Thursday, October 29, 2009

I DID WHAT?! Writing in First Person

I will be the first to admit that I’m not the best at doing first person POV—I’m still learning. I actually had a real dislike of it before I tried using it for 13 TO LIFE. I don’t know how I’d become so turned off to 1st person, but I can honestly say I hadn’t read anything written in it for years.

I recently had an interesting chat with an aspiring author ::waves at Twitter’s @_decode_:: who had some questions about writing in 1st person POV. Like me, she wasn’t sure she felt comfortable enough to do it but one of her characters was seeming insistent (if you write like she and I do, your characters sort of talk to you and you record what’s going on—more on that another time).

Here’s a little of what we chatted about (and what I hope may help you, too) and some additional things to consider:

1.) You need to know your characters amazingly well because writing 1st person POV requires that you step into someone else’s shoes and see through their eyes considering the world as their past experience has colored it. A couple examples:

  • If your character is an artist, they will observe the world in a different way (if they’re competent at art). They’ll be more finely attuned to shape, color and texture. They’ll notice things like shadow, contrast and composition. They may relate things they see to their favorite artists, their works or a particular medium they relate to.
  • If your character is a writer, s/he will probably (hopefully) have a decent (dare I say fancier) vocabulary—one that’s different from someone in a different sort of trade. Why? Most writers love language. We truly enjoy stringing words together. So a writer’s narrative and parts in dialogue might be a little more flowery or planned (unless s/he saves the nice stuff for writing, and if so, make the distinction clear).
  • If your character was a victim of abuse, s/he might react differently to someone reaching out suddenly to shake their hand or giving him/her a hug than a character who has never suffered abuse. Make sure you telegraph his/her past experiences accurately through his/her actions.
  • He or she might favor one of their senses. A friend of mine is keenly aware of smell and another (with musical training) is focused on sound. Certain things that don’t bother me will set them off.
2.) You have to relinquish some of your inner control freak’s power to write 1st person POV convincingly. Unless you’re doing autobiographical, your character is NOT you. Therefore s/he will react differently in certain situations than you would. Let him or her do just that.

3.) Writing in 1st person POV may be frightening at first—accept that. Sometimes the scariest things we try yield the very best results.

4.) Consider the role your 1st person POV actually plays throughout the story. If he or she isn’t around during some important bits, how will you relay that info to readers without too much he-said-she-said?

5.) Take a little time before writing to really get to know your character. Do some character worksheets, maybe a sketch, maybe some lists of things they own or even eat (all of that will tell you interesting tidbits about him/her). Take them “shopping.” Pull out the weekly flyers from the Sunday paper and ask your character what they’d buy and why? Do a playlist that you as an observer relate to them and then a separate one of their favorite songs. Determine their deepest desire and their biggest fear (think of how those will tangle in your story). Consider at least one thing they’d never do (then consider what would finally break them down far enough they'd do it).

"Walk a mile in their shoes" (figuratively) and you'll find you've become very capable of writing in 1st person POV.

Good luck!
~Shannon

10 comments:

Alex Bledsoe said...

I write in both first person and third, and there's one additional thing I'd add to your otherwise excellent list: remember that you're telling a story. It's easy to climb into a character's head and go off on tangents (extreme example: James Joyce) because that's how we think. But readers, for the most part, expect a story.

Jennifer L Hart said...

You are right, 1st person POV is much different. I do both, am actually more comfortable w/ 1st person because it allows me to really ferett out info from my protagonists head. Everyone see's the world through first person POV, so it is familiar for readers. It's also a gamble because if readers don't like the main character's voice they won't continue to read.

Casse AKA Catholic Kittie said...

Wow, I never realized the different strengths writers have. I always write in 1st POV because well that is mainly what I read. If I were asked to write an omnipresent narrator, I'd be floundering like a fish on dry land. I was literally just talking to my sister about what point of view she likes to read and write from and if she likes having the him/her POV in same book? She basically said no because in real life she doesn't know what everyone else knows and thinks so why should she in what she is reading. But I do agree you HAVE to know who you are writing. I sit down and have a chat interview with my protag/hero &Heroine, whatever you want to call them, just to make sure I know them and how they would respond to the questions and situations their story may put them in. It usually realy helps.

Katiebabs a.k.a KB said...

I've written in both first and third POV an in my latest YA horror book, I am writing in first POV and all my heroine says is me this, I that, etc..

Arg. But being in her mind is fun.

Shannon Delany said...

Alex--

Excellent point! I used to write in 3rd all the time (and have recently considered returning to it for other projects to better keep voices separated).

It's very true that we need to remember to focus on the story and not handle things precisely the way a character would be thinking (the same applying to not writing dialogue exactly as most of us speak).

Jennifer--

1st person is a gamble (thanks for pointing that out :-). The push we often hear about regarding "likable characters" absolutely applies to 1st person POV. It can be a powerful way to relate to a character, but it can also turn readers off very quickly depending on the character they're stepping into.

Casse--

Some POVs work better for some stories than others. I like single 1st person POV because, like you mentioned your sister said, we only know things from our point of view. At this stage in my life, I feel it's a little arrogant of me to believe I know deeply what's going on in too many characters' heads. Yes, they're my creations (so I should) but it makes me nervous.

Katiebabs--

I totally know what you mean. When I'm roughing something from Jess's POV there are tons of I's. So I go back through as edits go on, trying to wipe out the ones that just make her sound too egocentric (of course, Jess actually is a bit egocentric, so some get to stay ;-). But seeing the world through different eyes--that closely--is fascinating for me. :D

Thank you all for stopping in and commenting--I really appreciate your thoughts!
~Shannon

_Decode_ said...

One more tip, which is what I mentioned during this talk:

Start a fictional journal for the first person character. And let THEM write, not you.

Shannon Delany said...

_Decode_

--Yes, it's a great idea to have them journal through you so you can pick and choose some pertinent info afterwards and really get to know them. Same thing with the playlists--what you might choose for them and what they'd like themselves are distinctions you can make in the story relating to how they view their world and how others view them. :-)

Glad Google finally cooperated for you!
~Shannon

Sheila Deeth said...

I didn't used to like reading in first person, but I think I've been converted by lots of books I've read recently. I often write in first person though.

Shannon Delany said...

Sheila,

I understand where you're coming from (having disliked reading 1st person POV in the past--made me hesitate to write 13 TO LIFE in 1st). I think the recent surge in the volume of books written in 1st person has increased the odds we find good ones (competition in the market can do amazing things to forcing us to improve our game ;-).

Hope you like how I handled it in 13 TO LIFE...
~Shannon

takatsu said...

I naturally write mainly in 1st person and LOVE reading any good 1st person novels. Third person personally feels a bit too distant for me. But there are amazing writers that do the third POV very well...

But wow, you really gave me a moment of epiphany there. The mention of the different type of characters, or different types of writers is SO TRUE. I can't believe it. Now that you mention it, i being to notice it in my writing.. I'm attuned to the sounds and the visual world. And it comes through in my writing.. Makes sense because i love visual arts and music. LOL I almost have no mention of taste or smell or touch because I don't operate in that way. WOW. lol

We can really work with that idea, and bring out the best in us.