Characters who think

Excellent and insightful reader Cathryn wrote in last week to ask: “For any manuscript submission, can you give us the rule for indicating character thought? I have found ‘italicize only foreign words’ and ‘ underline anything that needs italicizing.’ Help!”

Cathryn, a lot of readers struggle with this — and I wish that the standard style manuals would just come on out and say that standard format for manuscripts is NOT identical to standard format for print, and that rules that governed the printed word during the days when the typewriter was the dominant medium are not all still true. I think not saying these things confuses aspiring writers needlessly.

To deal with the more straightforward issues first: in standard manuscript format — which, lest we forget, is NOT the same format as ends up on the published page — words you want italicized should be, well, italicized. Underlining them to indicate that you want them italicized was what you did when you were working with a typewriter: in most models, italics were not available. Like the double dash to indicate that the author really MEANT a dash and not a hyphen, these old rules were originally signals to the typesetter for how to set up the final print run.

For all of the insiders’ talk about being cutting-edge, this is sometimes a pretty archaic business.

A similar logic governs the italicization of foreign words — that would be words that are not proper nouns, incidentally. Names, as my high school French teacher liked to remind us between salty reminiscences of her college exchange year in Paris, do not translate. Foreign words are italicized to alert the typesetter (and now, the agent and editor) that those odd spellings are not typos, but legitimate words ze foreen tungzze.

However, not everything in writing is governed by a rule. I’m not surprised you had difficulty tracking down a hard-and-fast rule governing characters’ thoughts, Cathryn: there isn’t one. How you choose to handle it is a matter of personal style.

Now, there are PLENTY of writing teachers out there who will disagree with me, upstanding souls who will insist that there is one, and only one, right way to do ANYTHING in a text. Like the dreaded Point-of-View Nazis, these critics will jump all over innocent manuscript pages, ripping them to shreds because the writer has not elected to use the critics’ favorite method.

The simple fact is, though, for every soi-disant expert who will insist that characters’ thoughts must MUST be italicized every time without fail, there are two who will aver with equal vehemence that italicizing a character’s thoughts is a rookie’s trick, only used by writers who do not have sufficient skills to integrate their characters’ ruminations more naturally into the text.

To render the issue even more confusing, both schools of thought have their advocates amongst agents and editors. Both will tell you with absolute confidence, you will be delighted to hear, that the other side is absurd, amateurish, and wrong.

“In all matters of opinion,” Mark Twain teaches us, “our adversaries are insane.”

But the vitriol with which rule-mongers push their own stylistic choices makes them SOUND so right, doesn’t it? At times, it can be very similar to the way people speak in the fitness industry. As anyone who has paid attention to diet and exercise trends over a couple of decades can tell you, what the so-called experts claim will work changes radically and often. The same doctors who were insisting that high fat, low carbs were the answer to every dieter’s prayer were claiming five years before that complex carbs were the way of the gods. Something that looked suspiciously like Atkins was very popular in the early 1970s. There was a period when heavy exercisers were told not to drink much water while they were perspiring, and another where dehydration spelled doom.

Yet, amazingly enough, no matter content of the advice, or whether the advisor had been telling you the exact opposite the day before, the experts always use exactly the same tone, don’t they? You know the tone I mean, surely — that “any fool should know THAT” tone so favored by doctors with scant bedside manners. It is not a tone that invites disagreement, or even rational discussion — its intent is to impress the hearer with the speaker’s authority.

Why? Because they say so.

Since there are so many different schools of thought on the thought issue, I am a trifle reluctant to state my own opinions on the subject, lest they be taken as prescriptions. Instead, I am going to go through the most popular methods of showing character thought, and talk about the pros and cons of each.

But that is a task for tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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