How to Write Your Characters’ Thoughts: Third-Person Limited POV

Last week, we talked about writing characters’ thoughts when you have a first-person point of view (POV) story. It’s just as important to show what your characters are thinking when you’re writing in third person–but it can definitely be tricky! It’s easy to slip into a constant stream of he thought/she thought. Who wants that?


Today’s post gives 4 different ways to communicate your main character’s thoughts when writing in third-person limited POV.

Why only your main character’s thoughts, you ask? Because in third-person limited POV, the narrative is written as if someone is peering over your main character’s shoulder to tell the story. Unless your main character is a mind-reader, he or she won’t know what other characters are thinking. In omniscient POV, your all-knowing, all-seeing narrator has access to all your characters’ thoughts–but that’s a kettle of fish for another post.

Four Ways to Show Characters’ Thoughts

1. Communicate thoughts directly.

She sometimes wondered if any of them could actually play an instrument.”–City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare

This method uses “thinking tags” to identify thoughts the way dialog tags identify speech and speaker. These would include thought (eg, “He thought the lecture would never end”), but that’s not the only tag available to you. Others include:

  • Wondered
  • Dreamed
  • Wished
  • Guessed
  • Imagined
  • Assumed

If you want to show characters’ thoughts, reach beyond the obvious “he thought/she thought”


2. Communicate thoughts 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.”–City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare

Here the author doesn’t say “Clary knew” or “Clary thought”, just dives straight into the info. These are clearly Clary’s thoughts and opinions, though. She’s the driving voice of the narrative–and this passage is filled with her voice.

VOICE reminds readers who’s telling the story.
Who’s telling YOURS?


3. Paint a word picture.

In this passage, the author shows the main character’s (Clary’s) memory as an image:

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…”–City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare

Thoughts don’t always come to people as fully formed sentences. They may be purely visual, as in this example. The words on the page aren’t Clary’s word-for-word thoughts, but a description of her wordless memory.

This technique is especially fitting for Clary, an artist whose journal is filled with sketches. A musician’s thoughts might have a musical accompaniment. A soldier’s thoughts might include the throbbing backbeat of mortar shells. The sense of smell is linked to memory, so a particular scent might trigger powerful images and memories.

Sensory images are a powerful tool to help you show characters’ deepest thoughts, feelings, and memories.

4. Write thoughts as pseudo-dialog.

Okay, she told herself. Everything’s fine.”–City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare.

Notice that although Clary’s thoughts are written similarly to dialog, the author omits quotes. The lack of quotation marks makes it clear that she isn’t speaking aloud–we are hearing Clary’s unspoken thoughts.

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. In context, though, her thought only heightens the tension.

Showing a character’s unspoken thoughts lets you reveal her unspoken secrets, reveal blind spots, dig into motivations, and more. It’s also a great way to make your character more sympathetic to the reader. 

Do you have questions about writing? Let me know! I love answering your questions!

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