How to Show What Your Characters Think

homer-simpsons-155238_1280I love hanging out with writers. Who else can you talk to about such important matters as the possessive apostrophe, or whether to use semi-colons in fiction? (On this last one, I usually get pugnacious and am asked to leave the room).

So last week I’m at a conference and some colleagues and I are sitting around the breakfast table on morning when the subject of character thoughts comes up.

The short version of the issue is this: Is it unfashionable these days to use italics to show a character thinking?

This is the sort of question readers don’t care about, but which affects them. We as writers are always looking for the best ways to keep readers inside the “fictive dream.”

Traditionally, there have been two ways to show a character thinking. You either do it with italicized lines, or unitalicized with the added attribution he thought or she thought. Thus, you might have the following:

John walked into the room and saw Mary by the window. I wonder what she’s doing here, he thought. [Note how the thought itself is in a first person voice]

John walked into the room and saw Mary by the window. What was she doing here, he thought. [Note how the thought is now in a third person voice]

John walked into the room and saw Mary by the window. I wonder what she’s doing here?

You’ll sometimes hear talk about “deep POV,” which means we are so ensconced inside the viewpoint character’s head that italics or attributions are not necessary. I’m not a stickler on this. I don’t mind he thought or she thought on occasion, and don’t think readers even notice. But it’s worth, ahem, thinking about. If you’ve got a strong POV established, you can dispense with attributions and render the thought in a third- or first-person way:

She opened the door. Saw his body. Bullet holes all over him.
He deserved it, every bit of it.

She opened the door. Saw his body. Bullet holes all over him.
You deserve it, Frank, every bit of it.

On the matter of italics, it’s become something of a meme among writers and writing groups that italics are out of date. I think that’s mainly because italics can be abused. I’ve seen it done this way, and it always rubs me the wrong way:

  Rip looked at her with those cobalt blue eyes.
  Kiss me, kiss me now, oh please, I need to be kissed.
  “I like you, Dakota, I really do,” Rip said.
  If you like me, go for it, my lips are ready for yours.
  “Do you like me too?” Rip asked.
  Like you! Can’t you see it in my eyes? No, maybe he can’t, because my heart has been broken so much it has grown calluses and become a hard, unnatural thing. Oh, break my heart, please break, so that you melt and warm my eyes for him, so he will take me in his arms and give me the love I have been yearning for.
  “Yes,” Dakota said. “I like you.”

Now, I don’t mind a short, italicized thought when the emotions are running high. It’s sometimes the best way to render the emotional impact on a character without stopping the flow of the action. Thus:

   He shoved her to the ground. Searing pain ran up her elbow and exploded at the base of her neck. She wanted to call for help, but her mouth wouldn’t work. His laugh filled the void as he took off his mask.
Her former lover had…


   “I hope you’re happy,” Max said.
“Oh I am,” said Constance. “So, so happy. Especially since you had the liposuction.”
He laughed then. And it chilled her to the bone.
“Now,” he said, “we are going to make love.”
   Fat chance.

Sometimes, for stylistic reasons, you may want to try second person POV thoughts. Yes, that’s what I said. It works if the emotion is running high.

   He walked over to the window and looked at the street. A homeless guy was preaching to an invisible choir.
Well, this isn’t exactly what you wanted, is it? You wanted fame and fortune, and you got a cheap room in a crummy hotel, and you know you deserve it. Welcome to reality, pal. You done good, real good.

To sum up:

  1. Use italicized thoughts sparingly, if at all. Save them for short, intense thoughts.
  1. You don’t need italics, or he thought/she thought if the POV is deeply established.
  1. If the POV is deep, you don’t even need he thought/she thought. Use them on occasion if you wish, but also analyze your scene to see if you might do better without them.

So those are my thoughts on thoughts. What do you think about my thinking?


26 thoughts on “How to Show What Your Characters Think

  1. Once again, James Scott Bell has blogged on a topic that relates to my current WIP. It’s almost as if he knew what I’m doing. But that’s crazy

    Or is it? Maybe he understands that certain technical problems plague all writers, I thought.

    Whatever it is, I appreciate his willingness to share his experience.

  2. I love the deep POV and tend to write that way. I find that if I can’t dispense with the italics or the s/he thought, then I’m probably not deep enough, i.e., it’s a good test for me to ensure that I’ve worded things deeply enough.

  3. Yep, this applies to anyone’s WIP. But I appreciate how succinct it is. Can’t recall another blogger breaking this down in such a simple format. Thanks JSB

  4. Jim, thanks for a helpful post.

    I’ve always found it confusing–when to use italics. As the POV moves in and out of “deep,” at what point should I italicize?

    I like your summary rule #1:
    Use italicized thoughts sparingly, if at all; save them for short, intense thoughts.
    (Oh, did I mistakenly us a semicolon? Sorry.)

  5. Character thoughts have long been a confusing issue for me due in part to conflicting philosophies of mentors and critique groups. At present, I am using short italisized phrases and deep POV. By what you said, I think I may have the combination finally right. Your blog today blew some clarity into the fog. Thanks!

  6. Jim,
    I’m all for deep POV and the way it handles thought. If the narrative distance is more pulled back, I’m okay with either using “thought” as an attribute tag or italics.

  7. If I follow you correctly, you wouldn’t use a semi-colon in a character’s thought. You cleared up a point of confusion for me in a way I am likely to remember. Thank you.

    • Lance, as the link in the post indicates, I hate semi-colons anywhere in fiction. But I will use them in non-fiction when appropriate, especially in a more scholarly work or persuasive essay.

