Monday, November 25, 2013

How to Reveal Thoughts of Other Characters When Writing In First Person

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

A writer emailed me to ask, "As I'm writing my book in first person, how will I be able to express the feelings of other characters effectively? Especially the feelings and thoughts they don't say?"

This is a great question. Because the more you learn about good craftabout showing instead of telling and not head hoppingthe harder you realize it is to write a good book.

All my books are in first person, so I've wrestled with this issue a lot. Here are my thoughts:

Misunderstandings are a good thing.

A common struggle for new writers is that they want the reader to understand everything right away. That's why new writers struggle so much with backstory and telling, because you don't want the reader to feel confused. 

But a little confusion is an okay thing. When handled well, it can create intrigue.

So if your main character is struggling to understand why another character is behaving the way they are, that can work to your advantage.

Your main character is always guessing.

How can you tell your sister is mad? Or that your mom had a rough day at work? How do you know if your dad is feeling stressed? Is it when the person says, "Hi, Jenna. I'm feeling so angry today because my co-worker took credit for work that I did."

I'm guessing that with the people close to you, you can figure it out from the signals they're sending. Like how they're giving you one word answers when usually they would say a few sentences. Or the way they won't stop biting their nails.

Your main character will experience the same things. She'll wonder why Charles is looking at her like that or why Tara is being so quiet. Just like you and I walk away from conversations thinking, "Yikes, they woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning," your character will think those same things.

Be strategic about how the other character reveals his or herself

A temptation for writers is to have the other character (the non-POV character) finally blurt out their story so everyone will know what exactly is going on. Sometimes blurting is okay, but you want to make sure you don't use it too often and that you set it up logically. (Here's another post that talks some about "strategy" in dialogue.)

If a character has decided to share something they're feeling or an experience they've had with your main character, you need to provide a reason. It may not need to be stated in the story, but you need to know it. Maybe the character thinks this will help the main character with a tough decision? Or maybe the character wants to manipulate the main character into doing something? Whatever it is, make sure you think it through.

Remember to vary how characters tell stories.

For example, I've noticed my mom tends to feed me information in reverse order. A conversation between us might go like this:

Mom: I just wanted to call and let you know that Grandma has been released from the hospital and is back at Park Edge nursing home.
Me: Oh, I don't know she was living at Park Edge.
Mom: Well, they kicked her out of Sunny Farm because she refused to cooperate with her medicine.
Me: She was at Sunny Farm? The last I heard she was living at Brookfield...
Mom: We decided we didn't like Brookfield because...

This happens all the time with my mom. She gives me the end first, and then I have to dig out the other information. My sister-in-law, on the other hand, likes to build everything up for dramatic effect. 

Use your main character's filter

When I'm writing first drafts, I often ignore that everything needs to go through my main character's filter. That means when it's editing time, I'm left with problems like this:

My nails bite into my palms. “But that’s a week away.”
“Don’t ask me to add something else to this week’s schedule, okay, El? I can’t take it.” Mom’s fingertips press into the nape of her neck where her head aches. 

The problem with this of course is that Ellie can't know that her mom's head aches unless her mom comes out and says it. She can only guess. So I revised it to this:

“Don’t ask me to add something else to this week’s schedule, okay, El? I can’t take it.” Mom’s fingertips press into the nape of her neck, the same place where my stress headaches strike.
Ellie isn't come right out and saying, "My mom has a stress headache," but her observations plant the idea in the reader's mind.

Here are a few other ways I've hinted at other character's thoughts:

In The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet, Ellie's aunt has just dropped a bomb on the family that she's moving:
"That's . . . amazing, Karen." Mom sounds as stunned as I feel. "What, exactly, is in Phoenix?"
Ellie is feeling stunned and that's the way she's reading her mom's emotion too.

In this next example, Ellie is walking with her friend Chase and has noticed he's being extra quiet. She's wondering why when he asks her if she wants to come over for dinner next week:
"No big deal if you can't, but it's kinda my birthday. My mom's making a special dinner and asked if I wanted to invite someone. So . . ." He shrugs and jams his hands deep in his pockets.
But not before I note the tremor in them. 
Poor Chase is terribly nervous. He's using a lot of passive language ("it's kinda my birthday") to make it seem like this is no big deal, but his body language says otherwise.

