What is Free Indirect Discourse? Writing the “Intimate 3rd Person”

Sean Glatch  |  May 6, 2024  | 

Free indirect discourse is a narrative technique in which writers employ the third person POV with the intimacy of 1st person perspective. While this technique became popularized in the 20th century, it has been used for generations of storytellers, as writers have experimented with exploring their characters’ interiorities.

Also known as free indirect speech or free indirect style, this narrative technique is essential for writers who want to excavate their characters’ innermost thoughts, even if those characters are written in the third person. This article dives deep into the topic, with free indirect discourse examples from literature and an exploration of its effects on the reader.

But first, let’s better define this useful storytelling technique. What is free indirect discourse?

What is Free Indirect Discourse: Contents

What is Free Indirect Discourse?

Free indirect discourse is a narrative technique that only applies to the third person point-of-view. It is when the narrator writes from the third person perspective with the intimacy of the first person, providing the reader with that character’s interior thoughts, feelings, and conflicts, even though the story is not narrated by that character.

To put it another way, free indirect discourse is 3rd person writing from a 1st person perspective.

Free indirect discourse is 3rd person writing with the intimacy of 1st person narration.

This narrative technique is also known as free indirect speech or free indirect style.

This is easier identified than discussed in the abstract. Here’s an excerpt from “The Dead” by James Joyce, who often employed free indirect discourse in his work:

He waited outside the drawing-room door until the waltz should finish, listening to the skirts that swept against it and to the shuffling of feet. He was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie. He then took from his waistcoat pocket a little paper and glanced at the headings he had made for his speech. He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognise from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.

In bold are instances where the reader is given access to Gabriel’s (the character’s) 1st person perspective. The writing is still in the 3rd person, but our access to Gabriel is more intimate. We can see his feelings, opinions, and reactions happening in real time as he reacts to the party around him and the speech he’s soon to give.

Free Indirect Speech vs Direct or Indirect Speech

Free indirect discourse (or speech, or style…) is also easier to identify against other forms of narrative description. When we’re talking about narrative that explores a character’s point of view, a fiction writer’s prose can be characterized as either direct, indirect, or free indirect speech.

  • Direct speech: this is speech coming directly from the narrator’s voice. It is either first person narrative, or else dialogue from the character.
  • Indirect speech: this is writing that refers to something a character said or thought, but not in quotation. We are still in the realm of words as used by the characters themselves.
  • Free indirect speech: What we’ve discussed above—third person narrative with the intimacy of the first person POV.

Here’s a made up example:

  • Direct speech: “I would go to Trader Joe’s with you, except I keep running into my exes there,” she said.
  • Indirect speech: She remembered running into her exes the last three times she went to Trader Joe’s, and wondered aloud whether it was worth risking a fourth time.
  • Free indirect speech:She remembered running into her exes the last three times she went to Trader Joe’s. Why risk, for a fourth time, revisiting the hurt and embarrassment that made her end yet another relationship?

Here, you can see more clearly how free indirect discourse is a specific style of intimate narration. The character’s interiority is integrated into the story’s narrative flow.

Free indirect discourse makes thoughts and feelings more intimately felt in the reader’s own mind and body.

This can have the effect of making thoughts and feelings more intimately felt in the reader’s own mind and body. Rather than making those thoughts and feelings stand out as overtly transcribed from the character’s voice (using quotation marks or dialogue tags), they are experienced suddenly and seamlessly as part of the narrative.

Free Indirect Discourse vs. Stream of Consciousness

Free indirect discourse sometimes gets mistaken for stream of consciousness. The two share similarities, and 20th century writers in particular often employ both techniques in the same stories.

Stream of consciousness is a narrative technique in which the thoughts, feelings, emotions, and perceptions of a character get transcribed for the reader as they actually occur. It is experience unfurling in real time.

This type of writing is notoriously dense and difficult to understand, because it is the human mind unfiltered and untranslated. Our own thoughts are replete with interruptions, distractions, rabbit holes, etc. We think by association, so random stimuli will prompt random memories, and we tend to think in a language of our own, with fragments of thought that only we will understand. Stream of consciousness seeks to transcribe all of this.

Free indirect style does offer us access to a character’s interior, but that transcription of the character’s thoughts and feelings have been edited and stylized.

Free indirect style does offer us access to a character’s interior, but that transcription of the character’s thoughts and feelings have been edited and stylized. In other words, they go through a filter: we don’t have to wade through the mind’s many interruptions in order to grasp the character’s core experiences.

Free Indirect Discourse Examples

Free indirect speech has been utilized for centuries, but its popularity as a narrative technique rose dramatically in the 20th century. The following free indirect discourse examples all come from authors who wielded this device to great effect.

Excerpt from Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Retrieved from Gutenberg.

