Italic Thoughts

Writers often experience doubts about whether to put a character’s thoughts in italics. They see the usage while reading other books, and it seems like a striking idea. The shift in font style alone sets the material apart, as though permitting a view of what’s going on in another sphere, inside the character’s head.

As someone who is constantly looking for ways to help an author get inside his character, I’ll admit that although I know the rules governing italic text, I don’t care much about them. I just want to see thoughts written down on paper. If I have any caveats, it’s that italic text is harder to read, and long italic passages can lead to reader fatigue.

My hope is always that once an author starts to compose thoughts in italics, she will come to realize after a while that she doesn’t need them. Why can that transition be made? For one thing, thoughts usually are told using the 1st-person as a subject. For instance, “I never realized how neurotic she is.” If you’re telling the story as an omniscient narrator, the shift to “I” tips off the reader right away that the sentence is being thought. 

The use of the present tense—“she is” in the example—is another signal. Any shift in tense confuses the reader, so he is alerted just by pausing to question why the shift occurred. 

You can also add an identifying tag before or after the sentence: “Natalia thought, I never realized how neurotic she is.” Notice that I didn’t put quotation marks before and after the sentence. You can do that, of course, if that helps you get inside the character.

My overall feeling can be summed up as: the simpler, the better. No quotation marks, no italics. By not using elements that gussy up the text, you are permitted to range more freely from outer to inner state. The reader rides along in that seamless flow. Without any limits, your story becomes “owned” by the character. Action and reflection are all part of the same package. When you consider that the world is what we make it, you’re truly mirroring how a person experiences life.

Exercise: Write out your lead character’s thoughts in italics for an entire chapter or draft. The whole idea is: get those thoughts down on paper, so you can do something with them. What you’ll find, if the character starts thinking on a regular basis, is that you get used to the rhythm of checking in with the character’s mental state. You set up a habitual mode of writing that the reader naturally follows. You don’t need italics because you’ve accustomed the reader to going inside the character’s head.

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” 
—William Wordsworth

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.