Monday, October 7, 2013

Tips for Writing in First Person

The first class I attended at the Storymakers conference was on 1st Person POV by Regina Sirois. I highlighted her as the keynote speaker in my IWSG post last week, but a quick reminder is in order. Regina was the 2012 ABNA winner for her book On Little Wings. The following post will be a mixture of her class tips and my thoughts.

My current wip is a YA fantasy written in 1st person POV of two characters. Although I've been happy with it for the most part, there are spots that it is just FLAT. Some of those spots require higher stakes and better tension. I'll talk about that with the suspense post coming up next week. However, some of it is simply because I struggle with 1st person. Regina did an excellent job explaining the real purpose of 1st person so that I can fix it.

1st person is meant to be intimate, confessional. The reader can put themselves inside the character's shoes and discover the story along with the MC. It's often easier to connect emotionally with a character is you are in their head.

1st person is restrictive. There are things that the reader will not know because the character can't know them. (I find this frustrating when I write.) You also can't hide things from the reader, and you always have to ask, "Is this narrator reliable?"

Which brings us to the question, "Who is your narrator, really?"
Even when writing in 1st person you can have problems figuring out who the narrator really is. If you are writing in 1st person present tense (everything is happening to your character right now, you see it the first time they see it kind of thing), then your narrator is your character.

But what if your character is telling the story about what happened to them last week, or twenty years ago? If the events happened that far in the past, the character has grown, had new experiences that affect how they view those previous events. They are a different person than when it happened. You must consider who the real narrator is because that will affect the language and internal reflections.

Common Mistakes When Writing 1st Person

  • Telling what the character already knows--"That was so mean. I'm upset."
  • Asking too many questions to show confusion, often in a list of unanswered questions--Why did that happen? What am I going to do now?
  • Too many sentences that start with I--When you are thinking in your head do you start every sentence with I?
  • Not trusting your readers (this is an entire post by itself!)--you can still make jumps in time
  • Forgetting to have varied sentence length and incorporating incomplete sentences. If the moment is incomplete (meaning the character was interrupted) then the sentence will be too. 
  • Minutia--listing or telling everything. Trust your reader. They know how to put their pants on. 

Sound Bites from the Class 

  • If you are standing beside your character asking what happens next, you ARE NOT writing 1st person. The only way 1st person works is if you are inside their head looking out.
  • Senses that matter in 1st person--sounds, smells, things that can be felt (touch) and seen. 
  • Let things swerve your characters from their one track mind.

Writing Activity
Pick one of your characters. Put them somewhere in your story. Close your eyes and sit down inside their head. Take a minute to look out from their eyes. What do they see, hear, smell? What can they feel through touch? Now write that down as if you were them.

Take a moment to do this and share with us in the comments.

This is what I wrote for one of my characters:

"Rough carpet scraped my cheek as I slid across the van floor. The door slammed shut sending me into complete darkness. A thick smell of dirt and oil permeated the air. The van creaked and shook with my captor's movements. Another door clicked shut. 

Slivers of light leaked around the blacked out window from the door. I reached for the handle as the engine turned over, grinding in protest for a moment before roaring to life. The floor vibrated beneath me, increasing the frantic rhythm of my heart. My fingers only brushed cold metal. There was no handle in the door."