Portraying Character Thoughts Across The Page

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.

Faulkner’s Approach

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:

  1. (external) as direct speech, indicated by “quotation marks”: After he left the room, Lara said to herself, “I hate it when he does that.”
  2. (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.
  3. (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?


16 thoughts on “Portraying Character Thoughts Across The Page

  1. I use much the same method but I have two cavets.

    In my latest edit of Angel Odyssey, I am cutting out most of my internal dialog, unless it contrasts with outward demeanor.

    Also, I’m getting wary of #3. It is very easy to let POV drift if I’m allowing a narrator’s voice in like that. If I’m in a tight 3rd person voice for a novel, I’m trying to avoid #3.

    But otherwise, we seem to think alike on the topic.


    • I like to match my narrating voice to something similar that the POV character might use so it all just kind of blends in, though I can certainly see reasons not to use this approach!


  2. Interesting. I’ve been writing in first person for the last few years (a series of mystery stories, narrated by the detective’s assistant, her “Watson”). It’s not the same type of question in first person, since I’m already in the character’s mind.

    In my first novel (in the portion that was in third person), there was a chapter where I had a sort of running mental commentary by one of the characters, which I showed by starting each paragraph with a dash (as James Joyce did for dialogue — he hated quotation marks). The first time I did this, at the beginning of the chapter, I cued the reader about what this meant the same way you’d attribute dialogue:

    Ruth looked up at the clock on the wall. It was nearly five in the afternoon.

    –Quitting time, she thought with a chuckle.

    I also used this technique later, when I had two characters who could communicate with each other silently. I showed those “conversations” with the dash method also, to contrast with the regular dialogue, which was in quotatation marks.

    In both cases, I confess I did it because it reminded me of James Joyce. He, on the other hand, showed his characters’ internal musings by simply putting them into the text, not highlighting them in any way. In Ulysses, you’re always slipping in and out of Leo Bloom’s thoughts about the things he sees.

    I think I would find the single quote/double quote method confusing,since I would probably just think part of the book was written in the UK (or I would assume it was an error and whip out my red pen). 🙂

    Oh, and I pretty much never get into my characters’ “innermost psychological workings.” That seems very nosy to me. I think you can show a lot about characters by dialogue and action (which is the way we discover things about people in life, after all).


    • I’ve rarely seen that before, using the dash. It’s kind of nice, though.

      “I think you can show a lot about characters by dialogue and action (which is the way we discover things about people in life, after all).”

      That’s true, and I suppose one’s writing style can reflect this with little deviation. At the same time, stories are capable of revealing so much more than what’s possible to perceive in real life–whether it’s seeing someone’s thoughts or witnessing events out of chronological order. I guess what you use just depends on your story and what you’re trying to accomplish.


      • Well, to be pedantic (at least a bit) I think those are two different things. We experience events out of chronological order all the time, in our memories. So, that’s something people are very used to.

        As for the other, I don’t have an absolute rule about that (as I discussed on my blog, I have only one rule I try to follow, and that’s challenging enough for me 🙂 ). I do generally focus on action and dialogue, but we can learn a lot from that. After all, everything you know about people, everything you bring to bear on your writng and in your life, other than introspection that all came to you from watching people and listening to them. Or look how much we can learn about the characters in a good movie,

        But I do internal monologue, dialogue, whatever gets the story where it needs to go.


  3. In the past I’ve done the “italics as internal dialogue” thing… but recently I’ve shied away from it, and more frequently used something like method #3 to show internal dialogue. Sometimes I’ll just have a dash of a character’s thoughts in the story with no tag at all. I depend on context to cue the reader, and I think the reader is smart enough to recognize a dash of internal dialogue – particularly if the dialogue is written in the character’s voice. So, more and more I use less and less in punctuation or typographical tricks to demonstrate internal dialogue.


    • “Less is more,” eh?

      It’s so interesting to hear about how differently everyone uses thoughts in their stories! So far none of us do it exactly the same way, lol.

      Thanks for sharing, all.


  4. Oh yay, internal dialogue and inner workings! I like this.

    I use two, I think — Obviously, double-quotes for dialogue spoken out-loud, and I probably use the italics too, but I can’t really think of a specific example. I also use italics for journal entries, which give nice insight. But sometimes, when I discuss subtle inner thoughts, I tend to air more on the “Raskin” writing style. For instance:

    Alex turned and danced out of the room. Brianna hated it when he acted like this—who did he think he was, the king of France? And anyhow, there was no king of France, which made his situation all the more silly. What a roitelet. Or, that was what Ms. Jones had called him. Brianna thought it had something to do with Les Miserables. Which is exactly how Alex made everyone feel. There! She nodded, feeling full of rightness.


    • That actually seems very similar to how I write sometimes! Particularly in “quiet” scenes when the character is alone with his/her thoughts.

      I don’t know what you mean by Ruskin, though; I’m not familiar with him. 😦 This seems like #2 without the italics, and maybe a little bit of #3 because it also blurs the line between the character’s thoughts and narration (when the character and narrator are different).

      Which are the character’s thoughts and which belong to the narrator? You no longer know, or care, when it’s entertaining; you’re in a happy, free dreamy place. Pretty much like stream of consciousness, in some ways, only neater and easier to follow (at least neater than the kind of examples I’m thinking of).

      Idk, what do you think?

      (This is actually inspiring me to read more of folks like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Like right now. I think this would be refreshing.)


      • By Raskin I mean Ellen Raskin, who is somewhat my role model.

        The great thing about this narration style is that it’s almost as if what the character is thinking becomes truth…becomes the narration. It’s like the narration switches over to the character’s point of view, seeing things as they see them..


        • Ah…I was like, “Does he mean John Raskin???” LoL, thanks for clearing that up.

          And yeah, I’d say that about sums it up! 😀 Now I have to wonder whether such a technique even has a name…?

          JP, you are expanding my mind.

          This is interesting. I must look into it further and see what other authors do this, as well. (I’m calling it “stream of consciousness in third person” for now, as I’m getting some interesting search results on Google with this.)


          • Let’s come up with a shorter name for it…Third person thinking? Perhaps a little less spooky than “stream of consciousness in third person,” although I must admit, this phrasing words it nicely.

            Glad I got you thinking. 😀


          • Heh.

            I was thinking maybe it could be just internal monologuing, but…it seems a little different. Idk, I’ll have to get back to you on that one, haha. Maybe even make this next week’s blog topic!


  5. Hi Tiyana,

    Honestly I use several styles and it depends on the POV as well. Publishers don’t mind any style, as long as it belongs to you. Your voice is the most important thing, IMHO.

    The idea with these different tactics aren’t so much as what you use, as it is how often you do it. Anyhting can be done-to-death. The idea is just to have a very stable balance.


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