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!

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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. 😀

    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!

  7. says

    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

    I’ve been scanning the internet for some help with this. I have a certain habit of writing in a way that the narration sounds like something my MC would say, but it’s in 3rd limited. A few people have told me that I’m doing it wrong because I’m mixing 1st and 3rd narration, but I disagree. Seeing as how I’m no writing expert, just learning as I go, I wanted some additional opinions on the matter. It’s amazing how few articles I’ve found. This has been the closest one so far. Below is an example.

    They walked back to the buggy … cart … whatever it was called, leaving Dainty behind with her arms and shoulders weighed down by fifty pounds of gear. She growled under her breath and followed, thinking maybe she would throw a wrench at the back of one of their heads.

    “I got another idea too. Thinking we could use the metal sheets off that old building out toward the city. Could put up some nice walls. Might help keep out the creepers.” Tinker rambled on.

    Dingo glanced back at Dainty. “There’s a thought.” He shot her a look that made her want to follow through with the wrench-tossing idea.

    The lock she had on her mouth broke. “You got something you want to say to me, Dildo?”
    He pulled himself into the cart-buggy thing and shook his head. “Got nothing to say to you. Hurry up and get the gear loaded so we can get back.”

    • says

      Hi Sophie, I’m with you–I think you’re writing in third-person limited. Everything you describe comes through the lens of something Dainty would see or hear or think:

      * “They walked…leaving Dainty behind…”
      * “She growled under her breath and followed, thinking…”
      * She hears Tinker speaking; the way you relay that info (“rambled on”) sounds like it’s Dainty’s voice
      * She reacts to Dingo’s look with another thought. Even though you don’t say “she thought,” “made her want to…” makes it clear that’s what she’s thinking

      I’m glad this post was helpful! Sorry to take so long to get back to you–I’ve been out of town. Great question!


  10. Archon1995 says

    Excellent, and timely! It’s tough to write a longer piece (novella at this point) with only two characters told from the viewpoint of one of them, and your advice absolutely helps.

    • says

      That does sound challenging! So glad this helps. Thanks for the comment :)

  11. Frank says

    Hi Cheryl. Very helpful article. I have one quick question. Can I change tense and pronoun within the though? I’m writing in third-person-limited, and in the past tense.

    So, for example, is it – I am a dead man, Bill thought. Or – He was a dead man, Bill thought. I tend to go for option one, so that the language closely reflects Bill’s actual thought, but some people have suggested that I’m breaking the rules of third-person and past tense by using I and am.

    Your expertise would be very welcome. Thank you.