Ninie Hammon’s Blog for Writers

Three Ways to Use Thoughts to Create Unforgettable Characters

Posted: October 16, 2013, 5:50PM



“Have dinner with me and we can talk about what Karen said.”

 I was too thunderstruck to speak.

“My intentions are honorable. I’m not inviting you to go snipe hunting or cow tipping or back to my place to see my etchings.”

Don’t do it! Make up an excuse. You’re sick. You’re tired. Your left leg just fell off. You have to wash your yak. Something! Say NO.

“Yes, I’d love to. Have dinner, I mean. Can’t wait.”

The Memory Closet



In the 1997 movie Liar Liar, Jim Carey plays a character who’s been magically compelled to tell the truth, who cannot lie or even mislead—whatever he thinks comes out his mouth. Novelists have even greater magical power. We can show what a character is really thinking regardless of the words that come out his mouth.

We can take our readers on a journey inside a character’s mind.

That makes inner dialogue—thoughts—a powerful tool to create unforgettable characters. Through thoughts, we can show Loyal Reader not merely what’s happening to a character but what the character thinks about what’s happening to him. Thoughts can provide information only the character knows, can show how the character has changed over the course of the story, can lighten or darken a scene or raise the stakes in it, can provide insight into all manner of things that don’t readily translate into action.

Loyal Reader may not be able to identify with the conflict in your story, but he can identify—sympathize and empathize—with the internal turmoil your character experiences because of it.

Here are just three of the dozens of ways thoughts can create greater depth in your characters and build a bond with your reader.

1. Thoughts reveal emotions or beliefs too painful or private to share.  More importantly, thoughts can explain how the character got to that place in his life.

He tried to puzzle it out. Because it mattered. A man ought to know where that crossroads was. When his life had been steaming down a channel in one direction at full throttle and then without warning stopped, turned and went down another river altogether.

Had he stopped believing even before he left for ’Nam? Wasn’t he merely going through the motions even then?

No, he’d believed, but it had been passive belief. Belief set in neutral. Just coasting. And you couldn’t take that kind of belief into battle with you. That kind of belief wouldn’t sustain you when Mattingly got his arm blown off and the squirting blood splashed in your face, and you hunkered down in the hole with him, trying to stop the bleeding. And then it did stop.

That kind of belief was nothing but the dregs left when real belief had leaked out a hole in the bucket. When Grayson really needed it, reached into the bucket for it, to scoop some up in a cup and feed it to men desperate for it—to drink some of it himself—the cup scraped on bare metal. Made a sound Grayson could hear now, deep in his soul.

When Butterflies Cry

2. The thoughts of a character grappling with a life-and-death situation show his internal struggle and reveal the cowardice or courage in the action he takes.

The engine driving Grayson’s thoughts screeched to a stop and all the thoughts behind slammed into it—bam, bam, bam. Was he nuts? Riley was facing the other way, but one wrong move, or maybe Riley just decides to walk this direction to take a leak—he’d spot Grayson and put a bullet in his brain.

So Plan B was?

There was no Plan B. Either he bailed out, left his brother to die, or he gave this a shot. Grayson’s heart began to bang, a stone pestle pounding a stone mortar, hammering his courage into dust. He turned quickly and crept off into the woods to find mud to blacken his face before he could change his mind.

When Butterflies Cry

3. A character’s thoughts reveal how the character sees the world—which may or may not be an accurate view. Thoughts can even grant the reader a window into a disturbed, delusional mind where reality is a stranger.

Yesheb felt strength pulse through his veins with every heartbeat as he reached the wooden sidewalk that ran the length of the pathetic cluster of buildings, deserted now as rain pelted them and puddled in potholes in the street. The power of his mind was so great he felt himself glide through the torrent between the raindrops and now stood perfectly dry as he reached for the knob on the door of St. Elmo’s Mercantile.

The bell on the Mercantile door jingled and Pedro looked up to see Yesheb standing in the doorway drenched to the skin, dripping water in a pool around him as if he had made no effort at all to stay dry.

The Last Safe Place

Of course, thoughts must be as much in your character’s voice as what he or she says aloud. Though you DON’T use quotation marks, there are half a dozen different ways to let the reader know that what follows are the character’s thoughts: dialogue tags, italics, italics with dialogue tags, italics without dialogue tags. The simplest is simply to say so.

So there was a tumor growing up there in his brain that could kill him. Theo thought for a moment. He’d call the tumor … Cornelius. Always did hate that name. A thing as important in your life as what could kill you had ought to have a name but no sense wasting a good one on it.

The Last Safe Place


Whatever method you choose, you need to keep it consistent through-out the book. I’ve used different methods in different books, but my preference is italics.

The smell of the Vicks and Mentholatum Bobo slathered on herself made my eyes water. I hoped Dusty was sufficiently upwind.

“She thinks you’re the Border Patrol and you’ve come to take Julia back to Mexico,” I told him.

“Julia ain’t done nothing wrong here,” Bobo whined, playing the poor-little-old-lady card. “She ain’t broke no law ’cept being a greaser and a wet-back.”

I cringed at the racial slurs.

Dusty, I’d like you to meet my grandmother. She’s a bigot, she stinks and she’s named after a clown.

I stepped in before Bobo could jam her foot further down her throat.

“Sheriff,” I said, “I think you need to come back next week.”

The Memory Closet


And I hope you’ll come back next week, too, when we’ll talk more about unforgettable characters. Leave a comment below and tell me what you think … about thoughts—a character’s, that is.

Write on!



Rui dos Remedios February 15, 2014, 7:04AM

Thanks for the excellent insights. Does the choice of narrator impact the use of thoughts? ie 1st vs 3rd?   Reply

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