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!