A couple of months ago, we discussed getting into character when you are writing a novel in the third person—whether it reflects one character’s point of view or, as often happens, more than one. Here, C. P. Lesley picks up the discussion where she left off, with the switch from third person to first, with a few hints as to when you might prefer one point of view over the other.
Getting into Character (Part 2)
C. P. Lesley
In part 1, I talked about character building in third-person narratives. What happens when we shift the entire story to a single perspective, a specific “I”? How does that alter the ability to get into a particular character’s head?
For starters, first person is more immediate than third. Although we can get close to characters while describing them as “he” or “she” (“they” is an option for contemporary novels but unlikely to have been used in the past), the use of “I” dumps both writer and reader right behind a character’s eyes. That’s one reason for using it, because it increases the reader’s identification with the hero(ine). But it doesn’t let the writer off the hook in terms of characterization: that single voice has to be just as distinctive as the solo singer in a crowd.
A writer does, however, have more room to play in first-person narratives. There is no outside observer counterbalancing the hero or heroine’s filtered approach to events and the emotions they evoke. As readers, we see what the character sees, know what the character knows, and experience the character’s truths as our own, expressed in that person’s unique speech patterns. Dialect, educational level, prejudices, and beliefs all appear on the page as the realities the main character believes them to be.
That does, however, impose a responsibility on the author to consider exactly what a given character would focus on and know. There can be no fudging in first person: whatever the narrator relates, she must be present for it or hear about it firsthand. And whatever goes on the page must reflect that character’s priorities: an artist will focus on colors and shapes, a mathematician on numbers, a musician on gradations of sound. Artisans see and describe the world differently from aristocrats, men differently from women, old people differently from the young.
So why pick one viewpoint over the other? If it’s important for not just your main character but your reader to wonder what’s going on, writing in first person is a natural way to make that happen. It also works well if your narrator avoids sharing inner thoughts through conversation. If, however, you want your readers to balance overlapping narratives and follow the inner lives of more than one protagonist, all of them with their own truths, then you need to stick with a tight third-person tale.
Again, here are three examples, each from a different writer and novel, each portraying a character telling his or her own story.
The first, from my Song of the Shaman, features Grusha, a twenty-six-year-old Russian woman living on the Eurasian steppe in 1542. How a Russian woman comes to be living among a group of nomadic Tatars is a long story, but here she is when we first meet her.
Smoke—stinging, acrid, redolent with sage and the heavy odor of dried dung—filled my nostrils. Flakes of ash floated before my eyes, and I coughed as I reached for my drum. All around me, the tent rocked with the pounding rhythm of an instrument not my own, held in hands more experienced than mine, summoning me to the dance. Suzukei—the shaman of this camp, my teacher—whispered to the spirits of the hearth fire, the ancestors of the horde.
Squinting, I settled the plaits over my face to remind the snake spirits, guardians of wisdom, that they had chosen me, too, to serve them as a journeyer among the realms above and below. When I’d hidden my features, I lifted the rimmed circle, large enough to conceal my torso from waist to shoulder. The familiar heft of the drum, the smooth wood clapper in my other hand, the steady bam-bam-bam-bam as I beat the tanned hide—these things drew me out of myself despite the blistering smoke. The rhythm of my strokes, regular as the beat of my own heart, worked its way into my body, resonating in my chest and pulling me away from the present, into the places that lie beyond the middle lands of earth and water.
There’s a fair amount of information here about what Grusha believes about the world as the apprentice to an animist shaman, but what we also see is her immersion in the details of her environment, her focus on her physical experience, things she can see and smell and hear. To a degree, this information serves to draw the reader into the scene, which is foreign in both place and time. But it’s also a character trait of hers. Grusha grew up as a poor peasant girl in the Russian forest. At the age of twelve, her parents sold her to a noble household—to gain money to feed themselves but also to save her from starvation. She has no education to speak of, and she has learned to take life as she finds it. Her use of simple words reflects those traits. Yet despite that unpromising beginning, Grusha has found a way to support herself and her young son, establishing a successful career as a shaman that the novel will challenge her to defend, because few women of her day had that option. Shamanism also offers her an escape from the harsh realities of her everyday life, luring her with visions in the same way that other people lose themselves in literature.
Now let’s meet Noelle Silver, a contemporary businesswoman in the collar counties of Philadelphia, and the heroine of Courtney J. Hall’s A Holiday Wish. Noelle is a wedding planner, but as she prepares to discuss the plans for her own wedding, she discovers that Drew, the man she’s lived with for eight years, is sleeping with his assistant. Worse, he has so taken their breakup for granted that he’s brought his new love to the meeting where he plans to give the boot to Noelle.
I glance out the window, toward Drew’s car, and something makes my breath catch in my throat. A flash of orange-red that I could have sworn was a glare from the sun—but the sun doesn’t wear knockoff Oakleys, red lipstick, and cheap, slutty tops.
I whirl back to face him.
“You brought her here?” I demand.
We learn right away that Noelle says what’s on her mind. And she lives in a world we can recognize, with cars and lipstick and the coffee shop where they’re meeting. She’s quick to judge, but in this case she’s right to assume the worst: the person standing by the car stole her fiancé, who nevertheless intends to leave the meeting where he has broken Noelle’s heart with the woman waiting outside. Although we don’t know for sure that Noelle is accurate in describing her own replacement as a slut, we do know what her description means, emotionally as well as literally—and that Noelle is up on current fashions and has an artistic eye for color. Her language is filled with contemporary slang.
Last we have Jack Hopper, an Irish-American from Hoboken, New Jersey, circa 1908. Joan Schweighardt tells his story in Before We Died and the later novels in her Rivers trilogy. This paragraph comes from the moment when we first meet him.
It was Clementine, the old Italian hag who passed herself off as a fortuneteller, who started it all. Mum began seeing her regular after Da died, as she purported to know exactly what Da was thinking over there on the other side. How many times me and Bax gave over all our energy trying to make Mum see the hag was only after her dough, what little she had of it. But she would hear none of it. Then one day, after one of their “sessions,” Mum tells us Da told the hag—and the hag told her—that we, meaning Bax and me, needed to get away from the docks and have ourselves an adventure, because we were for fair spending too much time being miserable since Da’s passing. We knew Da didn’t say no such thing, but we also knew he would have said just that if he could look down from above and see the sorry state we were in.
Jack is a very different character from Grusha and Noelle, although he too comes from a poor family and has at most a limited education. He grew up on the docks; his language reflects his Irish heritage as well as his lack of schooling. He has no use for Clementine and her fortunetelling, which he considers fraud. Yet hidden in his introduction is his grief for his father, covered up by the scorn he directs at Clementine. This unexplored grief drives him and his brother Baxter (Bax) to what seems like a surefire gig on the Amazon River, which will have momentous consequences for them both.
So if you’re creating a character, think about what goes on inside that person’s head. Who are their parents? What’s their social class? When do they live, and what is expected of them as a result? What do they believe? How do they talk? What difference does gender make—or, if the character is nonbinary, how does that affect them, especially if they live in past centuries when that possibility was not even considered? Look at a story from multiple characters’ point of view, even if one person is the actual narrator. That’s how you get inside characters’ heads and give each one a unique voice.
I should warn you, though, that—funny as it sounds—if you do this well, especially in a first-person narrative, critical readers may miss the fact that your characters don’t reflect you, the writer. They may think that you, too, have a poor understanding of grammar, believe that you can lose yourself in distant realms, or call people hags or sluts when you don’t agree with them. If that happens, just pat yourself on the back for having done a good job and let it go.