Elinor’s happiness was not so great. Her heart was not so much at ease, nor her satisfaction in their amusements so pure. They afforded her no companion that could make amends for what she had left behind, nor that could teach her to think of Norland with less regret than ever. Neither Lady Middleton nor Mrs. Jennings could supply to her the conversation she missed; although the latter was an everlasting talker, and from the first had regarded her with a kindness which ensured her a large share of her discourse. She had already repeated her own history to Elinor three or four times; and had Elinor’s memory been equal to her means of improvement, she might have known very early in their acquaintance all the particulars of Mr. Jennings’s last illness, and what he said to his wife a few minutes before he died. Lady Middleton was more agreeable than her mother only in being more silent. Elinor needed little observation to perceive that her reserve was a mere calmness of manner with which sense had nothing to do. Towards her husband and mother she was the same as to them; and intimacy was therefore neither to be looked for nor desired. She had nothing to say one day that she had not said the day before. Her insipidity was invariable, for even her spirits were always the same; and though she did not oppose the parties arranged by her husband, provided every thing were conducted in style and her two eldest children attended her, she never appeared to receive more enjoyment from them than she might have experienced in sitting at home;—and so little did her presence add to the pleasure of the others, by any share in their conversation, that they were sometimes only reminded of her being amongst them by her solicitude about her troublesome boys.

A 19th century author and frequent practitioner of free indirect discourse, Jane Austen’s writing helped popularize this narrative technique. In this excerpt, Elinor laments her loneliness in her new living situation and the new women she’s surrounded by. The bolded lines are instances where Elinor’s thoughts and feelings are integrated into the narration.

One easy way to identify free indirect discourse is to look for “feeling” words, particularly when they haven’t been “called out” as such. It isn’t the narrator’s belief that Mrs. Jennings is an everlasting talker—that word choice suggests we are seeing how Elinor feels about her.

Excerpt from The Metamorphosis by Kafka

Retrieved from Gutenberg.

And he looked over at the alarm clock, ticking on the chest of drawers. “God in Heaven!” he thought. It was half past six and the hands were quietly moving forwards, it was even later than half past, more like quarter to seven. Had the alarm clock not rung? He could see from the bed that it had been set for four o’clock as it should have been; it certainly must have rung. Yes, but was it possible to quietly sleep through that furniture-rattling noise? True, he had not slept peacefully, but probably all the more deeply because of that. What should he do now? The next train went at seven; if he were to catch that he would have to rush like mad and the collection of samples was still not packed, and he did not at all feel particularly fresh and lively. And even if he did catch the train he would not avoid his boss’s anger as the office assistant would have been there to see the five o’clock train go, he would have put in his report about Gregor’s not being there a long time ago. The office assistant was the boss’s man, spineless, and with no understanding. What about if he reported sick? But that would be extremely strained and suspicious as in five years of service Gregor had never once yet been ill. His boss would certainly come round with the doctor from the medical insurance company, accuse his parents of having a lazy son, and accept the doctor’s recommendation not to make any claim as the doctor believed that no-one was ever ill but that many were workshy. And what’s more, would he have been entirely wrong in this case? Gregor did in fact, apart from excessive sleepiness after sleeping for so long, feel completely well and even felt much hungrier than usual.

Kafka’s masterful use of free indirect course helps the reader inhabit Gregor Samsa’s mind and body, freshly transformed into that of a cockroach. We get to participate in Samsa’s alienation from the world, living inside the surrealness of The Metamorphosis.

This paragraph, from the novel’s opening, exhibits the different functions of free indirect style. Samsa thinks, feels, considers hypotheticals; his mind roams and we roam with it, feeling within our own bodies the anxiety and strangeness that Samsa must have felt after being trapped inside the body of an insect.

Excerpt from Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Retrieved here.

There are years that ask questions and years that answer. Janie had had no chance to know things, so she had to ask. Did marriage end the cosmic loneliness of the unmated? Did marriage compel love like the sun the day?

In the few days to live before she went to Logan Killicks and his often-mentioned sixty acres, Janie asked inside of herself and out. She was back and forth to the pear tree continuously wondering and thinking. Finally out of Nanny’s talk and her own conjectures she made a sort of comfort for herself. Yes, she would love Logan after they were married. She could see no way for it to come about, but Nanny and the old folks had said it, so it must be so. Husbands and wives always loved each other, and that was what marriage meant. It was just so. Janie felt glad of the thought, for then it wouldn’t seem so destructive and mouldy. She wouldn’t be lonely anymore.

The theme of questions introduced here makes Hurston’s use of free indirect discourse that much more powerful. We know these are the questions Janie is asking herself, yet we read them as though they’re planted in our own minds, and the careful reader might stop and consider them before moving on in the story. Hurston invites us to consider the very real dilemma Janie is going through—what it means to marry a man she doesn’t love—and feel that dilemma as though it were our own lived experience.

