Thinking in Person

Oh, my! Many, many thanks to everyone who sent in subtitle suggestions! I can’t say enough how helpful they’ve been. I’d been stuck in a rut of subtitles that varied by only a word or two and weren’t very interesting. You blew the rut away by going in directions I hadn’t dreamed of. My editor likes several ideas, and she’s taking them to the all-important sales team for their judgment. I’ll let you know when there’s a decision. Alas, I don’t know how long that will take.

This came into the website from Sophie in October: My problem is that when I write in third person, I don’t think I get into my characters’ heads enough. I talk about their actions, their conversation, and their instincts, but not their thoughts. Or if I do get into their heads, I often jumble up their thoughts, confusing both myself and them.

On the other hand, when I write in first person I’m afraid I’m showing their thoughts far too much, giving too much sarcastic commentary and showing too many of their likes and dislikes.

Early in my writing days I took a wonderful workshop class and took it again and again for several years. Every week our teacher, Bunny, would read student work without identifying the authors and we would discuss and praise and critique. Often, when a chapter of mine was read, people said I had neglected to show what my MC was feeling. After a while, I’d hear the voices of my classmates in my mind while I was writing, telling me to include emotion. Then, when I worked with an editor for the first time, after nine years of trying, the criticisms I heard most often from her worked their way into my brain, too, and joined the helpful refrain.

We can install our own helpful voices even without a workshop or an editor. The most important word in the last sentence is helpful. We don’t want the drumbeat to go, What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I remember to show feelings? It should be more like, Let there be feelings! Feelings will bring out the terrific stuff I’ve got going.

If we already know we’re not putting in thoughts enough when we’re writing in third person, we can set up ways to remind ourselves and to get in the habit of remembering. Some writers edit the work from their last session before writing anything new. If this is what you do, you can start by looking for places to add thinking. Or, as you write, you can remind yourself every half hour to think about thinking. You can make a poster for yourself that says, Think about thinking, and pin it up in your workspace. You can put reminders on your phone or set an alarm to go off. When it rings you have to edit for thoughts. As you drift off to sleep, you can chant, Into their heads! These techniques will help you create a routine, and eventually you won’t need them.

You can use the same approaches when you’re writing in first person, reminding yourself to limit the thoughts when you’re writing a first draft and also to trim them in revision.

Here’s another technique to try: When you have a third-person scene that lacks thoughts, rewrite it in first person. And vice versa. Yes, this is time-consuming and word-consuming, but who’s counting? I toss out tons of pages on every book. I learn by trying. Writing isn’t efficient.

To recognize what warrants thoughts and what doesn’t, we keep an eye on our story elements. For example, say our MC Sharyn falls off her bike and a new character, Willard, stands over her and says, “Some hedgehogs run away instead of using their needles. I mean, spines. They’re really called spines.” Third person or first, Sharyn has got to think something. For example, she may think first about her bike and whether it’s been damaged. She may notice what this stranger is wearing. She may remember how bad her whole day has been. Or dozens of other possibilities. After the thought, but only after the thought, we can have her say something. Her thoughts contribute to the reader’s understanding of her character. If she notices what Willard is wearing, we also get more development of his character. If the bicycle or her bad day or this new character has anything to do with our story’s trajectory, we advance the plot.

But if Sharyn is merely biking along and not falling, we may want to keep her thoughts to a minimum and just get her there. Not always, though. The ride may give her a chance to mull something over and come to a decision that will move the plot along.

In my opinion, usually reactions belong with events. Suppose we delay Sharyn’s thoughts after she falls. Willard appears, says what he says. She replies. He says some other disconnected thing and wanders away. She brushes herself off and rides on and starts thinking about the experience. As a reader, while events unfold, I’m thinking, What does Sharyn make of this? What’s going on with her? Is she in shock? When she finally does start thinking, I may be satisfied. No. I won’t be. By then it’s too late for me.

On the other hand, we don’t want to interrupt an exciting moment like the fall and the introduction of Willard with a paragraph of thinking. We can drop in just a quick thought here, another there, as the dialogue develops. Then, when Willard leaves, we can have Sharyn think more expansively.

A note about sarcasm: In my opinion, a little goes a long way. If a character is sarcastic by nature, a few salvos in dialogue or thought when we first meet her will establish that characteristic. In future scenes, just one will be enough to remind the reader.

If our MC is a sarcastic-by-nature person, we’ll have to work harder to make her likable, if we want her to be likable. It certainly can be done, but we’ve added a hurdle.

