Portraying Character Thoughts Across The Page (Part II)

So I thought last week’s post would be the end of looking at various ways to portray character thoughts (mostly as it pertains to a third-person POV), but then J.P. Cabit made a comment that really got me thinking…and I decided to make a Part II!  (Lots of great comments were made last week.  If you haven’t checked out Part I yet, you should take a peek!)

Okay, so JP shared an example which was unusual to me because I realized I also like to write in a similar style at times but wasn’t actually sure what to call it.  So, for your benefit (and with his permission!), I’m going to quote it here:

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.

Now for me, the unusual thing about this example is not that it doesn’t use italics or quotes to indicate a thought, but rather that in addition to this it doesn’t always use filter words like “thought” or “believed” and is told in a way where the line between character and narrator become blurred.  It even has the feel of stream of consciousness (SoC) about it, too, but it’s in third person; usually when people talk about SoC it’s used in first person.  (As I talk about below, I have some confusion on the difference between SoC versus interior monologue.)

Okay, I thought, so what do you call something like that?  I thought maybe it was something like “stream of consciousness in third person,” but I was almost certain there were more concise ways of describing this.  Since I had to start somewhere, I decided to plug “stream of consciousness in third person” into Google and see what popped out.  Mostly, there was some stuff about Katherine Mansfield, who I’ll bring up again later, but a deeper search led me on this trail in which a myriad of terms were thrown at me, terms such as:

  • stream of consciousness (of course)
  • internal monologue (sure)
  • direct internal monologue (huh?)
  • indirect internal monologue
  • narrated dialogue
  • quoted interior monologue
  • psycho-narration (I’ve also seen it spelled psychonarration, though neither is in any dictionaries I’ve come across)
  • direct/quoted speech
  • indirect/reported speech

.  .  .

Really?  I’ve never heard of most of these before, to be honest.  And when I read about them and compare them, some even seem to be expressing basically the same ideas.

Why can’t things just be simple???

Anyway, eventually I sussed most of it out in my head–or tried to, anyway.  Here’s how I understand all of this (and perhaps someone  can add some clarification, as well, as I’m no expert here).

Styles of Third-Person Narration

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way.  Wikipedia lists three styles of third-person narration.  They are as follows (taken from the site):

  • Quoted or direct speechHe laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. “And just what pleasure have I found, since I came into this world?” he asked.
  • Reported or normal indirect speechHe laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. He asked himself what pleasure he had found since he came into the world.
  • Free indirect speech [aka “free indirect discourse” (FID) as well as two other names, according to Wikipedia]He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. And just what pleasure had he found, since he came into this world?

That’s pretty easy to grasp, right?  I don’t use this terminology, but it makes sense to me.  Also, to clarify something, it seems they are using the term “speech” to encompass both verbal (external) thoughts and nonverbal (internal) thoughts, so this is still very much relevant to this post.

Did you see how in the last example it became a little blurry as to who was doing the talking?  It’s basically like blending elements of first-person POV with third-person.  Katherine Mansfield was known to do this, as well.  (If you have nothing better to do, you should check out her short story, “Miss Brill” (1920), made available by the Katherine Mansfield Society.  It’s a good example of using free indirect speech at length.  Virginia Woolf was another earlier author who used this style in her novel Mrs. Dalloway.)

Now, going back to JP’s example, it looks like he actually uses two of these styles, both indirect and free indirect speech.  I’ll re-quote it and color-code it to make it easier to see.  Indirect speech will be in orange and free indirect (the “blurry” parts) in blue; plain narration will be left in grey:

Alex turned and danced out of the room. Brianna hated it when he acted like thiswho 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.

(If you think I’ve color-coded this wrong, then please say so!  As I mentioned, I’m just learning about these terms myself.)

Right, so the short and sweet answer to “what do you call it when the line between character and narrator are blurred in third person?” would be “free indirect speech” (or discourse).

Thanks, Wikipedia.  That much makes sense to me.

Okay, but that still doesn’t address the “stream of consciousness” element I suggested was present in this example earlier.  But that’s the thing: does JP’s example actually use stream of consciousness, or is there something else going on here?

Stream of Consciousness vs. Interior Monologue:

I was looking at various descriptions of both SoC and interior monologue and comparing them before, and to be honest most were difficult to tell apart.  There was one place, however, that made a clearer distinction.  (I think so, anyway.)  Here’s how Britannica describes SoC: “[a] narrative technique in nondramatic fiction intended to render the flow of myriad impressions—visual, auditory, physical, associative, and subliminal—that impinge on the consciousness of an individual and form part of his awareness along with the trend of his rational thoughts. […] To represent the full richness, speed, and subtlety of the mind at work, the writer incorporates snatches of incoherent thought, ungrammatical constructions, and free association of ideas, images, and words at the pre-speech level.”

