May 10, 2012

Thoughts on Thinking

 "There is no doubt that some people who look intelligent, are intelligent; and there is no doubt that some people who look idiotic, are idiots."

- arthur c. custance, genesis and early man

But whether idiotic or intelligent, all people do think after one fashion or another.  Self-conscious thought is one feature of Man that is uniquely his, an element of what it means to possess the Imago Dei, and I don't believe any scientist or doctor has yet proved that it can ever be lost to a human being. 

This is not, however, to be a particularly philosophical post - all breathe a sigh of relief!  I want instead to take a peek at how this profoundly common action of thinking plays a role in the lives of our characters. Naturally, the way our characters think will be reflected in the way they speak; but it comes out even more starkly and with less polish in what the Experts call "internal dialogue."  (I'm not sure who thought that was a good phrase to use for it.  It makes me think of some gastronomic complaint.)  These are simply the character's private thoughts, the ones he never actually voices, but which are recorded so that the reader can get a peep inside the his mind.  In "stream-of-consciousness" stories, as far as I can make out, the story is driven and formed entirely by the narrator's thoughts; but in most novels, the internal dialogue is limited to a few italicized lines here and there when the protagonist's thoughts need to be known.

Internal dialogue is a very useful thing, especially when you feel yourself drifting away from the narrator's point-of-view, but until recently I had never stopped and considered it in detail.  Internal dialogue was simply the character's thoughts, and I wrote them as they came to me and seemed necessary.  However, the other day as I was looking over my writing it occurred to me that neither real people nor characters think in exactly the same manner; the voice of one protagonist's thoughts will likely not be the same as the voice of another protagonist's thoughts.  (I do keep coming back to voice, don't I?)

For instance, at the time when this realization popped up, I was comparing the two narrators of The White Sail's Shaking - Tip Brighton and Marta Rais.  They are very different characters and neither talk nor think in the same manner.  Tip talks to himself, aloud and in his own head, so that in many of his thoughts he refers to himself in the second person.  Marta, on the other hand, is much more normal: she thinks of herself as an "I."  This actually makes her more difficult to write.  In the scenes where Tip is alone, there can be that invisible "second character" - his own projection of himself - to allow for some dialogue; with Marta, I have discovered that I can't use the same technique.  Instead, I'll probably have to go back through her scenes and give her something physical to talk to, like Scipio.

Another interesting thing to consider is how one character's way of thinking can develop through a story.  Even more words seem to be written about "character arc" than are written about "internal dialogue," but it seems to me that when as a protagonist matures, he or she has to mature in the fundamental area of thought as well as in action.  Although the character himself does not essentially change from page one to the end (just as we don't essentially change from childhood to adulthood), every aspect of his life is altered to one degree or another.  The very manner in which he looks at the world will be different, maybe vastly, maybe only a little.

What comes first to mind could either be an example or a counter-example, depending on how you look at it.  Whichever it is, it comes in the form of Margaret Mitchell's much-reviled character Scarlett O'Hara.  Throughout the story there is a recurring theme in Scarlett's thoughts: "I'll think about (whatever) tomorrow."  It comes up repeatedly and reflects Scarlett's unwillingness to stop and consider her own actions, to consider the world around her in an at least semi-objective manner.  This theme carries through all the way to the end and to the climactic scene, where Rhett has left her and Scarlett is sitting alone in her house, thinking about what she can possibly do next.  And then she recalls Tara.  Tara, which she loves above everything else, which is more important to her than anyone or anything in the world.  She'll go back to Tara.  And with that of course comes the famous last line: "After all, tomorrow is another day."

This ending drives home the fact that Scarlett has not changed - and yet, at the same time, it shows that she has changed.  Only a little, I'll grant you, but in the phrasing of that last quote there is a subtle development.  Previously her line was, "I'll think about it tomorrow."  At the end it becomes, "Tomorrow is another day."  And there is a difference in that, because in a way she is facing rather than hiding from the future.  Even a character like Scarlett does have something of an arc.

So internal dialogue, gross as the phrase may be, is really a fascinating and useful little thing.  It doesn't usually play a massive part in a story, but the part it does play is important and just plain interesting to consider.  How do your characters think?  Looking back over the course of a story, have you ever been surprised to see developments that you never planned?  I certainly have - and I think it may be one of the most rewarding aspects of writing.


