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Finding Your Voice: Writing in First Person

They used to tell you never to write in the first person. The recent trend in Young-Adult literature and other popular fiction, however, has proved that it is possible to write a compelling, successful story in first person narration. So how do they do it?

The first thing to keep in mind is that in first person narration, you must restrict yourself to speak only from your character’s unique perspective, intellectual capacity, emotional state, and cultural background. This means that when tempted to use that eloquent metaphor or that witty zinger, you have to ask yourself, “would my character really say this?” Create a character card of that character and read through that card before you begin to write any scene that the character is involved in.

The trouble with being restricted to speaking through a character, however, can result in some very boring or repetitive prose. When it comes down to it, first person narration is a conversation between the character and the reader. And, let’s face it, most of us don’t sound very interesting when we are just talking to a friend. The key to overcoming this obstacle is in crafting a unique vernacular for that character based on the place where they live and their history. This means that a boy who works on a shrimp-boat in Louisiana is going to have a different speech pattern than a Kibuki dancer in the late 1900’s. Do some research, read some autobiographies, watch some interviews and immerse yourself in that person’s culture. This also means crafting metaphors that are indigenous to a character’s geography, history, occupation, and social group.

Another drawback to writing from a first-person point of view is that you can’t directly tell your reader what other characters are feeling and thinking. You are also limited in the amount of exposition you can include in a scene, because your narrator doesn’t know everything. This drawback is actually just an opportunity to refine your writing. A common and glaring mistake in third person narration is giving too much straightforward information and exposition. You are omniscient as narrator, so you feel the need to fill the reader in on all the details. This comes across as condescending, lazy, and boring. First-person narration kicks that crutch out from under you, by forcing you to find creative ways to explain what other characters are feeling and thinking and to give background on them. Use dialogue, gestures, appearance and interaction with the environment to communicate those essential thoughts, feelings, and facts about those characters.

And lastly, watch your verbs. Just because you are narrating in first person and trying to make the conversation sound natural, does not mean that you have free license to use passive and past-progressive verbs. Keep your verbs active.

How about? What have you found to be essential for writing in the first person? What clearly doesn’t work?

HindsightOwen Banner just wants to tell a good story with a bit of truth in it. He has lived in Jamaica, the Czech Republic, and Thailand, traveling in between. Drawing from these travels, he tries to write vivid thrillers, sizzling with action and quick dialogue-- but thrillers that never lose their focus on the complex humanity of their characters. 

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