Writing Your Character’s Thoughts

imagesFiction writers tend to struggle in writing a character’s thoughts.Sometimes it’s a matter of understanding Point of View (POV). Other times, how to express one character’s thoughts is what stumps writers. Either way, inner thought is a valuable tool to deepen character and pull readers into the story. By adhering to some “rules,” readers can better understand what you’re trying to convey.

Writing Tip for Today: The following guidelines should help you correctly express your POV Character’s thoughts.

No Head Hopping 

Head hopping refers to the practice of allowing readers to know the thoughts of more than one character on stage at any one time. Many nineteenth century novels used an omniscient POV, meaning readers could enter the minds of any or all characters. Thus, a man and a woman attracted to one another might feature both the hero’s thoughts (her eyes were the most fascinating shade of green) and the heroine’s thoughts (Why was he staring at her like that?). Yet most modern novels limit viewpoint to one character at a time. The reason for this is that today’s readers want to be intimately connected with the fictional character. The more characters’ thoughts readers are privy to, the shallower this connection. By limiting POV to one character per scene or chapter, readers are forced to come closer to the character. This closeness helps readers commit to the story. To avoid Head Hopping, imagine the POV Character is you as you write. You cannot know my thoughts if I come into the room–you only know your own thoughts. Keep your characters as they would be in real life.

Deep POV Brings Readers Closer

Another “thought” problem in fiction is expressing your POV Character’s thoughts in a way which doesn’t intrude on the reader. Deep POV excludes the “observing” character’s words: He saw, she heard, he realized, she noticed, he felt, she thought. When in real life you know or think something, you don’t generally tell yourself you thought it, right? If you write, “Her eyes were the most fascinating shade of green, he thought,” it’s not wrong. But somehow, adding “he thought” forces the fictional camera to zoom out. When you want to express a POV character’s thought, you need only write it the same as any narrative in that same POV. Thus, “The room brimmed with knickknacks and curios” is the POV Character’s observation as much as his thoughts about her eyes. Deep POV drops the “observing” language and simply writes, “Her eyes were the most fascinating shade of green.” The camera stays tight and close.

Inner Thoughts vs. Inner Dialogue

This is an area that trips up many writers. When should you use those italics? Inner thoughts are written as simple declarative sentences or questions. NO ITALICS. But when you want to convey a line of inner dialogue (words heard only inside the POV Character’s mind), italics tells readers that these words had a sound inside the mind. One way to test whether your sentence is a Thought or Inner Dialogue is to see which tense it’s written in. If your story is written in past tense, then thoughts would all be past tense and the pronouns will reflect the POV. If it’s 3rd person past tense, thoughts would read, She couldn’t stand the way he combed his hair. But if it’s inner dialogue, the same sentence would become, I can’t stand the way he combs his hair. Note the difference in both tense (present) and pronoun (I). This can be confusing but with practice you can master writing your POV Character’s THOUGHTS and keep your readers engaged.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

6 comments on “Writing Your Character’s Thoughts

  1. Please answser the question. Which do most editors prefer? The “she thought” or the deep POV italics version of inner thinking?

    • Great question, Marilyn! In my opinion, either is OK, but writers should always read widely in their genre to see what is being published. I think writers should limit their inner dialogue–not sure why but too many italics seem to turn off readers. Inner dialogue, if overused, tends to make a character sound melodramatic or self-absorbed. I’d limit the italics to the lines you think are most important to emphasize.
      Hope this Helps!
      Keep Writing,

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