Late post! I started up another post earlier about a different subject then decided halfway in, “Eh, never mind.” Then I went away and came back to some of the partial drafts I’d started but was unsure on whether I wanted to continue and came across something that better suited my current mood.
Sometimes that happens.
Portraying Characters’ Thoughts Across The Page
Not too long ago I came across this post by writer Marlene Nash-McKay; she talks about the various ways to show character thoughts on the page. It got me thinking about the methods I use and also those used by other writers. It also got me thinking about whether there were standards nowadays about which methods to use and which to drop. (There’s a lot of linkage in this post just to show the trail of my search and giving credit where credit is due, though I don’t anticipate anyone to visit them all; in fact, I think that’d be unnecessary.)
So I was looking up articles about this on the internet, as Marlene suggested, and came across one discouraging the use italics for internal thoughts where a commenter contrasted by pointing out how William Faulkner used italics to portray his characters’ thoughts.
Unfortunately, I don’t read much Faulkner (not sense high school, anyway), but I was still curious. So I looked up more references made to him–starting with the link shared by the aforementioned commenter, Nicole, leading to an article written by David Jauss at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs website.
It’s pretty long, and I was only interested in it as it pertained to Faulkner, so here is the one sentence from Jauss that caught my interest where he talks about examples from Faulkner’s Light in August: “In short, Faulkner quotes Joe Christmas’s conscious thought and then, in italics, presents first a semi-conscious thought that exists simultaneously with it and then the unconscious thought that underlies them both.”
I found another description of Faulkner’s approach on Spark Notes, also referring to Light in August:
When a character speaks, verbalizing his or her thoughts or reactions, Faulkner indicates this in traditional fashion, through the use of double quotation marks (e.g., “I”). However, thoughts that remain internal and unspoken, often spilling out in a loose, stream-of-consciousness manner, are indicated by single quotation marks (e.g., ‘I’). Finally, the third layer to Faulkner’s character development consists of unconscious thoughts—the characters’ innermost psychological workings, of which even they themselves may not be aware. These are indicated in italics.
What I most like about this approach is how it makes the distinction between conscious and subconscious thoughts. Personally, in my own writing, I find it necessary to make the same distinction, though I go about it differently.
So that’s one, admittedly outmoded way of portraying thoughts. I can see why it wouldn’t work today, but the idea behind it–the organization of the various thought levels–is nice, I think. As the article sums up, “[Faulkner] creates multifaceted portraits of humans in all their flaws and subjective bias—people whose perceptions of the world are often blurred by prejudice, misinterpretation, self-delusion, and deep and blinding personal need.” And I love that. I love writing about complex characters, ones that feel more like actual people, and I love the idea that something as complex as the contents of a person’s mind can be shared in an elegant, simple yet varied way.
So that’s one old-school approach, but what are people saying about showing thoughts (both internal and external) today?
The Modern-Day Approach
Here is a Suite101 article written by Vickie Britton on “Handling Internal Dialogue in Fiction.” I think it sums up the “modern” approach nicely. It presents you with acceptable options and lets you decide which to use. However, it also discourages mixing these methods together; it basically just tells you to pick one and stick with it.
I don’t get that; why are writers today required to streamline everything in their novels down just so it can be super easily digestible? Personally, I feel this is almost too modern an approach to writing.
I like to think that combining this more modern approach along with Faulkner’s would allow for the most nuance in portraying characters’ thoughts in storytelling–if that’s what you’re going for. (Yeah, if your story’s writing style is more streamlined because it calls for simplicity, then I can understand why you’d want to stick with only one method. If not, then you are being unfairly limited in accomplishing your storytelling goals. So long as you have a good reason for mixing methods, then I don’t see why it should be a problem.)
Faulkner’s Approach + Modern-Day Approach = A Modern-Day Faulkner-Like Approach
Okay, I just made that up, but you get the idea. (Or rather, I hope you will by the time I’m through!)
Like Faulkner, I prefer to distinguish between three different levels of thought processes. I may not use them all in one paragraph, but I certainly like to use all three throughout an entire story. (I should point out that this is for a third-person POV, as is my preferred perspective.) Though, here’s how I go about about showing them:
- (external) as direct speech, indicated by “quotation marks”: After he left the room, Lara said to herself, “I hate it when he does that.”
- (internal) unspoken, though deliberately voiced in the character’s mind; indicated by italics: Lara balled her fists and squinted at him. You just try that again.
- (internal) as part of the character’s deep, unconscious inner workings, voiced instead by the narrator without quotation marks or italics: His wounded pride was the last thing on Lara’s mind.
#1 is straightforward and easy to identify; it’s useful when the character wants her thoughts to be heard. #2 can be used in a sneaky fashion, to show thoughts that a character may or may not feel comfortable or see need to voice out loud, or perhaps if they are in a situation where they can’t say something out loud (say, if they’re underwater). And #3 is nice when you want to get a point across in a situation where it may not necessarily make sense to have your character say or think something directly–like perhaps at a point where a character is overwhelmed with too many thoughts and emotions to precisely communicate anything at all; instead, the author can then step in and choose what to show through narration.
I’m sure there are many other reasons to use any of these methods; these are just a few.
One reason why I like to use all three in the same story is that it simply mixes things up. You’re not limited to any one method; you use what you feel is necessary when you feel it is necessary. It also allows you to play with subtext and context or sometimes say more with less–say one thing while meaning another (without having to lay it all out for the reader in a self-evident way)…that kind of thing.
As the Suite101 article mentioned, though, publishers may have specific guidelines as to how they want things done. Not that I have any clue as to what those guidelines are….
So what method(s) do you tend to use for showing character thoughts?
Do you tend to use just one, or do you have several? Also, do have any idea what most publishers would find acceptable these days?