Sarcasm is easy to write. For example, the first thing that may jump to mind for Sharyn to think after Willard speaks could be something like, Thanks for helping me up. In the circumstances, the thought is justified, but it isn’t the most interesting way to go. Instead, she might wonder where he lives or if he owns a hedgehog or if he knows how strange he seems. In dialogue we can resist a sarcastic comeback and consider other possibilities. Sharyn may say, “Yes, and foxes are really easy to domesticate.” If she’s kind she might say, “I didn’t know that.” If she’s mean, she could say, “Well, you’re a freak.”

Going back to the problem of including the right amount of thinking, the solutions I’ve proposed are mechanical, which I see nothing wrong with. We’re learning a skill, writing, and we need protocols to help us. When we train ourselves to play an instrument, we play scales. When we train in a sport, we practice. Same with fiction writing. And if we’ve identified the difficulty, we’re way ahead.

Here are three prompts:

• Continue the scene with Sharyn and Willard. If you like you can introduce additional tension in the reason Sharyn fell off her bike. After you’ve written the scene in first or third person, look it over and decide if you’ve included the right number of thoughts. If not, revise. If you like, keep going with the story.

• Your MC Paulette has to decide between two kingdoms. Both want her for the magic sword that she alone can wield. She’s meeting with both rulers in a neutral place, and each is trying to win her allegiance. Write the scene in first person, including her thoughts. Make her suspicious and angry. Rewrite, making her feel honored and loved, with thoughts to go along with those emotions. Rewrite again, and this time give her a secret desire.

• Try the scene with Paulette again but this time in omniscient third person. Include the thoughts of each ruler.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Can I just say how much I love your blog? The posts are detailed and helpful, the archives are easy to navigate, and you update regularly. Then there's the little community that's sprung up in the comments. Everyone's so helpful. There's none of the swearing and irrelevant political rants I find on other writing sites. People care about each others' stories. Thank you for putting time into this.

    • I'm so glad you love it and find it easy to use! And I'm with you on the community. I love it, too. It's great – uplifting even – to see people dash in with approaches to the writing problems we all bump up against.

  2. Thanks. That was a educational post for me. I almost always write in 3rd person and sometimes find I ventured out of it a little. Then again sometimes I like to break the rules if it works in the story. 🙂 Especially when fracturing fairy tales.

  3. One thing that I thing helps me to get in my characters head is to have conversations with them on paper. It also helps with story development. It sounds really weird, but it is really useful with voice and all of that characterization stuff. I now know that my heroine has a really sarcastic voice like me, but I find sarcastic literary characters endearing myself. I'm still working on my hero, haven't had a conversation with him yet, he has a bit of a backseat role in my first VERY rough draft. So far the only thing I know about him is that he loves the heroine deeply, and has a fondness for the ocean. He needs ALOT of work. Any advice?

    • Think of questions about him.
      Why does he love the heroine?
      What is his family & and family life like?
      Why does he love the ocean so much? Did something happen in his childhood to make him feel this way?

      Mrs. Levine has a whole chapter about characters in Writing Magic. It has a little character questionnaire that helps.
      I don't know if you've already thought of this or not, but maybe something will spur inspiration:)

  4. This came into the website. Ideas anyone?

    I reached a point in my book where I needed an explanation for something, but I couldn't think of one, so I just put something down so I could keep going. I don't really like the explanation, but it was the best thing I could come up with. Do you have any advice for moments like that?

    Also, I feel like there are large parts of my book where I am just making things up as I go along. Is this normal for you, or do you have a general idea of how your story is going to end when you finish your book?

    My third question was, when you create a villain, how much cruelty do you consider enough to convince your reader that the character is no good? Because in my story, the main character's mother is the main villain in my main character Lara's life, so I want to convince the reader that the mom is awful and cruel, but Lara still loves her mom, I just don't know how to show that. I want her to seem evil, but Lara sticks around for about 18 years, so I can't make her that bad. Do you have any advice for this kind of problem?


    • I've heard lots of writers describe themselves as pantsers, meaning they go off the seat of their pants and just make stuff up. Almost as if they're reading it instead of writing. For me, I need to have at least a general idea of how it will end. "Villain gets killed. Heroine is reunited with her boyfriend. Character breaks out of prison." But I don't know who will kill the villain or how the character escapes. It helps if I know the next five events. By the time I've written those I've come up with something else. If you feel lost you may need an outline. But if you're comfortable making stuff up? Go ahead.
      On villainy: It's remarkable-and more than a little sad-how people stay loyal to real life villains. Lara's grown up with her mother. She's seen her good side too. But show her doing something awful and cruel and readers will recognize her as a villain. I wrote a story where my character's parents were mean, though not the main villains. It helped to have her brother call out the parents for being cruel when she's too afraid to stand up to them.

