InboxWednesday – What Characters Think

It’s Wednesday. Better caffeinate, hydrate, and other -ate, because I don’t know how else we’re going to get through this week. Is it just me, or are these early summer days sloth-crawling along?

In sifting through the inbox looking for a juicy question, I found several questions asking about how to handle expressing to the audience what a character is thinking. Questions like this:

* How do I show what a character is thinking in the third-person when they’re not the POV character?
* Do I italicize every thought the character has in first person?
* How do I show and not tell what a character is thinking?
* How much do I tell the reader what the character is thinking if I want it to be a surprise to the reader later?
* How do you format character thinking from the rest of the exposition?

There’s about a dozen total questions including those above, so I’m going to break them into chunks and do some today and have the rest on Friday. This way, you don’t have to sit through what could have very easily been 8000 words about the nature of thought and how to express it.

Here we go …

For characters in first-person
First-person has the most direct exposure to thoughts, because those thoughts become part of the narration of the story. “I couldn’t let her pull the trigger” is the same as “Bill didn’t let Hannah pull the trigger” in third person. The nice thing about first person is that you can go directly to the thoughts via verb choice, like I “think/thought”, and thanks to other tools of first-person the narration requires that those thoughts be woven together so that we see and experience the “complete” story through the character’s ideas, actions, beliefs, and emotions.

For characters in third-person
This is where the waters can get muddy when people misunderstand show versus tell, and/or when they want to try and tell the “complete” story (not in that E True Hollywood Story way, but in that I’m-going-to-give-you-ever-bit-of-info-so-that-you-can-“get it”-way).

Here’s the thing, a “complete” story doesn’t mean there are no spaces where the reader can’t, doesn’t, or hasn’t filled in some gaps on their own using whatever imagination they may have. A complete story is the story that’s got all its necessary moving parts installed and working as smoothly as an Imperial battle station blowing up a planet of people with intermittent British accents.

The most common way the distinction between action and thinking is through italics. I’m not sure where we learned this, I can’t find a unified theory that says one book was its genesis, but I have read plenty of manuscripts by all different authors all over the world who use italics as a way to indicate what is or isn’t a thought.

And that’s not bad. It’s not wrong. Anything can be done well if done consistently and in moderation (see the -ates we started off this blogpost with), it comes down to setting your own system up and doing it that same way throughout the book.

Or does it?

Because yes, I’m always going to tell the author to be internally consistent, but there’s a level past token consistency that we need to address as we close this blogpost – and that level is part of psychic distance.

Psychic distance, if you’ve never heard me talk about it before, is how close the reader is to the characters and the actions they’re reading. You treat the text as though it were a film camera, and the story as though it were a movie. Are you zoomed in, reading description and seeing well-defined objects, or are you pulled way out, so that you get a sense of the scope of worldbuilding or as a setup to what comes next?

When you italicize, because you’re changing the nature of the text, you’re creating distance between reader and story. It might be a teensy little amount of it, less than millionths of a space between thought atoms, but it’s still a space. It’s still a division. We’re going to break this down in more detail on Friday, but I’m going to wrap today with a pretty straightforward idea:

You can use italicized thoughts and thought-tags (thought, wondered. etc) to create distance between the owner of the thought, what the thought is, and what its context is:

I can’t believe it, he thought, it’s not butter. The knife skidded over the toast.

You can eliminate the thought-tag to go even closer to the thought owner and thought context.

I can’t believe it’s not butter. The knife skidded over the toast.

You can skip the italics AND the tags, so that the thought is indistinguishable from exposition.

I can’t believe it’s not butter. The knife skidded over the toast.

The more you call out the fact that someone’s having a thought, and the more you call out what that thought is, you’re making the reader more and more a detached observer, like they’re seeing the story from eight rows back or from the bleachers.

We’re going to talk the nuance and development of this stuff in Part 2. See you Friday. Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus



I love how the sentence: “I can’t believe it’s not butter. My knife skidded over the page.” looks. I hate seeing italics. They read like the narrator in my head (and I have one and she sounds just exactly like Helen Mirren) is talking throoooooo tooooooooobes. And I trust you. I do. But can I link back to this so that when my editor asks, “Why present tense in one sentence and past in another?”, I have a good answer?

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