Behind the Mask: When to Reveal What a Character is Thinking

Hear no exposition, see no exposition, speak no exposition... or maybe just a little.
Hear no exposition, see no exposition, speak no exposition… or maybe just a little.

When I started writing, I was more concerned about what my characters were thinking than what they were doing. I wrote uneventful chapters, where the lead spent most of his time talking about his feelings. He rarely explored settings or exchanged dialogue with other human beings. His conflict was internal, his journey was cerebral, and his musings floated free from any kind of story structure.

My narrators weren’t passive observers, giving accounts of events as they happened, they were philosophers whose ideas read more like blog entries than stories. Their selfish nature was made apparent by an avalanche of I feel statements.

After some eye-opening criticism, my writing veered into another direction. I traded narration for strict description, play by plays of what my characters said and done. These stories read like screenplays converted from present tense into past tense. While my writing improved, it felt like it was missing something.

Compensating for my early first person sins, I’d let the plot reign over characterization. At their worst, my descriptions were so devoid of emotion they read like crime scene reports:

“One armed protagonist entered the room, shortly after sunset. He fired several rounds.”

My leads had lost their edge. I tried to smuggle some of their attitude into the dialogue, but it felt forced, especially when they weren’t sharing scenes with characters worth confiding in. I didn’t want to resort to soliloquy, so I tossed their clever musings into the waste bin.

It took a while before I realized I wasn’t taking full advantage of the medium. I was applying the limitations of movies to written stories, denying myself the tools that set the format apart.

Whether you’re writing in the first person or the third person, books let the reader see inside your characters’ heads. The trick is figuring out when to show what they’re thinking through their actions, and when to tell by getting beneath their skin.

Internal monologues can take us beneath your hero's mask
Internal monologues can take us beneath your hero’s mask

Sometimes Telling is the Best way to Show

Writers are told showing is preferable to telling. If given the option to reveal a character trait in a scene or through a narration, we’re supposed to write a scene. We’re told that narration is a form of telling that cheats the reader’s imagination out of its contribution. Writers shouldn’t ask readers to take the hero’s word for it, readers need evidence.

Subtext is the preferred tool for illustrating what a character is thinking through their actions, a way to launder information to the audience without the other characters noticing.

On the surface, your romantic leads sound like they’re arguing over which grocers they trust with their business, but they’re really talking about an entirely different set of trust issues. The scene isn’t about either one of them being embarrassed by a food seller’s practices, it’s about the couple’s mutual fear of being hurt.

There is a way to use telling to show. If a character’s thoughts are in stark contrast with their actions, it helps to run commentary over their scenes. Watch an episode of Dexter on mute and it’ll look like the title character is a working stiff who loves his family, until he flies off the handle and murders someone. Dexter’s internal monologue reveals his “dark passenger” lurks behind his every action. He makes the subtext explicit because he knows we won’t catch it.

If your character is a sociopath, they might not emote enough to reveal their motives. They could have a working knowledge of poker tells, they could keep their expression in check.

Characters are allowed to be shrewd with each other and outspoken with their audience. Their high society world might have them on their best behavior, but they can be shamelessly crass with the reader. We forge an intimate bond with characters who let us peek beneath their social graces and tell it like it is.

Reveal as much of the character as you can through their actions, but don’t deny them the occasional brazen declaration of their feelings.

Internal monologues are effective in moderation. Let them flow with the plot. Let them riff off of ongoing scenes. Don’t let them derail the action. If a chapter reads like a journal entry you’ve gone too far into telling territory. If you ever want to see a film adaptation give the director something to put on screen. Sometimes it’s better to put your lead’s internal monologue in their mouth. Give them one good friend to gossip with, so they don’t have to talk to themselves.

We need to see more of your character than they're willing to show the world
We need to see more of your character than they’re willing to show the world

Let Your Characters Gossip with Your Reader

In his book Robert’s Rules for Writing, Robert Masello says, “One of the greatest virtues of gossip is it gives us a chance, in a casual, nonjudgmental format, to check our own proclivities and attitudes against everybody else’s.”

Is it wrong to bully phone support into doing their job right? Do other people have scripted excuses they give to panhandlers? Does anybody else have friends who live-tweet their panic attacks?

We all want to know if we’re the only ones who do what we do or if our actions are part of a universal human condition.

As much as eavesdropping and observations can help your writing, so can accounts of other people’s wrong doing. The trick is to capture the spirit of these gossip sessions without quoting them verbatim.

It’s good to reveal characters’ relationships through scenes, but the medium allows them to gossip with the audience, to confirm hunches without the other characters knowing.

Why not give our leads a little too much wine and let their tongues hang loose?

Let them say things like, “How long have I been with my husband? Long enough to experience his entire sexual spectrum, from his premature ejaculations to his inability to perform.”

From scene to scene, this character’s mask tells the world they’re satisfied with their marriage, but we know different.

The narrator cuts us in on a dramatic irony, unknown to her husband. This insider information tints how we see the couple’s interactions, it foreshadows tragic outcomes. We get to chuckle at the false assumptions others make about the state of the narrator’s relationship, because we’re closer friends.

There are subtler ways to get this effect, but sometimes giving your audience a peek beneath your hero’s mask is the most entertaining one.

My favorite first person stories are littered with moments where the hero says something so shameless it makes my jaw drop, where I think, “I can’t believe they’re trusting me with this information,” where I mistake them for a real person.

It’s important to ground your story, to show as much of your character as you can, but indulge in telling what they’e thinking every so often.

8 thoughts on “Behind the Mask: When to Reveal What a Character is Thinking”

  1. So this post is pretty interesting. ^-^ Love this idea of internal monologue as “gossiping” with the reader. I know I’m gonna catch myself randomly thinking that now, when I’m reading. hehe

    I was wondering, do you feel this idea works just as well with third person writing? It seems tailor made for first person. Anyone you’ve noticed does this particularly well with third?

    1. Neil Gaiman does this really well with the third person. He writes quiet solitary leads. They’re so soft spoken, he often has to go into their heads to reveal what they’re thinking.

  2. Love it, love it. I have an allergy to ‘I feel’ that perhaps needs some revisiting from time to time–agree with you that those internal soliloquies need to be done with humor and grace.

    1. You’re absolutely right. I’m always conflicted about how much of my character’s point of view to include. I justify it by showing something clever, something the character would never dare externalize.

  3. I enjoy your web journal entries so much! This one was a combination of “Oh, that’s great advice” and a personal check-off of what I do when I write.

    Insightful as ever, Drew! Thank you.

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