Finding Your Character’s Voice

I have a bad habit of writing in first person. I go to write and through no conscious thought it just happens. Seriously, It’s like I can’t help myself or something. I have a problem. I’ve only got one real explanation for this: I’m lazy. Writing in first person is great for my style. It means I can be snarky and sarcastic while still pretending I’m writing for the good of the story. It also means that I don’t have to try to explain why my character is doing what he’s doing. We’re in his head, you can see it for yourself.

I’ll admit, the first crack I had at writing a character in this style it was basically a self-insert. I was fifteen, what did you expect? But the slightly unhinged, self-absorbed and snarkilicious character I created was fun and wasn’t considered to be too Out of Character by most of my readers (Reflecting on it, I wonder if perhaps they were just being kind). And that was fine as long as I stuck to one character.

The problem comes when I try to write different characters in first person.

At the moment I’ve got two stories written in first person on the go. The first is my big project (which I promise I will stop banging on about one day. I just spent a full day staring at the latest chapter and trying to work out what was wrong with it. It’s on the brain) and the second is a short humour fic. Though they’re both written in first person they are written from the point of views of two very different characters. The humour one is written from my trademark snarky, self-absorbed viewpoint (So I may not have changed as much as I thought from when I was fifteen) and my big project is from the point of view of someone who’s damaged from an epically tragic childhood and has some serious anger management issues.

Trying to write these two stories together is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever tried. I’ll begin writing my humour fic and realise I’m writing in the subdued and matter-of-fact voice of my big project (I once caught myself doing that after having written about 2000 words. There was much frustration that day). Or I’ll be writing my big project and suddenly my main character will stop musing about his desire to not be a terrible person and start wondering about why all pick up lines are so awful.

The key to stopping this from happening is, I think, getting into character before I even begin writing. Though I say that my snarky character is practically a self-insert it’s not entirely true. It’s a self-insert when I’m in a particular mood. And as I’ve gotten a bit older and a bit better at writing I’ve gotten better at keeping my snarky character truer to canon. Still with heavy elements of my special brand of insanity, sure, but the character has moved further away from me in his choices and mannerisms. This I can only think of as progress. Similarly, my depressed and angry character is nothing like me. He is more likely to solve his problems with a good dosage of violence than any other way. Me? I feel bad when I crush ants.

So when I write in first person I do my best to put aside my own personality and thoughts.  In order to write sarcastic humorous stuff I tend to watch sitcoms and listen to crazy happy (read: 90s) music. In order to get into the more depressing, damaged mood I listen to angry angry music and start a lot of my thinking with variations on ‘If I were him…’.

My writer's toolbox

It’s hard putting myself aside (remember how I said self-absorption was a major part of my self-insert persona? Yeah) and trying to think in the voice of my characters. Especially because in first person there’s nowhere to hide. Your prose is your characters voice. The style you choose, the way your characters perceive the world, everything says something about your characters.

So even though I began writing in first person because I was lazy (I chose to write my NaNo in first person because I knew that if I ever needed to add in some more words I could just muse about life for a little while) as I’ve gotten better at it I’ve found it more and more difficult. Writing from someone else’s perspective is difficult and finding their voice inside the confusing mess of your own mind is one of the more difficult things you can do. But when you find that voice it’s magic. When you can capture another person’s voice you can begin to understand their character a little better and you become a better writer for it.

Or I could just be using this logic as an excuse to write more first person stories. Who can really say?

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About Meg Laverick

I can never be found without a cup of tea in my hand or a notebook in my bag. In between university and generally being awesome I read, write and nerd (that's a verb, right?). I also like analysing things that are probably best left alone.
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8 Responses to Finding Your Character’s Voice

  1. Lainy says:

    Thinking on that, probably why i can’t write anything with Taki in it in first person, and i think it’s because his inner musings wouldn’t be that interesting and it would just turn into 3rd person. I don’t think he’s the type to express himself very well. Ha.

    I also wish i would stop starting things in first person. I tend to write myself in a circle with it. Maybe this just needs more practice/awesomely crappy 90’s music?

    • Meg Laverick says:

      EVERYTHING needs more awesomely crappy 90s music. I’m a little sad that I couldn’t find any Ace of Base CDs in my collection of happiness.

