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On the matter of italics, it’s become something of a meme among writers and writing groups that italics are out of date.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?