Characters who think, part III

For the last couple of days, I have been addressing the issue of how to integrate your characters’ thoughts into the narrative. As usual when there’s not a hard-and-fast rule, I found I had a lot to say on the subject. Yesterday, I discussed several different common methods of indicating thought, means both more and less graceful than just saying that a character is thinking:

I want to go to the prom more than I want to live to be twenty-five, Janie thought.

Today, I want to talk about playing with these methods to reflect both your personal writing rhythms and your writing goals in particular instances. How you choose to present thought in a given scene should be reflective of the action and tone of the scene, as well as your personal writing preferences. Sometimes, the extra beat allowed by saying “he thought” works better in the scene than a more direct method; some methods allow you to show different sorts of characterization than others.

To help you decide, let me show you the same scenelet done several ways. (Please bear in mind that I haven’t figured out how to make the blog show italics, so italicized phrases are indicated by asterisks at the *beginning and end* of the phrase.) First, let’s look at a fairly traditional way to handle thoughts in a group scene in a third person narrative, maintaining narrative perspective while choosing one person’s thoughts to highlight:

Dr. Butler tucked his stethoscope into his Tattersall vest. “I’m afraid there will be no prom for you tonight, Gertie.”

Gertrude was furious. Chicken pox, smicken pox, she thought, seething. It was perfectly obvious to her that her sly little sister had been at her while she slept with a permanent red marking pen. *Little vixen. I’ll boil your guts for soup.* “But I’m feeling fine!”

Wilma pushed her back down on the bed with a firm motherly hand. “Now, sweetie, don’t jump around while you’re feverish. I’ll dig your old mittens out of the attic, so you can’t scratch yourself into a bloody mess.”

This works fine with a variety of styles, doesn’t it? Not even the most virulent of point-of-view Nazis would have a problem with this. But what about in a tighter third-person narrative, one where the narrative voice is more closely aligned with the protagonist? Let’s look at this scene again, with the perspective tightened onto Gertrude:

Boring old Dr. Butler tucked his stethoscope into that stupid Tattersall vest his wife never seemed to be able to pry off his decrepit corpse. What, were those stripes painted onto his torso? “I’m afraid there will be no prom for you tonight, Gertie.”

Chicken pox, smicken pox. That little beast Janie must have been at me with a permanent red marking pen while I napped. Yeah, right, Mom: I needed that extra fifteen minutes of beauty sleep. “But I’m feeling fine!”

Wilma shoved her back down on the bed with a hand that must have been soaking in an ice bucket for an hour. Predictably, she came down on the side of caution. Big surprise. “Now, sweetie, don’t jump around while you’re feverish. I’ll dig your old mittens out of the attic, so you can’t scratch yourself into a bloody mess.”

Allows for a bit more character development, doesn’t it? If you have a very opinionated protagonist, this method can give you a lot of freedom to bring out character richness through perceptual details, without the tedium of identifying the protagonist as the instigator of these ideas each and every time.

Do be aware, though, that this method can get a bit confusing if you have chosen to write a scene from an omniscient narrator’s perspective, showing the reader several different characters’ thoughts within the same scene. In that case, you will need to label who is thinking what, for clarity:

Oh, no, Dr. Butler thought, time to bring on another spoiled pretty girl tantrum. “I’m afraid there will be no prom for you tonight, Gertie.”

Get your hands off me, you filthy old trout, Gertrude seethed. Chicken pox, smicken pox. “But I’m feeling fine!”

Wilma pushed her back down onto the bed: Mother of God, the girl’s flesh was burning up. “Now, sweetie, don’t jump around while you’re feverish.” She frowned the livid scratch welts on Gertrude’s arms. *I would have killed for skin as smooth as hers at that age, and all she can think to do is hack at it?* I’ll dig your old mittens out of the attic, so you can’t scratch yourself into a bloody mess.”

Janie clutched Gertrude’s taffeta dress against her body, watching herself surreptitiously in the full-length mirror on her sister’s closet door. How like Mom not to notice the hot water bottle under Gertie’s pillow. How like Gertie not to notice that her wake-up coffee had been loaded with ipecac. It was amazing, how little grown-ups paid attention. “Seems a shame to waste such a beautiful dress. Shall I go downstairs and tell Tad you’re not going?”

As you may see, a number of different methods of identifying character thought can be made to work well. Here, without overuse of the verb to think, the reader can enjoy the humor inherent in the unspoken battle of perspectives. However, it requires constant vigilance on the part of the writer to make sure that we always know who is thinking what. Even a single thought left floating in the air can throw off the rhythm of the whole scene.

That’s a long answer to your question, Cathryn, but I hope it helps. It’s less a issue of finding a rule to apply in every instance, I think, than figuring out what will serve your character and scene — as well your narrative — best in the moment.

Thanks for the thought-provoking question. And everybody, please: when you are puzzled by a technical issue, or curious about the business side of the industry, or anything in between, feel free to post a comment or question about it, and I’ll take a swing at addressing it. Chances are, you’re not the only reader who wants to know.

Keep up the good work!

2 Replies to “Characters who think, part III”

  1. Thank you very much. Before I was sure to shoot myself in the foot no matter what. Now I feel, if I am careful, I can hit the target and miss all the various by-standers. Appreciate your time. Take care

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