Sunday, 8 January 2017

How to Write Characters’ Thoughts

Like dialogue, thoughts need to be written with certain rules in mind, to make sure readers don’t confuse them with speech or narrative.

Book of Hours, Savoie, 15th century
This can’t be the right skull, thought Solange. It doesn’t have any fangs.

You could set your character’s thoughts apart with quotation marks, treating them the same as dialogue.

  • “This can’t be the right skull,” thought Solange. “It doesn’t have any fangs.”

But since readers might find this confusing, quotation marks are usually not recommended.

Another way to differentiate thoughts from dialogue is to use italics.

  • This can’t be the right skull, thought Solange. It doesn’t have any fangs.

Or you can choose not to set your character’s thoughts apart typographically at all.

  • This can’t be the right skull, thought Solange. It doesn’t have any fangs.

These examples all use a thought tag: “thought Solange.” (See How to Punctuate Dialogue for a discussion of speech tags.) If you don’t want to include a tag, consider using italics to avoid confusion.

  • Solange frowned. This can’t be the right skull. It doesn’t have any fangs.

Verb Tense and Narrative Voice


When you read your character’s thoughts aloud, they should sound just like dialogue. Inner voice, like spoken dialogue, is usually in the present tense. Though Solange’s story takes place last week in the Louvre’s secret vaults (“Solange frowned”), she thinks, as she speaks, in the present tense: this can’t be right, it doesn’t have fangs. You could put her thoughts in the past tense, but then they wouldn’t be her inner voice.

  • Solange frowned. This couldn’t be the right skull. It didn’t have any fangs.

We still know what Solange is thinking, but here it’s because the narrator is telling us. The same authorial voice that informs us “Solange frowned” is also telling us her thought process.

The difference between inner voice and narrative voice can be a subtle one.

  • Solange frowned. This skull didn’t have any fangs. What the hell?
  • Solange frowned. This skull didn’t have any fangs. What the hell?

The first example allows us to hear Solange’s thoughts. The second blurs the line between the narrator’s voice and Solange’s, bringing us closer to her point of view.

Storage room at the Louvre
Though Solange’s story takes place last week in the Louvre’s secret vaults, she thinks, as she speaks, in the present tense.

Suppose, instead of carrying out her heist last week, Solange is rifling the Louvre’s vaults at this very moment.

  • Solange frowns. This can’t be the right skull. It doesn’t have any fangs.

With the narrative in the present tense, we can’t be sure whether these are her thoughts or part of the narrative. Adding a thought tag clarifies the distinction.

  • Solange frowns. This can’t be the right skull, she reasons. It doesn’t have any fangs.

However, “It doesn’t have any fangs” could still be either Solange’s words or the narrator’s.

  • Solange frowns. This can’t be the right skull. It doesn’t have any fangs.

Here the line between thought and narrative is unambiguous.

Thinking in the First Person 


Just as you never speak of yourself as she or he (at least I hope you don’t), your character should always think of themselves in the first person: I, me, we, us.

  • The guard’s footsteps echoed above. I have to grab what I can, she decided. (Thought with tag)
  • The guard’s footsteps echoed above. I have to grab what I can. (Thought without tag)
  • The guard’s footsteps echoed above. She had to grab what she could. (Narrator’s voice)
  • The guard’s footsteps echoed above. She had to grab what she could. (Rampant confusion)

Of course, this is assuming you’re writing your story in the third person. But maybe you want your character to be the narrator.

  • The guard’s footsteps echoed above me. I have to grab what I can, I decided. (Thought)
  • The guard’s footsteps echoed above me. I have to grab what I can. (Thought)
  • The guard’s footsteps echoed above me. I had to grab what I could. (Narrator’s voice—in this case, the character telling the story later)
  • The guard’s footsteps echo above me. I have to grab what I can. (Narrative is in present tense: could be thought or narrative)
  • The guard’s footsteps echo above me. I have to grab what I can. (Thought)

Les Vampires (1915)
The guard’s footsteps echoed above me. I had to grab what I could. 

Interior Monologue


Some authors combine narrative and inner voice in what’s called interior monologue or stream of consciousness; famous examples include Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner. There are no thought tags or italics with this literary device, and no distant narrator—the reader is plunged into the character’s mind.

BELOVED, she my daughter. She mine. See. She come back of her own free will and I don’t have to explain a thing. I didn’t have time to explain before because it had to be done quick. Quick. She had to be safe and I put her where she would be. But my love was tough and she back now. I knew she would be. (Toni Morrison, Beloved)

Though this style might have been considered radical once, today’s readers are used to a close narrative point of view. If we’re not quite all reading Ulysses, neither do most of us prefer the aloof narrative style of the nineteenth century. We want a sense of immediacy with our characters; we want to inhabit their minds.

As a writer, you may choose not to set your character’s thoughts apart from the narrative. This is fine, provided it’s a carefully thought out device and not an awkward confusion of verb tenses and points of view. When a character’s thoughts are bewildering, it should be because the author intends them to be (and his name is probably James Joyce). Use whichever system you like when it comes to writing your characters’ inner voices—so long as you’re consistent, and so long as you don’t confuse your readers.


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