Thinking to Myself

Using the reflexive pronoun (myself, himself/herself) is a good way for an author to open a window onto a character’s thoughts. That’s because we talk to ourselves in our daily life all the time. In writing, such usage can mirror dialogue, which most fledgling authors write very well. Yet you can use gradations from an approach that echoes a direct quotation to that using indirect narration.

Here is an example of the direct approach: “I’m no hometown hero, he told himself wryly. When I left home, I was a runaway with holes in my sneakers.” You can see how natural this thought feels. The character almost could be speaking under his breath.

Another method is to use italics to punch up a character’s thought. A single reflexive sentence told in the first-person, italicized, can grab a reader with its immediacy. Try this: “Her cheekbone radiated with pain. I have to get out. That’s what she’d been telling herself for weeks now.” If the key sentence is left in the third-person, “She had to get out,” you do achieve a certain impact. But not like the sudden shift in voice.

On the converse side, sometimes remaining in the third-person voice produces a better ring of truth. The distance keeps the thoughts from sounding too shrill or whiny. This point especially applies to thoughts that run more than a single sentence. For example: “Paul could feel his heart start to pound. He wasn’t ready to see his father. He never would be. Come on, he told himself, let’s go do this.”

Compare that to the I-voice version: “I could feel my heart start to pound. I wasn’t ready to see my father. I never would be. Come on, I told myself, let’s go do this.” With this rendition, you can feel the histrionic tone, almost reaching hysteria. Oh gosh, woe is me. You’re better off with the third-person’s more neutral tone.

The key with any of these usages is to use your inner ear. When does immediacy work best, and when should the narrative stay in the middle distance? If you strike out boldly, using the first-person voice, but then in reading it over say, “Naw, that’s ridiculous,” don’t throw it out. Try changing the voice first, and see if that couches your initial impulse in a way that passes your test.

Exercise: When you start to gain fluency with the reflexive pronoun, you can then move beyond it. You start writing sentences like: “In the past year she had grown up. She was no longer a child. She could see the world the way it really was.” To put “she told herself” within this passage would be strained. Yet that’s what this character is doing, talking to herself.

“My role in society, or any artist's or poet's role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.”
—John Lennon

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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