What Are They Thinking?             Portraying Your Character's Thoughts
     Victoria Grossack

One of the advantages that the medium of written fiction has over other forms of storytelling – such as film and theatre – is that novels and short stories allow readers easy access to characters’ thoughts.

Now, I’m not saying that other literary art forms never let us experience the inner workings of characters’ minds. Who doesn’t know some of Shakespeare’s great passages? Consider Hamlet’s, “To be or not to be,” Richard the Third’s, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” and the balcony scene in Romeo & Juliet: “Romeo – wherefore art thou Romeo?” These all give us wonderful insights to the characters’ minds. But they are soliloquies – the character is speaking ostensibly to him- or herself – and thus, some would argue, there is an air of the artificial about it, because people normally don’t speak so long and certainly not so eloquently aloud to themselves (although in Romeo & Juliet, Romeo happens to be conveniently eavesdropping – but this is not something that Juliet realizes at the time). Therefore, soliloquies are not always used and the chance to learn what the characters are thinking is often not possible. In theatre, the emphasis is more on dialogue than anything else and so what the spectators experience is conversation.

In film, thoughts are occasionally given – perhaps by the reading aloud of a letter, or by showing the character not speaking but having his voice speak anyway. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen showed a conversation between two parties with subtitles. But in film, the emphasis is on the visual, and internal thoughts and occasionally even the dialogue are sacrificed, to make room and time for chase scenes and special effects. This is not a complaint, mind you; just an observation.

So, if we really want to experience characters’ thoughts – and what could be more intimate, than to see into another person’s mind? – we’re best doing it in regular text, i.e., the printed page (or an audio version of the same). But showing characters’ thoughts is tricky. Let’s go through some of the issues that need to be addressed:

- How do you make sure that the reader knows that these words are part of a thought and not either dialogue or part of the regular text?

- How do you make sure that the reader knows which of your characters is doing the thinking?

There are a host of other issues that could arise, but this is a little column, so let’s limit its scope.

How you meet these challenges depends very much on other choices that you have made for your story; nothing happens in a vacuum. In particular, the person and point of view are critically intertwined with how you show your characters’ thoughts. These are subjects that I’ve not yet covered in my columns - because there’s so much to say and others have already said so much - but we need to understand these things now, so let’s lay some foundation.

Person and Point of View

Person is a term that you should have encountered while doing grammar, either while studying English or another language. A story told in first person is a story where everything is told through the voice of the narrator, who even uses the word “I” while telling the story. Second person is “you,” and it is virtually never used for storytelling (if anyone knows of any exceptions, please let me know – I couldn’t think of any). Third person means that the story is told using “he” or “she.”

Point of View refers to which character’s eyes (ears, nose, fingers and so on) the reader gets to experience the story. If you are writing in first person, then you are also writing using the narrator’s point of view (again, if anyone knows of exceptions, please feel free to contact me and I’ll include them in a future column). If you are writing in third person – and this is by far the most common – you have a choice. You can elect to tell the story from what is known as the omniscient point of view – where the reader can see the actions and motivations and occurrences associated with all the characters – or you can limit your readers’ access to either one or more characters in your story, for example writing each scene from a single point of view – or perhaps your entire novel this way. This I have seen referred to as the intimate point of view. With the intimate point of view, the readers can only learn what the characters experience or hear about.

Which is better? That’s an artistic choice, and is actually influenced by what you’re trying to achieve, so I don’t want to come down on one side or the other. It belongs, besides, in a column devoted to these topics – so perhaps I’ll write one some day. So enough on person and point of view! I could write an entire column on it (and perhaps some day I will). I simply wanted to define these matters, because we need them for what’s coming up.

Distinguishing Thoughts from Everything Else

Thoughts are like dialogue in that they are associated with individual characters and that they can be given verbatim. They are different from dialogue in that the rules surrounding them aren’t as concrete as the rules governing dialogue. In other words, the grammar gendarmes probably won’t come out to get you when you do one thing instead of the other. On the other hand, some techniques are smoother than others.

So, let’s work through some examples.

A. John stopped in front of the long, steep staircase and said, “I can do this.”

The above is dialogue, as is made obvious by the quotation marks and the word “said” – used to attribute the speech to John. Instead of saying these words aloud, John could think them. In that case, you could write:

B. John stopped in front of the long, steep staircase and thought, “I can do this.”

But this is awkward, because quotation marks are generally used to signal dialogue. Another technique is to employ italics. So here’s another possibility:

C. John stopped in front of the long, steep staircase and thought, I can do this.

I’ve even seen, in print, options B & C combined to create writing like the following:

D. John stopped in front of the long, steep staircase and thought, “I can do this.”

Now, I’ll interject some opinion. I am not keen on using italics. I think they should be used sparingly, because italics, I believe, tire the reader – especially if you have a lot of interior monologue. They’re distracting, and, I believe, should be saved for special occasions.

There’s also something else to realize about italics: they imply that you are giving the exact thoughts, in other words, word for word. The same thing goes for the use of quotation marks. But if you’re using the first person or a third person intimate, you don’t have to write it this way. You can imply it. Let’s go through a few more possibilities.

E. John stopped in front of the long, steep staircase and thought, he could do this.

Notice that the entire sentence is now in third person and the verb in the thought has shifted from the present tense can to its past tense could.

F. John stopped in front of the long, steep staircase. He could do this.

In version F, we have removed the word thought altogether and turned the single sentence in the earlier examples into two sentences. The first sentence, “John stopped in front of the stairs,” is important because it lets the reader know who is doing the thinking.

Then, as we are in third person intimate, we slide very naturally into John’s optimistic self-evaluation of his stair-climbing ability in the next sentence – in other words, into his mind and feelings - even though the word thought is not to be found.

G. I stopped in front of the long, steep staircase and thought, I could do this.

In example G, I’ve switched to first person. Although there’s nothing really wrong with the sentence above, in a way, there’s a redundancy of meaning. In first person, nearly everything – unless explicitly shown to be otherwise – is a thought of the narrator’s.

H. I stopped in front of the long, steep staircase. I could do this.

In example H, can you almost sense the quick intake of breath as the narrator looks at the long steep climb and decides to tackle it?


We’ve come up with eight different versions of representing almost the same thing. Some may be better, some may be worse; some will depend on what you’re trying to do. At any rate, we’ve had a chance to explore different ways of portraying what your characters are thinking. If you have the urge to tell me what you’re thinking, drop me a line at Grossackva at Yahoo dot com.

You can climb those staircases! Until next time.

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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, which, by the way, is an excellent example of a book with plot-driven chapters and cliffhangers. There's exciting news about Iokaste: even the Greeks are reading it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books in the series at Tapestry of Bronze

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the Writing Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.