How to Write Your Characters’ Thoughts

I’ve been asking for questions this month, and you all have come through with questions on everything from how to create an author website to the details of dialog and other writing craft-related topics. A surprisingly large number of questions had to do with how to write characters’ thoughts in stories told in different points of view (POV).


It’s an excellent question! Should thoughts be written in first person or third person? Past or present tense? Should you italicize? Should you put thoughts in quotes? Read on to learn how you can communicate what your characters are thinking–without confusing your readers. This post will focus on first-person POV.

First: What’s Point of View (POV)?

Point of view refers to where the author places the “camera” when writing a scene. First-person POV means that the camera is seeing what the main character (“I”) sees, thinks, and knows:

First Person: I spotted Susan walking down the street. 

Third-person limited POV means that the camera is limited to what your main character (“he” or “she”) sees, thinks, and knows, but you aren’t looking directly through that character’s eyeballs:

Third Person: He spotted Susan walking down the street. 

Second-person POV’s claim to fame is the choose-your-own adventure novel, but this isn’t a viewpoint you’ll see very often in standard fiction. It uses the reader (the second person “you”) as the viewpoint character:

Second Person: You spotted Susan walking down the street. 

Finally, omniscient POV uses an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator to relate the story. Although omniscient POV was common in classic literature, you won’t see it that often in contemporary fiction.

First Person POV

This is probably the easiest POV in which to share what your main character is thinking, because the narrative is basically your main character’s running commentary on events. You can make this point of view work for you by taking care to insert your character’s opinions, blind spots, judgments, biases, fears, loves, etc. into the writing.

There are several ways you can reveal your main character’s thoughts when writing in first person.

Ask a question.

I cringed. Why did bad news always have a way of leaking out?” —Fact of Life #31, by Denise Vega

Here the author shows the main character’s reaction both with her physical response (cringing) and with the question she asks silently rather than out loud. Notice that Denise doesn’t use any dialog tags for the character’s thought. The reader knows who is speaking (Kat, the book’s narrator) because Kat has been the only one speaking.

Report a thought.

The above could have been written:

I cringed, wondering why bad news always had a way of leaking out.”

This approach uses a tag–“wondering.” You’ll notice that most of the examples in this post don’t use a tag. That’s because a tag creates a little bit more distance between the reader and the narrator.

Want to show your character’s thoughts?
Ditch dialog tags; let VOICE do the talking!


Play out an internal argument or show a character’s inner struggle.

I’ll show you some post-birth delirium. I felt like leaping over the desk and pouncing on her, sinking my three thousand dollars’ worth of orthodontia into her shoulder. Instead, I gritted my teeth and breathed in deeply through my nose. I would not let her get to me. I was not attached to this place anymore.”–Fact of Life #31, by Denise Vega

This example is like the first, in that there’s no “tag” for the character’s thought in the first sentence. However, Denise adds italics, probably because the word “you” could possibly trip up a reader. With the italics, it’s clear that Kat is mentally articulating this sentence—almost speaking it aloud, but not quite.

Why no italics in the rest of the paragraph? We’re still in Kat’s POV and the last 2 sentences–“I would not let her get to me. I was not attached to this place anymore.”–shift back into Kat’s inner dialog. Check out the verb tenses Denise uses in the italicized versus the unitalicized thoughts, though:

  • I’ll show you some post-birth delirium. –Present Tense
  • I would not let her get to me. I was not attached to this place anymore. –Past Tense 

Which is more immediate? The first, right?

Denise uses the italics to show a subtle difference between these two passages. The first is written the way a line of dialog would be–except without quotes, in italics, to show that we’re getting Kat’s thought transmitted directly from her head, with no editing or explaining. In the second, the “camera” pulls back a little. We’re back in the book’s normal voice–still hearing Kat’s thoughts, but without the same immediacy.

Reveal voice with a sarcastic—but unspoken—comeback.

Like there would be a next time…Yeah. The invitations to assist would come pouring in.”–Fact of Life #31, by Denise Vega

Like the last example, this one seems to show the narrator’s direct thoughts, but without italics. Why not?

IMO, because the italics/no italics question is a matter of style and preference. In the previous example, italics help to prevent confusion when the narrator says “you.” Here, it’s clear that we’re getting the narrator’s thoughts, so the italics aren’t needed.

I love italics and my first (unpublished) novel is filled with italicized thoughts. Since then, I’ve learned that most editors tend to frown on their use–so use italics sparingly, if at all!

Show a character figuring something out.

For the first  time I realize I have no idea what I’m going to do. This is the thing that smashes me. My whole life I have always had a plan, but now I have no plan. Only a raging need. A need for what? What can I hope for?”–Teach Me, by R. A. Nelson

I’ll be back soon with a follow-up on how to write thoughts in a third-person POV story. Meanwhile, you might find these posts helpful:

Hope you’re having a great summer with plenty of time for life, fun, and (of course!) writing!

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