They also have a definition for interior monologue (IM), but it’s their comparison I find interesting: “The term interior monologue is often used interchangeably with stream of consciousness. But while an interior monologue may mirror all the half thoughts, impressions, and associations that impinge upon the character’s consciousness, it may also be restricted to an organized presentation of that character’s rational thoughts.”

In any case, I think the example JP gave actually uses a very similar style to Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill,” which is said to use stream of consciousness in some sources and interior monologue in others.  Hence my confusion.

That’s the problem with the internet sometimes; it’s confusing.  When people use the word “may” in their descriptions, it leaves room for interpretation and makes things wishy-washy, you know?

So I guess I only have one question for savvy readers…

How do you understand the difference between stream of consciousness and interior monologuing?

(Okay, maybe more than one.)  Does the former always have to be choppy and erratic?  Is SoC just a sub-technique under IM?  (That’s how I understand it.)  Also, could SoC be used in third person while using free indirect speech?  (The New World Encyclopedia tries to provide further explanation on this, though honestly it’s still pretty confusing.)  And lastly, would you say JP’s example uses interior monologuing or the stream of consciousness technique?

I think next week I want to talk more about some of the other terms I listed earlier, just ’cause I had never heard of them until recently and think they are interesting.


10 thoughts on “Portraying Character Thoughts Across The Page (Part II)

  1. Yeah, the closer you look at some things, the more muddled they get. I prefer to keep things simple and avoid mixing styles. The last thing you want to do is confuse your reader.

    I don’t think JP’s last line is monologue or SOC. It feels more like a bit of physical/emotional description and I took it like that.


    • That’s the thing: as a reader, when I come across mixed styles like this I’m not looking at it on an in-depth level initially, so I just find it to be peculiar rather than confusing. On that level I don’t particularly care what the various styles and techniques are called because all I know is that it makes for an interesting effect.

      However, as I look at it from a writing POV and try to understand what’s going on at a technical level, that’s where it tends to get confusing. Though, that’s exactly why I wrote this post because I do actually want to understand it on a technical level so that the reasons for its initial appeal make better sense to me.

      Though, like you, I wouldn’t say the last line (or any part in orange) of JP’s example is SoC or an interior monologue, either (more like another term I plan to talk about next time), though the blue parts seem like it to me.


  2. It’s interesting to see the comparison and contrast of varying techniques.

    But, honestly, I’m not sure that defining and delineating what constitutes an official example of which technique is particularly useful, in the long run. Which is to say, I’m not sure it matters whether the given example is Stream-of-consciousness or interior monologue, or whether you can be both one of those and Free Indirect Speech and so on.

    I think what matters is to find a style that is easily readable and functions at the level you need it to work in order to best tell your story. But then again, I don’t have an MFA, so my opinion may be worth only the paper it’s printed on. (And this is the internet, so there’s no paper involved, is there?)


    • To a reader just looking for enjoyment, I don’t think it should matter; the story is what should matter most.

      Though, as I said before, I’m not just approaching this from a reading standpoint but a writing one, as well, in the sense that I find it interesting to explore what can be accomplished with words using any kind of style, be it simple or more complex.


  3. I think that whatever you choose to do, you just need to keep it consistent. I’ve seen it done in all different ways. The indirect speech is what I prefer, but sometimes it doesn’t work either.

    I looked this up before, because it IS very confusing.


    • I know! I had no idea these other terms even existed before all of this, the “free indirect speech” and so forth. @_@ Talk about crazy.

      Though, it would be weird to use a style once or twice out of the blue then never see it again in a story, so shooting for consistency sounds like a good idea to me!


  4. Good observations.

    I too write in 3rd Person, but it’s limited. I’ll limit the inner thoughts and perspectives to only one character at a time. Even within one chapter where I switch that perspective, I’ll divide it with “****” so the reader knows there’s going to be a switch.

    I’ve read books where the author writes in 3rd person Omniscient and enters the thoughts of all the characters at the same time. It’s so dang confusing! And it doesn’t create as much tension.

    How much fun is it to get character #1’s perspective, and then later get character #2’s perspective on things? It creates much more dramatic tension, especially if the one character notices something the other doesn’t. Or maybe they both have such different takes on the same situation.

    Happy Birthday, by the way T!!!!!


    • Aw, thanks Jay! (I almost wrote Yaj, haha. Hm…I should totally name a character that! Anyway.)

      Using the asterisks is a good way to denote changes like that. A lot clearer than just extra spaces between paragraphs, though I’ll do that, too, sometimes if it still belongs to the previous POV character. Depends on how small the shift is spatially or in terms of drama (going from low-drama scene to one where something really dramatic is happening; I’d use asterisks for the latter).

      Yeah, I also prefer not to read stories in third-person omniscient like that where thoughts just fly out from everywhere all at once. Just…no. I need to have the POVs separated somehow.


  5. That last type is what I use when writing third person too. I think. I’ve never thought about it before. Lots to digest in your post!


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