      • Thanks, Jim. The second time I had a manuscript reviewed at a conference, the reviewer pointed out that I had used a semi-colon in dialogue. Never again. Thanks.

  8. As a grumpy old newspaper editor, I live by the maxim of the late Bill Hosokawa of the Denver Post – The reader is your friend. Do him no harm.” So even though something may seem very clear to me as I write it, I can’t assume it will be clear at all to the reader.

    In your first example, switching both person from third to first and tense from past to present seems too abrupt to happen mid-graf. I’d probably go with something like:
    John walked into the room and saw Mary by the window. He wondered what she was doing there.

    Either that or set it off.

    John walked into the room and saw Mary by the window.
    I wonder what she’s doing here, he thought.

    The later example, “She opened the door. Saw his body. Bullet holes all over him.
    You deserve it, Frank, every bit of it.” also seems problematic. She – his – him and then you? Beyond the whole deep POV argument and putting the reader inside the character’s head, there’s the problem that it just feels ungrammatical. Who is speaking? Just because it’s abvious toi the writer doesn’t mean the reader will make the same leap. Give him or her a hand up.

    How do you feel about putting the character’s thought in quotation marks? Or even single marks?
    She opened the door. Saw his body. Bullet holes all over him.
    “You deserve it, Frank,” she thought to herself. “Every bit of it.”

    • I happen to like grumpy newspaper editors. They don’t make them anymore. We can sure use them! (I do hope you had at least half a cigar in your mouth when you chewed out a reporter).

      Setting off the thought as in your example is fine with me.

      I’m not so fine with quotation marks for thoughts. Only use them for actual physical speaking, If the character is recalling something another character said, I’d use italics for the recall and dispense with the quote marks.

      I have no problem with my “non-grammatical” examples. It’s clear who is thinking what, and that’s the point. If it’s clear, don’t let grammatical rules get in the way! (Whenever someone brings up CMOS at this point, I usually turn to drink. I actually made up a CMOS drinking song. If interested, you can find it here.

  9. In re: Semicolons. Back in the 1970s-80s there was a delightful book – more a pamphlet, really – on punctuation called “Stalking the Wild Semicolon.” It’s advice on that particular punctuation mark was, if I recall, never use it. Ever. If you find yourself debating whether a semicolon is more appropriate than a comma or colon, stop and recast the sentence, because you’ve already made it more complicated than the reader wants to follow.
    Today, with our electronic gizmos creating a generation with the attention span of hummingbirds, that’s never a good idea.

  10. Good primer…
    These are subtle distinctions but very important ones. What technique you use, as you say, is dependent on how deep the established POV is. Not every character merits a truly intimate POV, imho…and thus I think you save the italics or ultra-deep method for only your main folks.

    Here’s another thing: The language and grammar you chose should reflect the depth of the POV. I just finished copy edits this week and I have a protag with a very intimate POV…we are in his consciousness from the moment he steps on stage. He’s the kind of man who, when he checked into his fancy Fort Lauderdale hotel room thinks, “even the crapper had an ocean view.” (he wouldn’t call it a toilet or even a john). My editor wanted to change all his “likes” to “as ifs” but I fought for stet because there was no way on earth this man THOUGHT in “as if.” His mental narrative was more casual, more idiomatic. But a different character, I felt, needed to think in proper grammar so we used “as if” for her thoughts. Yes, it created an inconsistency that might drive grammarians nuts but it was VERY consistent and true to the characters.

    • Kris, I had an editor once try to do that very same thing! I fought to keep all the “likes.”

      Let’s stand on a corner someday, holding a couple of signs.

      Mine: Will Write For Food.

      Yours: Will Fight For Stet.

    • I agree with you completely, Kris. In my latest book, Captivate Your Readers, I argue that the narration of any scene is really the thoughts and observations of the POV character for that scene, so should be expressed in his words and speech patterns.

  11. Good stuff, Jim. I blogged about this topic here on TKZ in Dec. 2013: Using Thought-Reactions to Add Attitude & Immediacy:
    In that post, I expressed my own views on the topic and used short excerpts from lots of well-known novelists, including one of yours. I pretty much agree with everything you say above, except I’d add a more direct way to express the thought in this example:
    John walked into the room and saw Mary by the window. I wonder what she’s doing here?
    For the thought, I’d just say: What’s she doing here? (italicized)

  12. One more thing. It almost goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that any time you can show through the MC’s actions and spoken words what he/she is thinking, the better.

  13. The other writers in my writers group are mostly writing for literary audiences, where the italics are frowned upon. It’s an absolute: don’t use them. So this focus on deep point of view and the reader’s experience is quite refreshing, nuanced, and helpful.

  14. I use thoughts sparingly, but I don’t mind things like:

    Jasmine stopped writing in her journal and jumped up to greet her instructor, “Hello, Professor Simmons! I was just finishing up on my assignment for next week. You know, our Crisis Communications Outline?”

    The professor tilted his head downward and lifted his eyes so that he peered over the top rim of his bifocals. “Yes, I will address those in class next week. Have a good day.” He straightened and moved on down the breezeway without a look back.

    Jasmine watched him leave, then tossed out, “Have a great day, professor!” …and get that stick out your ass you old fart.

  15. I think your thoughts on thoughts are very thoughtful. 😉

    I wanted to put a bunch of semicolons in there and try to make it sound like Shatner, but I wasn’t sure it would come out quite right.

    I started out in my novel using italics for thoughts. Then two things happened – two or three people read it and said “Oh, no, that’s not fashionable anymore” and then I ended up with an alien who communicates with my MC via telepathy. SO, the italics are reserved for telepathy now. Watch, someone’s going to tell me NO! Bold only for telepathy… LOL.

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