      I wish I stopped starting things in first person too XD One day… in the future…

      Despite my penchant for writing in first person (Did you like my sentence o’ links?) I’m a big advocate for third person stories. It gives you a little more flexibility and despite what I said about first person being difficult if you don’t do anything with it by giving your character their own voice it ends up just being lazy (coughStephenieMeyercough). But I’ll go more into that when I write you that post about POVs.

      • Lainy says:

        I did like the sentence o’links. I was clicking on them and got half way through before realising i had already been there. I just like clicking on links i think.

        I think that’s what i’m having trouble with. I’m liking the feel of this particular story being written in first person but i think i’ll be restricted if i use first person (see i’m gradually planning this NaNo). Sounds awesome at the beginning but further along i don’t think it will be able to develop. Dilemmas, dilemmas. How about being indecisive and chucking to POV’s in? ha ha XD

        Or some blank pages with just months written on them…that would be informative and just genius.

        • Meg Laverick says:

          lol I actually liked that blank pages effect. I think it says something very disturbing about Bella’s psychology that her thoughts literally cease to exist for a few months after her boyfriend leaves her but it said something powerful, you know?

          Then you have the -rest- of the books XD

          You could always use third person with some hefty use of free indirect speech (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_indirect_speech) in order to get the feeling of first person without the limitations of it.

          I’m so excited about having NaNo buddies. Like you don’t even know.

          • Lainy says:

            I may have been a little sick of it by then but i was wholly unimpressed by flipping pages. I think i got the feeling of someone who really couldn’t think of what to write. Who knows? Maybe she was secretly being genius. XD To this day i still can only admit i enjoyed the first book.

            *tilst head at wikipedia* See, this is why i keep you around. All of your writing knowledge that i would never find. I like it.

            Oh, i think i have an inkling of your excitement. You have mentioned it :).

            • Meg Laverick says:

              Fair call. I still think those books are great for a first time reading. It sucks you in. It’s only when you read it again and have enough distance to actually think about what you’re reading that the true terribleness comes to light XD

              lol glad you keep me around for things like that. I have a feeling you’ve seen FIS used before in books you just never knew that someone had named it as a technique. Thankfully, I’m useless knowledge central when it comes to stuff like this.

              I’ve mentioned that I’m excited about NaNo? Really?? Well I’ll be.

  2. Lainy says:

    Yes i have seen it before. I recognised it as soon as i read an example. It has expanded my world of narrative styles. I noticed they had Jane Austen in the list, so definitely seen it. Dare say it wouldn’t have stuck in my head though.

    I was going to add my thoughts on music but i’ve forgotten what i was going to say… oh right! When endeavouring to write epically, i listen to my stash of zelda and star wars soundtracks. I have just received the official soundtrack for ocarina of time. It imported into itunes in japanese. Lucky dip for me! I don’t think i can get any nerdier…

  3. phoenixandtiger says:

    Great post as always.

    I find that a lot of it is tense (present or past, never future – how would you write in future tense anyways? Oh wait, never mind, I remember a really good Kingdom Hearts fic with future tense.) and depending on what I’m trying to convey, I switch between voices – and it’s kinda like having multiple personality disorder or something like that. For the angsty, self-absorbed, and the suicidal thoughts, I tend to go towards.. third person, in present tense. (ie: http://www.fanfiction.net/s/6556358/1/500_Themes_Bryan_x_Kai – most of the stuff in here is a pretty good overview of my POV and tense things – and yes, a shameless plug 🙂

    For the musing over life things…first person, present? And the fun, lighthearted pieces…hmm. After looking through what I’ve written, I conclude that I almost always write in third POV and in present tense, no matter what kind of story it is. Interesting. I wonder why. Probably because I feel like I’m making all of the characters like me if I write in first (Stephenie Meyer right here – and I agree about the month thing, it was actually a really cool effect, despite the crappiness of the rest of it).

    And about music: I listen to the same playlist for everything, it seems. But for my NaNo this year, it seems as if it’s mostly Russian rock now. Even though I can’t understand it, you can clearly feel what the singer’s trying to say. And I begged this Russian guy I met through music to translate some songs for me, and I’ve been listening to those same three songs over and over again the entire day.

    Well, can’t wait for the next post – phoenixandtiger

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