Excerpt from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Retrieved here.

For he was not going to talk the sort of rot these people wanted him to talk. He was not going to be condescended to by these silly women. He had been reading in his room, and now he came down and it all seemed to him silly, superficial, flimsy. Why did they dress? He had come down in his ordinary clothes. He had not got any dress clothes. ‘One never gets anything worth having by post’—that was the sort of thing they were always saying. They made men say that sort of thing. Yes, it was pretty well true, he thought. They never got anything worth having from one year’s end to another. They did nothing but talk, talk, talk, eat, eat, eat. It was the women’s fault. Women made civilization impossible with all their ‘charm,’ all their silliness.

Charles Tansley seems like such a charming fellow, no? Mind-numbing sexism aside, this passage reveals Tansley’s biases seamlessly, as the use of free indirect speech embeds his feelings into the prose. Now, most readers (hopefully) won’t read and agree with Tansley; Woolf wasn’t trying to unconsciously make her readers misogynists. Rather, the use of this device magnifies the absurdity of Tansley’s thoughts: we read them as though they were natural thoughts, recognize that they’re not, and react against them much more strongly.

Other Free Indirect Discourse Examples

You can find other noteworthy free indirect discourse examples in the following works of fiction:

  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  • Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence

Free Indirect Discourse Effect

Why write with free indirect discourse? Writers, theorists, and philologists have analyzed the use of this literary technique for the ways it subtly influences the reader’s experience of the text. The budding prose stylist may consider employing free indirect speech for the following reasons:

  • To create intimacy with characters. Free indirect style offers an intimate window into a character’s thoughts and feelings.
  • To create embodied experiences. When a character’s thoughts and feelings are embedded in the narrative, we read them as though they were our own experiences.
  • To blur the line between narrator and character. Some storytellers have used this technique to bolster the unreliability of their narrators. Who’s speaking or believing this? How does that question alter the reader’s understanding of the text?
  • To highlight the character’s ways of thinking. The effective prose stylist will change their word choice when slipping into the voice of the character. This juxtaposition can underscore how that character thinks and speaks and uses words.
  • To get the best of both 1st and 3rd person narration. Why not just write in the first person point of view? The 1st person is limited to the protagonist’s viewpoint, which can be limiting and inflexible for the author. Free indirect discourse gives writers the freedom of the 3rd person POV with the power of 1st person POV.

Practice Free Indirect Discourse at Writers.com

Want to try your hand at this literary technique? The classes at Writers.com can give you feedback on what’s working in your stories. Check out our upcoming fiction writing classes, or take a look at our expert fiction writing coaches.

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Sean Glatch

Sean Glatch is a poet, storyteller, and screenwriter based in New York City. His work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Milk Press,8Poems, The Poetry Annals, on local TV, and elsewhere. When he's not writing, which is often, he thinks he should be writing.


  1. Denna Weber on May 7, 2024 at 12:29 pm

    I really enjoyed this article. Quite candidly, I’d not thought of the differences in free indirect, stream of consciousness, free direct, etc. Third person was third person, and that was that. To my embarassment, I see now things are not so simple here.
    As Mary gulped down the grape slurpee, she wondered if anyone she knew was learning her secret –that she’d rather be her usual sloppy and ravenous country bumpkin in Holley dungarees than sit stiffly in a ruffled pinafore with Mrs. Wednesday and Beth Saturday and sip that slurpee with a silver spoon in her mouth for an hour.

    • Sean Glatch on May 8, 2024 at 5:08 am

      Hi Denna,

      I’m glad you enjoyed this! And that’s nothing to be embarrassed about—I didn’t learn about F.I.D. until my final year of undergrad, and it’s definitely a term that gets thrown around primarily in MFA programs. I hope the techniques here will be useful for your fiction writing!


  2. Vicki L Raab on May 9, 2024 at 5:27 am

    During covid I did a lot of writing, short stories and part of a novel. Sent a story in was rejected and couldn’t figure out what needed changing. Then life opened up and all that writing has sat untouched even though I think often of it with the revisions I could make. This article has given me back the urge to get going again.
    Thank you.

    • Sean Glatch on May 9, 2024 at 6:00 am

      I’m so glad this article has inspired you, Vicki. Happy writing!

  3. Sanjeev Dhokte on May 9, 2024 at 7:56 am

    Wonderful article!!

    For certain situations, writing dialogues does seem bothersome and therefore kills the desire to write. This opens up an entirely different perspective that I wasnt aware of (cosnciously at least).

    Thank you ☺️

    • Sean Glatch on May 9, 2024 at 7:58 am

      I’m happy this helps you, Sanjeev!

  4. Maureen Armstrong on May 9, 2024 at 1:14 pm

    I’m writing a series and felt this diversion to explain past events. Your article helps to understand my principles of back story. Thanks.

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