Writing Your Character’s Thoughts: 3rd Person Limited POV

On Wednesday, I wrote about the importance of showing your characters’ thoughts in your writing—especially your main character’s thoughts—and gave examples for a first person point-of-view narrative. But what about third person narrators? How do you portray a character’s thoughts here without a constant stream of “he thought this” and “she thought that”? Here are some ideas…


Third Person Limited: In this point of view, the narrative is written as if someone is peering over your main character’s shoulder to tell the story. (Examples below are from Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones.)

  • cityofbones Recount a memory: “An image rose in Clary’s mind. Her mother’s back, not quite covered by her bathing suit top, the blades of her shoulders and the curves of her spine dappled with narrow, white marks. It was like something she had seen in a dream…” In this case, the author specifically tells the reader that this is a thought.
  • Tell what your character thinks indirectly: “Simon’s band never actually produced any music. Mostly they sat around in Simon’s living room, fighting about potential names and band logos.” Here the author doesn’t say “Clary knew” or “Clary thought”, just dives straight into the info.
  • Tell what your character thinks directly: “She sometimes wondered if any of them could actually play an instrument.”
  • Write thoughts as pseudo-dialog: Okay, she told herself. Everything’s fine.”  Authors sometimes denote thoughts with italics, but it’s a technique best used sparingly.

I love the examples above because in every instance, Cassandra Clare uses Clary’s thoughts to accomplish multiple purposes. In the first, she paints a picture of Clary’s memory while simultaneously doling out important plot information. In the second and third, she breaks up the narrative with a bit of humor while showing Clary’s attitude toward her friend Simon. In the last, we see Clary trying to reassure herself, but in context, her thought only heightens the tension.

Which of these techniques do you use in your writing? If you have other examples, I’d love to hear them!

:) Cheryl


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  1. Kenda says

    This is such a timely post for me :-) I've just returned from a regional SCBWI conference/10 pp critique. Good news–got a few points for description and detail but, on the flip side, the critiquer said she couldn't quite "connect" with my character. Says I need to get deeper into her head. I'm taking notes on this post–thank you!

  2. Cheryl Reif says

    Hi Kenda, thanks so much! I'm really glad it was helpful–I'd wondered if this topic wasn't original and interesting enough, so it's great to hear you liked it :)

  3. Haley says

    Love the examples! Sometimes you might not think an idea is original but there are thousands of people out there who still haven't read the information so it is original to them. I struggle with writing my character's thoughts in a way that I like. This was very helpful. I will be coming back to your blog!

  4. Stina Lindenblatt says

    I loved the series. :D

    Great examples. I write in first person, so this is easier for me. But now I know what to do if I ever write in third (which I know I will one day). Thank you!

  5. Cheryl Reif says

    Haley: I'm so glad these posts were useful! I know I've struggled with it. I ended up turning to some of my favorite authors to see how they communicated character thoughts. It's one of those things that looks really, really easy until you try to do it yourself….

    Stina: Thank you! I've been doing a lot of first person writing lately, and it's definitely a powerful way to show what a character is thinking. Although it has its own challenges :P. I keep wanting to share setting details and insights that my 12-year-old protagonist would NOT notice!

  6. Anonymous says

    Thank you so mcuh! This really helped, as I am writing a short story that switches from first person to the third (much more difficult than I thought=]), but I couldn’t think of a good way to express my third person character’s thoughts! These techniques are all really good, so now I just need to figure out which one to use!=] Thanks again!

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    Love your site, and am looking it over at length…but just FYI, don’t love the social networking banner on the left–it rides along, covering up the text on left side of your page. Seems no way to get it out of the way, either. ;^)

  8. Aimee Nguyen says

    This is so helpful! I was just writing a short story to read to some children, but I felt that I needed to portray the character’s thoughts with more depth. This post gave me new techniques to try out in the future. Thank you. :)

  9. says

    always i used to read smaller articles that as well clear their motive, and that is also happening
    with this piece of writing which I am reading now.

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