Finding Your Voice: Writing in First Person
The first thing I ask myself before writing a story is what voice is it best to tell it in? Should I use first person or third person to tell the story? Should I switch voices? I have only written one book in first person but perhaps I can share what my experience was and what the challenges were.
The first thing I noticed about writing in first person was the immediacy of the writing. The writing felt very personal and had a certain urgency about it, as if I was so personally invested in the story that I was telling it as if my good name depended upon it. I couldn’t hide behind some unknown narrator’s voice and blend into the scenery, so to speak; I was ever present and this was MY story being told in MY voice. It was actually very strange. Why?
Because I was talking not in my own voice but in a character’s voice: a character that I had made up. I felt like what an actor must feel when they inhabit a particular character for a play or a movie, except not only was I playing the part, I was also supplying the dialogue. Writing in first person is almost writing one gigantic monologue or sitting behind the wheel of a double-decker bus, deciding on the roads taken as well as who should be riding in the bus, where they should be sitting and even where and when they should get off. It can be intoxicating… and also very scary. What if you take the wrong turn and crash the bus? Or what if you tell some people to get off when they should be staying on? As the first person voice, your character is in full control.
Which brings me to another shocker that I soon came to realize: the character I created to tell the story in no time became so real as to develop a will of his own.
The character that I invented needed to be controlled. As absolutely everything was from his point of view, what got told and what remained left out was entirely up to him. However, I quickly reasoned that having just one person tell a story that involved other people, just in real life – when one person is recounting a past incident in their life – the story they tell can be very biased and not necessarily what happened at all.
Writing with such a built-in bias could work very well for your story, depending on the tale that you are telling, as in the Rashom on effect, for instance. As for my story, I almost had to force my character to be fair to other characters he didn’t like and be especially honest with his own thoughts and feelings, even if that put him in an unfavorable light.
Another lesson learned? First person characters want to be liked. If you have difficulty believing this, let me ask you, how many first person narratives have you read where you didn’t like the character narrating it? Not too many, I should think.
Dermot Davis is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter and author. His creative work encompasses varied genres and styles: drama, comedy, and, more recently, sci-fi; with a special focus on human themes and characters transformed by life experience. A sometimes actor, he was formerly a child actor in Dublin, Ireland and the co-founder of the Laughing Gravy Theatre (which performed Irish literary works as well as original stage plays of Mr. Davis) where he and other members of the troupe toured the US (culminating with being invited artists-in-residence at the prestigious Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC). He is an award-winning finalist in the 2013 International Book Awards and a 2013 Readers' Favorite International Book Award Winner - Humor (Honorable Mention).