    • On the out-of-the-blue-temporarily-staying-like-this-fix-later thing: Write something that makes sense, sort of, then leave it like that, then come back and elaborate on it. Change some things earlier on and later on to fit with this scene, (Such as Q: How does the MC escape prison? A: He has a file and a parachute. Now you figure out WHY he has a file and a parachute. Add them into the parts of the story you've already written.)
      On Villains: Assuming your Villain is human, then there will be lot's of ways to portray her. Humans have lots of bad in them, but even the REALLY bad ones have goodness. So, I don't know anything about Lara's mother, but let's say that she hated Lara's father passionately, and plans to get rid of Lara (kill her, send her out for adoption, whatever works for you) but she can't quite bring herself to do so after Lara's born because Lara is also her OWN flesh and blood. Plus, it's kinda hard to hate a baby unless you are truly, one hundred percent despicable. So Lara's mom decides to keep Lara, and Lara grows up and is adorable and sort of angelic, and Lara's mom loves her, but still dislikes her a little bit, because she has her father's eyes and nose and chin (Or whatever) and her father's voice and some of her fathers habits. (Such as cocking her head to the left when listening really hard, chewing on her lips when deep in thought, pacing with her hands behind her back when considering something, etc.) So she loves Lara and hates her at the same time for being like her father, and sometimes she'd really sweet to Lara, and sometimes she throws fits and tells Lara that she's just like her no good, brainless father. Make sense? Hope I helped!

  5. Okay, I need some help. I'm kind of stuck in a rut with my TTDP story. My dilemma is magic related. I don't know how to use the magic. I don't really have any magic rules or know how people use it, what type it is etc. What I do know is that one type of magic deals with THINGS (Such as herbs, certain types of trees, rocks etc. human hair and the likes) that have slight (or maybe in some cases, great) magical powers, but I don't have any rules for how powerful some of it is (It needs to be varied, not the same for everything, with different levels of power, that sort of thing) or how some of it works, what different types there are, how powerful the different types are, and what it does to the people using it. This is sort of important, because I hate it when magic has no limitations (Because it is majorly illogical) or isn't strong enough to do more than make things float around, though it is supposedly super powerful, and the people end up not using it much at all. Make sense? Does anyone have any suggestions for how magic could work? The more suggestions, the better, anything helps. Thank you!

    • Okay, so magic, yippee. Well, what if the power of the items was limited to two basic things: How rare they are and how much of it you have. And the only people who can use magic are royalty. Or if that doesn't work only everyone who has suffered a great emotional loss or disappointment. But not a I-didn't-get-a-pony-for-my-birthday disappointment, more he-just-left-me-and-now-I-will-be-forever-alone kind of feeling. Hope this helps!

    • Thank you Bibliphile. That was my basic idea although, Althea is a healer/magician. (I decided that the common folk could use magic, if they could figure out how, but I think they are kind of terrified of it, for an undetermined reason–Anyone have any ideas on that?) Rarity is also cool concept that I liked. Althea has powdered diamonds and the blood of an albino wolf. Those are fun. Also though, I'd like there to be other types of magic, aside from magical THINGS. I'm not sure how to describe it, but it's the kind that can be conjured up. I think it might mostly be bad, but then again, I'm not sure. Thanks again! (And I really like the idea of certain types of magic being reserved for certain types of people. THAT was a REALLY good idea!!!)

    • The whole point of good magic could be to conserve mass, so you could only use stuff to do it. And then bad magic is all about creating stuff out of nothing. And it could be mostly illusionary. Also, the more familiar someone is with something the easier they can control or use that item in magicky stuff. Like farmers would be really good with plants, but horrid with jewels!

    • That's a really good idea. I like it. That would explain the trees and lake UNDERGROUND. Cool! My idea that small magic doesn't really have a side, the magic stored in rocks and plants etc. is just THERE, while the stuff that can be conjured up, is decidedly evil. I kind of think that maybe that's because good is so powerful, that it doesn't really NEED magic, magic is just a bonus, yah know?

  6. Elisa-
    There's lots of symbolism and myths surrounding gemstones, herbs, and trees. You could look into that. For example, rosemary is associated with memory, so it could undo amnesia curses. Rowan, ash, alder, and oak are all associated with fairies and magic. In ancient times sapphires were thought to guard against poison and diamonds brought courage. Olive trees are the oldest things on earth. Their oil is used in coronations and religious ceremonies. Maybe they're more powerful than other trees. The rarity of a stone or herb could affect its power.

