

  36. @HJR: Whoops, missed your comment when I replied to Jeffrey’s. Thanks for the book recommendations. I’ll keep my eyes open for them.

  37. As I read your post, I remembered something I saw on Harvey Chapman’s blog. He said that “this ability to experience what life is like inside a fictional character’s head, hearing everything they think and feeling everything they feel, is one of the main reasons people read fiction.”

    That makes it pretty important, doesn’t it. =)

    Chapman’s full article on internal monologue is here: http://www.novel-writing-help.com/interior-monologue.html

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very important! And very true, I think. The great blessing of fiction is that it’s a window into others’ minds (ostensibly the characters, and definitely the author’s). That’s a gift of tremendous worth.

  38. PLEASE GUYS MAY YOU HELP ME SOLVE THIS “AFTER SNEAKING IN THERE ABODE, HAD HE MET THIS INFLUENTIAL FIGURE HE WOULD CUT HIS CARPUS, HE THOUGHT TO HIMSELF. WHO WAS HE?

  39. Great Blog! Very timely and helpful:-)

  40. I appreciate your advice but the convention you use as an example :
    Instead of writing, “Jack shot the bad guy, then stopped and thought, I can’t believe I just did that,” write, “Jack shot the bad guy, then stopped. Had he really just done that?”
    Is clearly wrong. If you include ‘Had he really done that’ in the quotation marks its denoted as dialogue. Which it isn’t. It needs to be outside of the quotes. This is why most authors and editors recommend presenting internal dialogue without quotes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sorry for the confusion. If you look at that sentence, you’ll see the entire thing is in quotes, which is just to separate it form the main body of the instructive text. Within a novel, none of it would be in quotes.

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