Tips for Writing Character Thoughts

July 9, 2018

Writing dialogue is easy–you use double quotes to show what a character is saying and singles quotes within the double quotes to show what a character is repeating from another source.

Writing thoughts can be a bit more challenging. As author, your job is to make it easy for your reader to discern what a character thinks. Here are some tips to help you.

  • Avoid using quotation marks (single or double) as already stated in the opening paragraph when conveying character thoughts.
  • Decide on whether or not to put the thought in italics based on the length of the thought. Italics are used in writing to show emphasis or passion and can be an excellent way to convey short thoughts, but they don’t work as well for lengthy ones. The risk in using italics for long thoughts comes because the reader may think the long emphasis is inflated or passion overstated.
  • Determine if you’re writing the thought using first or third person. If your character thinks a lot in your story, consider using third person and past tense instead of first person and present tense. Why? Your reader will relate to third person/past tense more as a report of what’s going on with the character than as an intimacy intrusion.
  • Consider the show versus tell advice you got as a writer. If you write from a tell perspective, you’re sharing your observations with the reader. If you write from a show perspective, you let the reader know by putting the character’s direct thoughts in italics. Example of tell: She allowed herself to dream about a better life. Example of show: She compared her life to her sister’s and it wasn’t fair.
  • Choose one of the following if you really think it’s important to your story.
    • He (or she) thought
    • He (or she) remembered
    • He (or she) wondered
    • He (or she) contemplated
    • He (or she) realized
    • He (or she) mused
    • His (or her) thoughts drifted to
  • Avoid writing he thought to himself. It’s bad enough to hear people say, “I thought to myself,” but it’s even more frustrating to read. I edited one book and asked the author, “Who else does one think to?” I appreciated the author’s sense of humor when he put in his book, “…I thought to myself. (Who else would I think to?).”

I realize characters can take on lives of their own and sometimes they don’t act (or think) the way you expect them to when you create them. Still, you owe it to your reader to make the character as believable as you can, including what he/she thinks. Hope these tips help. Happy writing!