Voices in my (protagonist’s) head

F***,” Ross swore to himself as soon as he’d closed the door to the loo. Another quietly hissed, “F***,” as he wrenched the metal faucet handle open, and a third as he clenched his fingers beneath the flow of water.

Shouldn’t have come what are you doing here you don’t belong Sams right

And, of a sudden looking up into the mirror above the sink, he saw the reflection of that oddly proper but still charming wave walker, with the blond hair and clear blue eyes, in the dark shirt and silk tie, and stopped.

No,” he told that man in a whisper. “It’s just one night. You can do this.” He splashed some water on his face, to cool the flush of red behind his eyes, and looked into the mirror again with a determined stare. “Just keep your bloody mouth shut.”

Apologies for the coarse language above, but I wanted to illustrate a technique used quite a bit in fiction: the inner monologue. Or, put more basically, thoughts in a character’s head.

Gehirn, medial - beschriftet lat

I try not to dwell in a character’s head overmuch. There are times when it’s convenient to make a point, but I’m well aware that the inner monologue can be a crutch, where the danger is I’ll be informing the reader (telling) of a character’s motivations or feelings rather than letting the character’s actions make those motivations and feelings known more organically (showing).

Almost worse than this fallback to telling, though, is when I see some writers use the inner thought convention in a way that is so formal it becomes unnatural, cumbersome, even. Thoughts become like words spoken aloud, as you might see in a comic book thought bubble…

Tbb

…when I don’t know of anyone who thinks in structured sentences.

Now, I don’t take issue with a simple thought such as “War sucks,” which is basic and visceral: the emotion is broken down pretty much to its core as can be done. What I do roll my eyes at is a chunk of text broken out as a character’s inner thoughts that is structured so much like a proper paragraph that it could just as well be spoken. That it probably should be spoken:

Perhaps I should go to her, standing there in front of her locker, and ask her if she’d like to go to the dance with me. Just go up and ask her. How hard could that be? If she says yes, maybe I could bring her flowers, too, to show her how much I like her. But what kind should I get? She’s said peonies are her favorite, but what if the florist doesn’t have any peonies? What are peonies, anyway? Oh, blast! Why does young love have to be so complicated?

This is overdoing it, of course, but you get the idea. How boring is that, to be told outright – through an inner monologue, no less! – what the character is thinking and feeling? How much more interesting would it be to guess a little:

He shifted on his feet as he watched her giggle among her friends. Even the way she opened the locker door was full of grace, fingers clutching her books like they were delicate flowers.

Didn’t she like flowers? He’d heard her talk once about peonies – whatever they were – in some conversation or other. Maybe, if he came to her with those before he asked her to the dance, she might notice him, for once….

Actually, I’m not sure if that’s better or worse. 😉 I do know it’s more interesting to write, though, so hopefully it’s more interesting to read.

The inner monologue is a perfectly acceptable convention. Just remember that it shouldn’t be your answer to all explanations. Thoughts are in our heads for a reason. Words from our lips just the same.

Mouth

Do you employ the inner monologue? If so, how? And, which of those examples do you prefer, if either?

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12 thoughts on “Voices in my (protagonist’s) head

    • Thanks, Jenny!

      I think there’s such a thing as being too much in a character’s head – it can slow down the story, and I fall into the danger of just telling the reader everything outright – but it is occasionally fun to take on that inner voice.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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    • Thanks, Oscar. Yes, that’s true – and something I struggle with whenever I write for a protagonist. Because the easier way of telling is just so easy! 😀

      I will take a look at the blog. I’m sorry; I’d thought I’d added you to my subscriptions before. That’s rectified, now. 🙂

      Thanks again!

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  1. I think your ‘revised’ example is awesome! That is the perfect example of showing us what is going on in a character’s head without all the inner dialogue. His voice came through nicely too, especially with the –whatever they were– I automatically pictured him in my mind.

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    • Thanks, Kate!

      I think I need to do more of the stepping away from what I write, because, after a while, it all looks samey. I’m glad that second example does what it’s supposed to do, though. I kept thinking before I posted, “What if this is just the same thing, with different words?” LOL!

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  2. I’ve taken a long, long break from writing inner monologue. I hardly even touch it anymore. When I tried going back to my fic, I felt uncomfortable trying to write inner monologue. I don’t feel so bad when I use it as a garnish, though. Great, now I really can’t go back and finish that fic.

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    • Like you say, inner monologue used as garnish (I like that, actually!) is fine. It can be really fun to get directly into a character’s head that way, and a slight change of pace for the reader, especially if you’re not writing in first person POV. I just don’t think it should be used for all explanations, like you’d see in some comic books. A friend and I still laugh about those thought bubbles that were written like, Must…Turn…Key…before Doctor Simeon can use it to destroy the capitol! Ugh. I mean, it’s just so clunky! It’s also super-lazy to do in a comic, but that’s a post for another day.

      I don’t see how you can’t go back and finish your fic, now, though…?

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      • Not sure I can think up more crazy things for my Souji to think and I got used to not writing out thoughts. But playing P4G may make not writing more a little hard. 😀
        And yeah, those thought bubbles you mentioned do feel a little clunky. Of course, unless it’s used for humor!

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  3. This is exactly a conundrum I’m facing with part of my WIP Summer at the Crossroads. I spend a bit of time in one character’s head, and it might be too much for readers . But she’s also someone who cannot speak these thoughts aloud to anyone. Literally—if she did, she would be breaking laws and agency rules.

    But for “normal” characters? You’ve given some great examples of keeping internal though interesting and realistic.

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    • That’s a complex one, JM! Your characters don’t sound easy. 😉

      I hadn’t considered the possibility of loner characters, either, when I wrote this post. I guess that would be another example where there’s a lot of time spent in the character’s head. I think it’s warranted in cases like that, and the one you mention.

      (I also noticed your comment using the italics code. For WP comments, try using the emphatic em code rather than the italics i code. That seems to work for me.)

      Thanks for commenting!

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    • Woops. Never mind about the coding. I just read it in the actual comments section (rather than the quick notifications reader), and the italics code worked fine.
      My bad.

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