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Characters who think, part II

August 25th, 2006

Yesterday, I was talking about the spirited debate amongst givers of writing advice regarding how to designate characters’ thoughts — other than simply saying,

Is this what monkey brain casserole is supposed to taste like? Sharon wondered.

Today, as promised, I shall give you an overview of the different schools of thought on the subject. To set the ground rules firmly in advance: for the purposes of this discussion, I am assuming that we are talking about a third-person narrative with a strongly defined protagonist. Why? Well, in other flavors of narrative choice, the strictures of the narrative point of view tend to dictate how and when the reader is shown a character’s thoughts.

Too technical? Allow me to clarify. In a first-person narrative, the only thoughts we could possibly be hearing are the protagonist’s, right? So there is no reason to present them in any special way: they are simply a part of the narrative point of view.

Ditto with a multiple first-person perspective, or a multiple protagonist tight third person. In these cases, there are structural signposts for the reader about whose perspective is whose — the most popular, of course, being the simple act of devoting one chapter to each perspective à la THE POISONWOOD BIBLE — so again, the form dictates whose thoughts will appear when. The thoughts are presented in exactly the same way as the rest of the facts retailed by the narrative.

However, most fiction is written in the third person, so let’s concentrate on that. When the narrative voice is distinct from that of the protagonist’s mind, it is necessary to differentiate on the page between what the character is thinking and what is the author’s commentary on the situation at hand. Often, the problem is that the writer wants to keep the thoughts in the first person, to be literal about them, but it’s not the only option the writer has. Here are a few ways it can be done.

First, there is the italicization method. With this stylistic choice, all of the protagonist’s thoughts are italicized, to differentiate them from speech. The thoughts, of course, are all in the first person and present tense. In practice, Method #1 will look something like this — or, wait a minute, I can’t do italics in blog format. So you’re going to have to use your imagination: the bits within asterisks are italicized.

*I shouldn’t be doing this.* With shaking hands, Brenda reached for the glass in front of her. *What would my mother say? Or Aunt Grizelda?*

Basically, these italicized thoughts operate as asides to the overall narrative. Sometimes, these asides are thrown into the middle of narrative sentences — *Oh, God, are my readers going to like this format?* — to heighten dramatic tension.

The primary advantage of this method is obvious: there is never any question about what is thought and what is speech. (In case you were not aware of it, placing a reader’s thoughts within quotation marks is fairly universally frowned upon. Just because Jane Austen does it doesn’t mean you should.) This can be a big plus, if your protagonist is given to thoughts that are diametrically opposed to what she is saying:

*That muumuu’s pattern is giving me a migraine.* “I love your dress,” Tanya said.

However, as I mentioned yesterday, there is a sizable contingent of the editorial community — that’s the fine folks working at publishing houses, in addition to freelancers like me — that believes this is sort of a cheap writing trick. This view is especially common amongst editors who frown on typeface tricks in general. They like the text, only the text, and all of the text, please.

A second popular method is to reserve the italics for the especially vehement thoughts, simply stating that the other, more pedestrian things floating around your protagonist’s head are indeed thoughts:

What a lucky break, Janie thought dreamily as Tad drove them down the boulevard in his red Astin-Martin roadster. Who’d have thought that her sister’s getting chicken pox would mean that Janie would get to go to the prom as a freshman? Here she was, sitting next to the most popular boy in school, a spray of green gladioli firmly pinned to where the strap would have been on a less formal dress, and — *watch out for that horse in the road!*

Now, I was a little tricky here, because this example contains Methods #3 and #4 as well. In the first sentence, I have used Method #3, taking the very direct route of just telling the what Janie is thinking and that she is thinking it. This is useful when the actual phraseology of the thought deserves emphasis. However, a lot of professional readers consider it a bit clumsy if used too often, just as using a tag line (he said, she cried out) every time a character utters a sound is considered a bit ham-handed by the pros. Method #3 is best used sparingly, for this reason.

In Method #4, later in the paragraph, I have moved the content of Janie’s thoughts into third-person narration, providing a little analytical distance from her daydreaming mood. (Because, really, who would be able to describe her own situation accurately while being driven to the prom by a dreambarge like Tad?) This can be very effective when the narrative voice is very distinct from the character’s; it’s a great choice for displaying irony to its utmost advantage, for instance.

Method #5 is my personal favorite, because it allows such tight pacing: in an ultra-tight third-person narrative, where the narration is letting the reader in on the protagonist’s thoughts, bodily sensations, and perceptions as the primary lens through which the story is told, the protagonist’s thoughts are integrated seamlessly into the text. In this method, whenever it is apparent whose perspective the reader is seeing, there is no need to identify the thoughts as such:

There’s no such thing as a ghost. Repeat it a hundred times, and it might start to feel true. Stacey’s skin rippled slightly over the back of her neck: a passing breeze from that window behind her that was definitely closed the last time she checked, certainly. It would be stupid to turn around and double-check it. Yes, the window must just be in sore need of refreshed weatherstripping. There is no such thing as a ghost, silly. There’s no such thing as a ghost.

Perfectly clear that Stacey is thinking, isn’t it? Yet not once does the narrative either say so or have to use typeface or punctuation tricks to show it.

Tomorrow, I shall discuss the various ways that each of these methods can help you establish the mood and point of view of a scene. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

One Response to “Characters who think, part II”

  1. comment number 1 by: Anne

    Ah, you caught me: I do prefer to avoid using either the first or second person in thoughts, if I can avoid it — but now that I think about it, I can’t really justify that particular choice. Probably something inherited from my first writing teacher.

    I’ll try to bring myself to incorporate a couple of Is in my next set of examples, to see if it makes me break out in a rash.

    I have in fact sent Carolyn See a couple of charming notes. Several, in fact. She’s one of the good authors who writes back!

    (For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure of reading Ms. See’s excellent MAKING A LITERARY LIFE, I can’t recommend it too highly — in fact, I’m going to set up a link to her website this very day. One of her presciptions for helping build one’s sense of being in a writing community is to send charming notes to one’s favorite authors.)

    Every time I read a book I like by a living writer, I try to send a note or e-mail. It’s time-consuming, but I keep hearing from authors that usually, readers only write to complain. I like the idea of making someone’s day.

    And John Irving replied with what can only be described as a beefcake photo! I gushed so much that he probably concluded that I was about 16 years old and in the throes of a GIGANTIC crush on him. Or maybe I just think that because when I was 16, I DID have a gigantic crush on him. (Oh, come on — THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE was pretty dreamy.)

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