"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.