    • Yep, I know, I have this interest in herbs, which is when I ran into the old ideas that herbs have magical powers, and later, I found out that in the medieval days, gems were thought to have magical powers to. I thought that was really interesting, so I decided to use that in my story. But I didn't really think about olive oil. It's pretty cool actually. I LIKE it! Thanks! (Oh, and yes, the rarity of a stone or herb DEFINATELY makes it more powerful, or special, or something like that. I haven't quite sorted that out yet.)

  7. The reply buttons aren't working for me today, sooo…
    Alyssa: I'd chip in with some advice, but it looks like everything I would've said has already been mentioned! (Including the Tangled comment. Rapunzel's mother is quite obviously evil, but still has her motherly moments.)
    Elisa: Hmm, good question. I really like all of Bibliophile's and Eliza's ideas, by the way. Let's see if I can think of some more for you to ponder. As for what the magic might do to people that use it, perhaps it drains their energy (although maybe that's overused). Or maybe if someone uses a lot of magic, it starts to affect them mentally and they eventually go crazy. Or, say, if they're dealing with water-related magic, they'd get dehydrated; if they're dealing with earthy things or plants, the smell might linger on them; or in the case of your powdered diamonds, their skin might start becoming shiny. Those are little things, but hopefully that gives you some food for thought.
    Just building on Bibliophile's 'magic-reserved-for-royalty' idea — different levels of magic could be available to people of different bloodlines. All the descendants of Person A could use one kind of magic, all the descendants of Person B could use another, etc. Your different kinds of magic could vary in power and/or type.
    Another idea. Some people's magic could be quite practical, and so they go into a career that uses their magic. A doctor could have magical healing or herbal powers. Someone with the ability to speak to or influence animals might work with horses or train bloodhounds. An artist could have magical abilities associated with color. Etc., etc. Hope this helps!

    • Michelle, it is absolutely helpful. You gave me plenty to think about. I had the idea of it affecting people a while ago, for another storybook world, aside from the TTDP world, so I can't use it in this book, but it's something like, this: All magic is evil, except for the weaker stuff, and the kind found stored in rocks and plants maybe. The STRONG stuff though is absolutely one hundred percent evil, and once a person uses it so many times, before it takes over their minds, and the amount a person can use it before it breaks down their resistance varies form person to person, some are stronger and can therefore can use it more, and others are weaker, and use it less, but no one knows how strong or weak they are, so they can't use it unless in dire need. I like the idea of selective magic for selective people, that is also very thought provoking. Thanks!

    • This is all really helpful for me, too, since I am doing a dancing princess story too, and I was having trouble with magic as well! So…thank you all for answering someone else's question, I guess! 🙂 These all helped me to get my mind going! Hope your story goes well, Elisa!

  8. These are great and imaginative ideas about magic! I'd add only one thing: Consider your plot and how the magic fits into it. We don't want the magic to fix things (in fact, it may mess them up), but we do want a connection.

  9. What's the best way of depicting pain? There are only so many ways that you can say "his muscles screamed in pain" or "pain pulsed through her body" or whatever. Is it a good idea to compare pain that not many people have felt to pain that a lot of people have felt so that the reader can kind of sympathize with the character? How can you describe the differences in variations of pain? Are there any good synonyms for the word pain, which really can be used in its place?

  10. Ache
    I think, when you describe pain, don't just describe the pain, describe where it is, how big it is, and what happened to make it, what the characters thoughts about the pain are, not just the pain. If a muscle hurts, why, what did the Character do to make his muscles hurt, what is he doing that is agitating it, can he do something to make the pain stop? There are lots of different kinds of pain, there is aching pain, throbbing pain, searing pain, cold pain and warm pain, tingling pain, flickering pain, and straight, non-stop absolutely gut wrenching I-am-going-to-throw-up kind of pain. There is nauseous pain and migraine pain. LOTS of different types of pain. When you run hard and fast, you have a warm, gutsy, achy pain, when you are knocked in the head hard, it's cold, then warm tingly pain, lots of inside stuff (Bone and muscle) exposed after flesh is torn away is may be cold pain, a deep cut is oozy, deep, throbby, sticky, pulsing pain. Think of what the pain is, describe it a little, and add how it happened, why it happened, and what the Character is doing to try to stop it. If it's a slight, nagging pain that comes in waves of nausea, maybe the Character mentions it a few times in dialogue or thought. If it's big, maybe the Character won't mention it as much, just grit his teeth and try to be brave, but if its smaller, he complain non-stop (I don't know why, but this is what we humans do.) These are just some ideas.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.