What Were They Thinking? A Guide to Conveying Character Thoughts

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July 24, 2023

Letting the reader into your character’s mind creates a connection. A character’s words might not always tell the whole story; a person’s thoughts reveal who they really are. If you want your readers to be invested in your characters, show your characters' complexity by revealing the inner workings of their weird and wonderful brains.

Thoughts, like dialogue, should serve a purpose. In fiction, both elements should advance the plot, develop characters, or show conflict. If the internal thought isn’t doing any of those things, ask yourself why you need it.

Like everything else in writing, there are no absolutes when it comes to character thoughts. According to the Modern Languages Association (MLA) style guide, a character’s thoughts can be shown in quotation marks, with the use of italics, or, in some cases, by using italics in quotation marks.

Many people do use quotation marks to show a character’ direct thoughts. To separate this style of thought, the writer must use thought tags to differentiate the thought from dialogue. An example might be:

Sarah slipped into CoffeeMart. “Oh drat,” she thought. “Thirty-three CoffeeMarts in this town and Michele has to be at this one?”

Because novels can be dialogue heavy, using italics instead could be more effective and help separate them from regular dialog.

Sarah slipped into CoffeeMart. Oh drat, she thought. Thirty-three CoffeeMart in this town and Michele has to be at this one?

In each of these examples, the tense changes from past tense to present within the thought bubble, the same way dialogue changes to present tense when two characters are speaking.

Sarah dropped her customer card on the counter. “Oh hey, Michele,” she said. “I’m so happy to see you.” Sarah fixed a smile on her face, hoping it looked natural. I need to get out of here fast, she thought. as her fake smile grew brighter.

In the above example, notice there aren’t any italics or quotation marks, but you still know the main character’s thoughts because of the thought tag.

Separating thoughts from the main narrative can be impactful when the main character’s actions and words are in direct opposition to their feelings as in the example above. This works in first-person point of view, too. The main character says one thing and thinks another.  

Yet, a character’s thoughts don’t necessarily have to be sorted from the rest of the narrative. If you’re writing in third person limited or first person, you are in the point of view character’s head anyway. In that case, consider slipping into a deeper POV and allow the entire narrative to be in the character’s voice. That shows the main character’s true personality, and it reveals more about their motivations and feelings.

Sarah slipped into CoffeeMart and stopped short. Drat. Thirty-three CoffeeMarts in this city and her ex had to be at this one. She grabbed her purse and fumbled for her phone, horrified at the thought of making small talk. She stalled as long as possible before finally risking a look. Michele was staring right at her, and her heart skipped a beat.

In this case, we’re in Sarah’s head the whole time. We don’t have to separate out her thoughts because we know what she’s thinking. She’s horrified at seeing her ex. She’s feeling awkward, she wants to run, and she probably still has feelings. While some of the above could be sorted out into separate thoughts, in some ways, the passage reads more fluidly than the others.

Be intentional. If you want to show characters' thoughts with quotation marks, do that—but be consistent. And don’t be afraid to slip between deep point of view and separated thoughts. Sometimes, a random thought at just the right moment can make an impact. If you’re unsure what you want to do, try writing some passages out in various styles. What fits in best with your voice? Most importantly, what helps your character’s personality and all their glorious humanity come out on the page?

Once you’ve mastered showing your character’s thoughts, readers will connect with your characters, and that connection keeps the reader turning the page.  

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