How to Create Characters with Relatable Thoughts

December 12, 2019

Editor’s Note: This article is the second installment in our five-part series on how to build empathy between readers and characters. To learn why we’re doing this series and how we’re approaching the topics, read our introductory post.


You open a book, and after several pages, you’re not yourself anymore. You’ve become the character. He’s different from you, yet somehow the same. When he remembers someone’s face but not their name, you smile sympathetically—even though your memory has always been sharp. That’s because his foibles seem true to life.


Being sealed inside a character’s head can have two effects on readers: it can pull them in and expose them to valuable lessons, or it can chase them away. Since humans are complicated, a character who is two-dimensional will be unconvincing.


Writing compelling thoughts is all about flow, and a character’s personality, beliefs, and struggles should be the pulse. This is easy to botch, because almost any thought could be realistic in a specific scenario. You need a system to determine how much introspection to include and when. Four factors can help you develop believable internal dialogue, but three others can ruin it, so you need to be vigilant with both. I’ll start with the positives.


Four Factors that Drive Authentic Internal Dialogue

#1: Obsession

I prefer to give characters an obsession instead of a goal. The connotations of the former reminds me that the character is focused on a single need or desire that influences all her actions. “Goal” seems to imply that she’ll follow her whims in the interim as long as she reaches the finish line at the end.


Your character’s obsession sets the direction of her internal dialogue. For instance, imagine Jack and Jill climbing the hill again. Jack has amnesia from his last fall and doesn’t recall the danger. Jill’s obsession is to keep Jack from losing his footing on the loose stones. I guarantee she won’t reminisce about writing a poem on the hilltop or reflect on how refreshing the water tastes up there. And if a baby goat wanders out from behind a bush, Jill won’t squeal over its cuteness. She’ll worry about how to stop Jack from chasing the animal and tripping!


Obsession is the overarching concern that guides a character’s numerous and varied thoughts throughout a scene. If the obsession changes, you probably need to open a new scene.


#2: Experience

In Jill’s case, her experience is tumbling down the hill. Without this information, her fear for Jack’s safety won’t make sense. Past experiences shape a character’s present choices. If beta readers or editors warn you that a character’s thoughts come out of the blue, maybe the character isn’t relying on her backstory enough as she’s dealing with the current situation. Note the difference between these two snippets:


Version #1:


     Mark lowered his wine glass. Oliver flashed him a cardboard smile as he strode by the table.

     Could Oliver be the murderer?


Version #2:


     Mark lowered his wine glass. Oliver flashed him a cardboard smile as he strode by the table.

     Before Mary died, she’d railed and railed, “Oh, his awful smiles!” But Mark hadn’t reached her in time to ask the culprit’s name. Oliver’s beaming face belonged on a counterfeit dollar bill. Or perhaps on the millions that were stolen last night. Could he be the murderer?


The history that fuels a character’s hunches and decisions will fascinate readers, deepen the characters, and provide an avenue for subtle exposition. Try viewing each character as a scholar who approaches his obsession scientifically.


#3: Core Values

This is the emotional force behind your character’s obsession. Suppose Jill is in love with Jack. That’s why she doesn’t want him to get hurt. As she plans how to protect him, she might think about the first time they bonded over chlorine-free water and her dream of digging wells in Africa with him.


Core values explain characters’ impulses and supply the strongest source of empathy for readers.


#4: New Data

When a character encounters an unexpected event, information, or dilemma, she’ll analyze it through her obsession, use experience to handle it, and look to her core values to figure out how to feel toward it.


During the ascent, Jill notices that Jack is much more polite and gentlemanly with his memory loss, and she wonders if he would benefit from another conk on the head. Then they run into an ogre, and Jill confronts it rather than fleeing down the treacherous slope, which could result in injury for Jack—or separation from him.


New data propels internal dialogue forward. Otherwise, characters will go down rabbit trails and cycle through the same thoughts endlessly. While Chirrut Îmwe can chant, “I am one with the force; the force is with me,” Jill can’t get away with continually repeating, “I must save Jack.” That is, unless you intend to write the next trashy YA romance, complete with a strong female lead who has no personality.


Three Factors that Kill Authentic Internal Dialogue

Fiction must be entertaining as well as realistic, so even believable internal dialogue can feel stilted if it’s mishandled. Now that you know how to bring a character’s thoughts to life, you need to be careful that you don’t inadvertently suck that life out.


#1: Unclear Triggers

Thoughts rarely, if ever, plop out of nowhere. Fruit on the table makes us crave breakfast. Then camping jumps to mind because of the bacon and eggs we cooked over a fire while on vacation last summer. The context for a character’s thoughts must be shown or readers will, at best, be confused. At worst, they’ll skip ahead or shut the book.


Notice how the scene with Mark and Oliver falls flat if I remove all the triggers:


     Mark lowered his wine glass as Oliver strode by the table.

     Before Mary died, she’d railed and railed, “Oh, his awful smiles!” But Mark hadn’t reached her in time to ask the culprit’s name. Could Oliver be the murderer?


Obsession, experience, and the core value of justice are all present, but why should readers suspect Oliver? Is Mark just being paranoid? These gaps in reasoning often occur in early drafts and are fairly easy to catch if you watch for them during editing.