And here's one last example (this one from The Unlikely Debut of Ellie Sweet) where Ellie is observing two friends interact. She doesn't understand what's going on, but she notes enough clues for the reader to put it together:
As they come to a stop beside our bench, Palmer smiles at Harper. "Hey, Harper. I didn't know you worked here."
"Well, I do." The gleam in her eye and the set of her jaw are far from friendly. They seem almost challenging.
Palmer blinks at her. "Okay, then." He turns back to me. "You need a ride home?"
Again, your story loses effect if you start saying things like, "Harper is rude to Palmer. Palmer is surprised by her rudeness." You want to look for body language and dialogue clues that your POV character would notice.

If you have questions, I'm happy to help! Or if you have a sticky spot in your manuscript where you're trying to figure out how to communicate a non-POV character's thoughts, post it in the comments section below and we'll work together.


  1. Thank you! Very helpful for first person writers...I've been wondering about this lately and working on the body language part of it. Definitely putting this into practice pronto. :)

    1. hey nice post mehn. I love your style of blogging here. The way you writes reminds me of an equally interesting post that I read some time ago on Daniel Uyi's blog: 12 Timeless Common Sense Kokahinopsis .
      keep up the good work.


  2. Thanks for the post! This is extremely helpful.

  3. This is such a great question! Wonderful post, Stephanie. I've written two novels in first person, and this was definitely one of the biggest struggles when I was writing them. Another question I always had when writing in first person was, "Is showing my POV character's thoughts telling? Do I need to try and always let the reader know what they're thinking by emotions or expressions, instead of direct thought?" I wasn't sure when telling a MC's thoughts was good and when it was lazy writing.

    Thanks, Stephanie!

    ~Sarah Faulkner

    1. That's such a tricky thing! I think you need both, honestly. As firmly as I believe in showing rather than telling, sometimes telling is necessary. (I smiled, I laughed, etc. It's fine to tell those things versus trying to show them. [My mouth opened and a sound of laughter came through it.])

      Direct thought in first person is great, just don't italicize it. For example:

      Was he crazy? "That's dumb, John."

      is a fine way to show what your character is thinking.

      Does that answer your question, Sarah?

  4. This is a really helpful advice. Thanks! Looks like I'm going to go back to my draft to see what I can fix...

  5. Thanks Stephanie!
    For answering my question. In such detail..(; I really appreciate your kindness of taking out time to help me(and others with same problem)

  6. Thanks!!
    Although I usually write in third person this is still helpful.

  7. This is so helpful for me, since I write in first person. I struggle in this so much, so this is bound to helps me a ton! THANK YOU!!!! :D

    BTW, I CANNOT believe that the 100/4/100 ends on SATURDAY!!!! :P What am i going to do...?

  8. my problem is that my main character is terrible clumsy and awkward, but how can I through first person, explain that? he can't play volleyball, and that's one of the main points in the story. I want to bring out the obnoxious person in him and to make the one other girl really annoyed. how can I show this?????

    1. Give him a reason to be obnoxious. Since you're writing in first person, it will be easier to show the reader his motives for being annoying. There are many ways to show her annoyance as well, like blowing the hair out of her eyes, folding her arms, walking away, glaring...the list goes on. The best way to show he can't play volleyball is to have him doing it and fail miserably, much to his embarrassment. Don't be afraid to embarrass your character! Emotional pain is meaty and good. Hope this helps :)

  9. This is awesome! I suck with body-language in my first drafts...but when I rewrite, I take out all the "he said happily" and show how he IS happy. Then he can just "say". (Or have a beat.) It's a tricky one and you explained it SO well. Definitely bookmarking this post for later. :)

    1. My first drafts are like that too, Cait. Edits are a wonderful thing :)

  10. Sometimes I don't know how to explain the body language I want my characters to have. I try and act it out, but it doesn't help with the describing it. Any solutions?

    1. When you're reading novels, I would start taking note of how authors describe body language and figure out how you can make it your own.

  11. Hi Stephanie. A reply you give in this thread got me wondering..I'm not writing a first person POV novel, so what is protocol for character's thoughts? I think italicising thoughts gives the thought a feel of detachment from reality (which they are). What are your thoughts?

    1. I understand the temptation to put thoughts in italics. There are good times to do it, but it can quickly be overdone. Here's the link to a post I wrote on it awhile back:

      I hope that's helpful, Ben!