Using Italics For Character Thoughts – – A Good Idea?



This may seem ho-hum during a week of new year’s resolutions, bowl games, and the first nasty winter weather, but Nancy, a writer friend brought me a writer’s dilemma yesterday. We writers are beginning to see passages in books and stories in which a character’s inner thoughts are italicized. How, Nancy asked, do we decide when to use this device? Further, do we need to use it at all?

Okay, bottom line: there is no convention advising when to use this device. And there’s nothing requiring it at all. So if you choose not to make use of italics, it’s okay. Just make sure your reader can follow your intent in your writing.

If you’re confused at this point, let me give an example or two:

She returned to her tanning. His papa. Poor little fellow. She’d intended for some months to have a talk with the boy, name his real father, but she kept changing her mind. Of course, if she were to carry that out, Abraham would find out within the day and, in his current mental state, he’d probably kill her. I don’t care. I don’t care if I die. She hated the Free Mountain Tribe. She hated Freedomland. But it was Citadel that did this to me. Jakob did it. Citadel and Jakob, they’d written her off, and she hated that place and those people, too. The rumors from her former homeland had her deceased. Jakob knows better, he lied about everything, about me. He left me, even as I was carrying his child.

This is from a new novel I’m just now completing, and I’ve chosen to use italics in a narrative passage. Inner thoughts, sown within the narrator’s passage. Makes it more clear, doesn’t it? And it makes these thoughts stand out to the reader.




But let’s complicate things, as in the next passage:

Abraham had been a good provider, she had to admit that. So many of her woman friends in the tribe were gaunt, diseased, covered with skin eruptions, their hair falling out, their mates indolent, inept, or unlucky. Then, when these women were too sick to work, the men would banish them to the forest, where they’d starve and die, and the men would find younger, healthier women to replace the old. Women were expendable in Freedomland; that was the bottom line. And, oh, how Hagar wished to be eminently expendable, to be sent away from the tribe, to die in the woods. She didn’t care if some brown slave or a woman captured from Citadel took her place. Freedom. Death’s the only freedom here for a woman. Maybe, she considered, it wasn’t so bad in Citadel after all. She could come and go as she pleased, within reason, of course. And she’d never had to fear for her safety when she’d had her spats with Jakob. Not like the increasingly violent ones with Abraham.

Why didn’t I use italics on the first sentence? Because a tag, similar to a dialogue tag, ended the sentence: “…she had to admit that.”

And in a later sentence: “Maybe, she considered, it wasn’t so bad in Citadel after all.” I used the tag, “she considered,” there. This and the above example make these paraphrasing of the character’s inner thoughts part of the narrator’s voice.

This can also be used in scene, in which the character is speaking, and her thoughts are interrupted by something she’s thinking, as in this passage:


So she simply said, “I decided to live here. “ A pause. “At least for a while longer.”

Oh, Fate. I shouldn’t have said that. Now he’ll want to go away for sure, and he’ll tell Abraham I had urged it.


Again, there’s no established convention for this – and there’s nothing requiring italics in such cases at all. this is simply the way I choose to do it. But there’s one more thought on the subject:

Since italics highlight a character’s thoughts in both  narrative and scene, why not orchestrate your writing so that you use the italics to highlight the most emotionally charged thoughts of the character?


If anyone has further thoughts on this use of italics, let’s talk about it here.

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2 thoughts on “Using Italics For Character Thoughts – – A Good Idea?

  1. Here the technique seems quite effective. Would a book full be distracting? I think of e. e. cummings’ eccentric use of grammar and punctuation as unpleasant for a long read.

  2. Frank, it’s somewhat controversial, among my writer friends, at least. But to answer your question, yes, distraction seems to be the main objection, although some readers like it, as it seems to create emphasis.

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