Sometimes, however, an author derails a character’s thoughts in a way that’s harder to detect. A detail may be relevant to the plot but incongruent with the immediate scene, as in this example:


     Billy executed a perfect tech-armor enhanced flip onto the platform, then stuck his tongue out at Sarah.

     Sarah gritted her teeth, flaring her booster jets. You don’t have to treat me like trash. Even if you’re a million times richer. His father owned the company that manufactured the tech-armor, making Billy next in line for commander of the army.


Billy’s rudeness obviously provokes Sarah’s mental retort. But the other parts of her reaction become progressively less related. Billy’s promising future should either be mentioned elsewhere or introduced via a more fitting trigger.


#2: Telling

In my Show, Don’t Tell course, I advise students to avoid POV telling. This is when a character’s internal dialogue pushes a conclusion on readers that they ought to arrive at naturally. Below, I’ve rewritten the scene about Mark and underlined where the text becomes problematic.


     Mark lowered his wine glass. Oliver flashed him a cardboard smile as he strode by the table.

     Before Mary died, she’d railed and railed, “Oh, his awful smiles!” But Mark hadn’t reached her in time to confirm the culprit’s name: Oliver. His smile was condescending, like a rich person. And he must be loaded, assuming he’d stolen the money last night. It just had to be him!


Now compare that to the version I shared earlier:


     Mark lowered his wine glass. Oliver flashed him a cardboard smile as he strode by the table.

     Before Mary died, she’d railed and railed, “Oh, his awful smiles!” But Mark hadn’t reached her in time to ask the culprit’s name. Oliver’s beaming face belonged on a counterfeit dollar bill. Or perhaps on the millions that were stolen last night. Could he be the murderer?


Observe how Mark’s suspicions are implied, and Oliver’s grin is described indirectly. Even if a scene leans toward a particular interpretation, allowing readers to discover it for themselves engages their imaginations more.


#3: Brooding

Reading a character’s gloomy thoughts can be like swimming in quicksand. Everyone struggles with discouragement occasionally, but when a character dwells on it, the story will grow tepid. Here’s an illustration:


     Mopey vomited and sank on the rotten log. He couldn’t kill. Yet the tribe expected him to lead them in battle. How am I going to do this? They say it’s so simple— No! I can’t. He would be the disgrace of his tribe. Like always. They’d say, “Mopey, you can’t do anything right.”


Three paragraphs later…


   Why did the elders choose him? That was a huge mistake. If he ever became an elder, he wouldn’t send scared teens into battle. Was this his punishment for being a coward?


To repair scenes like these, first eliminate the repetition. Readers don’t need reminded again and again of the character’s insecurities. A few strategically placed thoughts will convey that he’s troubled even if he isn’t moaning every five minutes.


Your next recourse is to comb through your manuscript for POV telling, because pity parties attract it like flies to corpses. If a character laments all the people he doesn’t have the energy to help, that’s telling. We aren’t feeling his pain; we’re just trusting his judgment.


Finally, differentiate between guilt and repentance. Guilt is regret over sin. Repentance is regret coupled with the commitment to shun temptation. Guilt leads downward toward despair while repentance leads upward toward change, but neither remain stagnant. A murderer can be disgusted with himself yet continue killing.


In one book I read, the protagonist recognized his own wickedness but didn’t make any effort to correct his path. The author could have cut some woe-is-me segments by turning him into a new man sooner or searing his conscience until it finally softened. A character’s inner turmoil needs a purpose and shouldn’t overwhelm the scene.


Characters with Souls

Building reader trust starts with demonstrating your intimate understanding of humanity. How much closer can you get to a human soul than the thoughts that emanate from it?


Orient your character’s internal dialogue with obsession. Guide it with experience and core values, and keep it fresh with new data. Prevent vagueness and blatancy by considering how it applies to the scene. And never let it stall the story with self-doubt.


As Josiah emphasized in the first article of this series, our goal is to craft people, not characters. The people on the page should seem as real as the readers who explore the story alongside them. Most writers feel like they understand their characters deeply, but only by connecting with a character’s thoughts can readers understand his motivations, convictions, and personality.


Once your character’s thoughts start flowing freely, they’ll spring from the pages and dance in the meadows of a thousand imaginations. And that is the highest joy of sub-creation.


Return on Saturday as Hope explains how personality types should affect characters’ thought processes. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your perspective. What makes a character’s internal dialogue feel real to you?


  1. E. K. Seaver

    Ooh, yes. I loved this article. Great advice. 🙂

  2. Tabby Harris

    This is solid!!! I’m in the middle of writing what’s turning into a mystery novel without my permission haha So your bit about Oliver and Mark and allowing the reader to make the deductions really hit home for me! Thanks muchly for writing!!! 🙂

  3. K.M. Small

    I think character thoughts aren’t talked about enough on writing advice websites, so I’m very grateful for this concise and informative article!

  4. Kassie

    Thanks so much for this!! I agree, characters’ thoughts aren’t talked about enough. And obsession instead of goal…that makes so much sense. I’ll have to keep that in mind!

  5. Kirsten F.

    Wow, this article really made me think about my own internal monologue in my stories . . . thank you so much for writing!


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