  1. So I'm not the only one! I thought internal dialogue sounded gross too. BTW I'm really loving your blog. I'm working my way through the back posts and a lot of them have inspired me to do different things with my writing.

  2. Hi,Abigail! I've been reading your blog for about a month now,although this is my first time commenting,and I must say it is probably on the top of my list of favorite writing blogs! I really enjoy reading what you write and how you write. It is VERY refreshing to read a blog of someone who writes intelligently and who uses a higher form of speech than one normally does in this day and age.

    I am a writer as well. I do not have a blog as of yet but,Lordwilling,I will in a year or so. Until I read this post I had never really thought about the different ways my characters think as opposed to one another. For instance,in a story I am writing,the Heroine usually thinks in second person whereas her twin brother refers to himself as "I" like your Marta does. I most certainly agree with you that this renders the character's way of thinking far more difficult to write and have everything flow smoothly.

  3. The protagonist's inner thoughts play a large part in Firmament: Radialloy, so I found this post very thought-provoking (no pun intended). Thank you, Abigail!

  4. Anne-girl - They, whoever They may be, really ought to have come up with a better phrase than "internal dialogue." It sounds so nasty.

    I'm glad you have been enjoying the older Scribbles posts, and especially that you've found them inspiring. That's the best compliment a writer could pay this blog - that it inspires them and makes them look at writing from a different perspective. So thank you very much!

    Annie - It's nice to meet you! It's always a pleasant surprise to hear from one of the "silent readers." I'm honored that Scribbles ranks so high on your list, and I hope you'll let me know when you create your own blog so I can come by and read it.

    Ah, so I'm not the only one who has found differences in narrators' thoughts! The discovery was completely out of the blue for me, but it is interesting to think about. It's nice to be able to identify something like that, too, because it makes it (slightly) easier to iron out problems. Out of curiosity, are your characters identical twins? I've never considered it before, but it seems like writing from the perspectives of identical twins might be very unique.

    Grace - Glad you thought so (pun and all)! (And at the risk of repeating myself, I've got to say that you always seem to come up with fascinating titles.)

  5. AH; excellent thoughts. *wink*
    Gastronomic complaint... internal dialogue... heavens, it DOES sound rather like an ailment. O_o I have a LOT of 'gastronomic complaints' in my novels, they help so much. Especially when it's something the character would not say out loud and the reader must know it anyway.

  6. Hello again Abigail! It was lovely seeing a comment from you addressed to myself. :) The fact that you always reply to your reader's comments, no matter how short they might be, is one of the many aspects I like about your blog. That, and how you have Name/URL as an option for commenters. Several of the writing blogs I read do not, sadly.

    So, to answer your question, the characters in my book are fraternal twins. But, even though they are not identical, they are still very alike in appearance, behavior, and what they think (although not necessarily how they think, as I've mentioned before) since they are siblings and twins to boot! However, I do agree with you that writing from the perspective of identical twins would probably be quite interesting.

    When I have a blog of my own someday, I will certainly drop by and tell you. I'm excited that I already have a prospective reader!

    I hope you have a lovely day. :)

  7. Mirriam - I've noticed that in The Shadows Fall! It works well; it's nice to get in on Sienna's thoughts, especially early on when she's trying to cope with, oh, everything.

    Annie - I really enjoy interacting with Scribbles' readers. And for myself, I know how dull it is to comment and then not get a reply; it makes one wonder if the blogger is reading the comments at all! I wanted to make Scribbles different in that regard.

    Your comment made me think of the last part of a book I just finished, Genesis and Early Man. The author briefly deals with some widespread cultural ideas regarding twins (mostly ancient cultures); it's amazing how many superstitions sprang up! And then, far less philosophically, my mind went to Anne of Green Gables - "Twins seem to be my lot in life."

  8. Thank goodness for people who like to do things different! I for one quite appreciate how you interact with your readers.

    I've actually never really heard of any superstitions regarding twins. Except for something I heard somewhere about how the people in this one country (it might have been Libya) considered twins a curse and would throw them away to die. However I may be misinformed, it has been a long while since I've heard the story. It is very dreadful and sad how people would take something just a little bit different from what is normal and create such horrendous tales concerning it! Just like how, in the dark ages, often times people who did anything with herbs were drowned as witches.

    Poor Anne. ;)


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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