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What Are They Thinking? Portraying Your Characters' Thoughts
by Victoria Grossack
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July 5, 2012
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. Here are two issues that need to be addressed:
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.
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.
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:
This is awkward, because quotation marks are generally used to signal dialogue. Another technique is to employ italics. So here's another possibility:
I've even seen, in print, options B & C combined to create writing like the following:
Now, I'll interject some opinions. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 methods may be better, some may be worse; others will or will not suit depending on what you're trying to do.
A version of this article appeared at the Coffeehouse for Writer's Fiction Fix.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.