To Find a Character’s Voice, Give The “I” a Try

All photographs of faces are from Pinterest collections. 

When I kept collecting rejections for my novel, I decided to enlist a developmental editor to determine why the guards at the Portals of Publication kept crossing their spears when my work ambled up to them. At that point, I’d subjected the unfortunate beast to six revisions, with my writing critique group’s aid, and I was stumped. The editor furnished me with loads of helpful recommendations and a concept I’d never encountered before: “deep point-of-view.”

“Deep” is an adjective I’ve heard and read a lot recently: deep history, deep science, and now deep point-of-view. The editor explained that this approach to the narrating voice draws the reader into intimate contact with the protagonist, producing that coveted experience of being in somebody else’s head. You perceive surroundings and experience events while stuck like a burr in the main character’s brain.

So I rewrote my scenes using the vocabulary, the skill set and knowledge base, and the quirks and limitations belonging to each viewpoint character (I had several). This change brought new life to the novel, but then one final, radical step completed the transformation.

I identified the most important point-of-view character out of four speakers and gave her the chance to speak for herself, not as “she” but as “I.”

interesting face 1

At first, I felt apprehensive. Not since I was a child had I written in first person in fiction. My journal and essays are full of “I”s; my fiction, safely distant third person. So I felt distinctly unsafe when I took this step, but at least in writing, risk can equal opportunity rather than a broken leg, a broken heart, or a broken life.

Wow! What a change! Just altering the pronouns deepened that point-of-view to a degree I hadn’t believed possible. As soon as “she” became “I,” that protagonist’s word choices, past history, unique perspective, fears and hopes, everything came into focus and flowed naturally. Speaking in the first person, this character revealed herself to me as she’d never done before. The word “deep” applies well: the whole story developed a more profound dimension once she stepped forward to speak for herself.

And the things she said! When I publish the book, I’ll give you before-and-after examples side by side to illustrate what I mean. For now, suffice it to say, until I gave this character her say, I hadn’t realized that “promises can give you frostbite.”

interesting face 2

If you’d like to experiment with first-person narrative but you’d prefer ultimately to keep your story in third person, don’t worry, the treatment is reversible. Writers have good reasons for creating third-person narratives. They allow for a broader perspective, one that’s less “locked in” to the narrator’s experiences and attitudes. Why not try switching the pronouns when a point-of-view character first appears and watch what they start to say and do? You can always change back, leaving the new, more vivid voice intact even as you take a step back into the wider view of third person.

Sometimes we need to approach a problem from a fresh perspective, seeing with new eyes–or a new I.

interesting face 3

 

 

4 Comments on “To Find a Character’s Voice, Give The “I” a Try

  1. My go to is to use the point of view of all my characters so I don’t really like to work with “I” when writing stories. But what works for me is to write my scenes with “I” of each character and then I can see them all and how each character sees the event unfolding. As you saw, it does give an entirely different perspective. ~Smile!

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  2. What I liked best about turning “him” or “her” into “I” (even if I ended up turning the narrative back into third person singular) was that each character started talking to me, and eventually to the reader–and that’s what a memorable voice is all about. 🙂

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    • I now see what you are saying. I think I will do what you suggest when building my character sketches. After that, write the story in the third person. You really are a great teacher of writing. you should record courses on writing and sell them, or start a podcast teaching the craft.

      ~Smile!

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  3. Thank you so much for your kind words–and what a great idea! I teach writing at a local community college, but I’d love to reach more people and to focus on fiction. (My writing courses are those required essay and research paper writing courses that every first-year college student must take.) It’ll be exciting to learn videography and the other skills and technology I’ll need to produce video courses or podcasts. Thanks for that fantastic suggestion!

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