Compelling young adult fiction is about getting to know—and hopefully root for—a teen character. And what better way to get to know a coming-of-age protagonist than to drop in on their every thought? Ah, the lure of the first-person perspective: the under-the-bed, back-of-the-closet snoop. It’s intimate, exclusive, deliciously revealing, and bound to turn up dirt of one kind or another. Uh-huh, the good stuff.

As a writer, I feel an obligation to truthfully paint the spectrum of emotions we—at any age—experience. Humans are complicated. Sentiments are part and parcel of our existence. We’re hard wired to look out for number one, yet, we’re highly social. Yep, a conflict of interests. And an emotional junkpile. Throw into the mix the inexperience of youth and raging hormones and you’ve got a steaming heap of happiness, anger, empathy, irritation, surprise, jealousy, etc. And all before noon on a Monday!

Granted, personalities vary. Absolutely, some people are sunnier by nature. Their internal dialogue would reflect a predominance of optimism. But an honest writer, in my opinion, will ascribe to their characters—even their heroes and heroines—a full range of motivations, some admirable and others, well, not so much. Because …

I contend that an individual’s measure is what he or she does. That a character’s measure is what he or she does. Moreover, there are two separate arcs to consider for the first-person narrator: their thoughts and their actions. Ideally, growth and change should be measurable on both.

In my novel, STORK, my main character Katla is snarky. She is. But mostly in her head. It’s how I infused the story with humor. It is also how I showed growth in Kat’s character. Both her thoughts and actions mature as she, the new girl, adjusts to her surroundings.

I personally enjoy a first-person sneak peek into a character who is layered. I enjoy the internal dialogue and appreciate the outcome when the character does the right thing.

As a reader, do you separate a character’s thoughts from their actions? Have you ever felt shortchanged by a first-person narration that feels, well, too clean?

As a writer, are you reluctant, at times, to show a few of the darker musings of your protagonist? Are there dustbunnies under their bed you haven’t admitted to? If so, I for one want to know!


  1. This is very interesting, and something I haven't really thought about specifically. I've always tried to make what my MC thinks and does different and linked at the same time.

    I think the thing I do most is elaborate on what she thinks about a certain subject, and translate that into the action but not have her give a verbal explaination, per say. Or, if she makes a remark or two while she does it, it will be truthful but maybe a little misleading.

    Thanks for making the gears turn, even though this comment pretty much made no sense LOL!

  2. I love this post. My current work in progress will be like this, the internal thoughts are more snarky while she plays a role on the outside. It is how I will add humor as well as reveal the character's conflicted identity. This all sounds well and good in my head but as I am still in the plotting/character interview portion, I was wondering how well it will work. Now off to get STORK and find out how a master author put a similar technique to wonderful use :-) Thanks!

  3. Very insightful and true. Having been raised to be a nice girl and to keep my room tidy, I sometimes find it hard to go eye to eye with the dustbunnies. But they're part of life and of compelling fiction.

  4. As a writer, it's the darker musings that keep me interested.

    As a reader, I need space - a good balance of internal and external - in a first-person narrative or I start to feel claustrophobic. "Help, get me out of this person's head!"

  5. I'm totally with you on this. I prefer first person narratives.

    But the first person is especially difficult if your character is on the unlikeable side. A lot of people only want to be inside the head of a really nice, evolved person.

    I love the challenge :-)

  6. I think my character Oribella was similar to Kat in that way. She was socially inept and often didn't say what she was thinking. Much of her growth came through her thoughts and the way they translated into action.

    Great post, Wendy!


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