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Writing Tips: First-Person Character Creation

Character creation’s hard.

For me, at least. Plotting comes relatively easy, whether I plan it, pants it (i.e., improvise it by the seat of my pants), or plan my pants. But finding the right voice for each character? That can be tricky. Like, beating-Battle-Toads-on-the-original-Nintendo tricky. (That game is still my white whale. Stupid toads.)

Part of my issue is that, like many authors, I prefer to write in third person. It feels more natural to me than other narrative styles—it’s the form cave folk probably used to tell tales around their campfires, right? “Then Grog saw a saber tooth tiger and pooped his mammoth-fur loincloth.” Indeed. Third person is our default mode for recounting past events about others.

But it’s a more distant style than first person, which forces you to get further inside the narrating character’s head. Why did Grog mess his pants? “Saber tooth kill my dad. I see it happen when I young. All I could think was that I next.” There you go: insight into a poop tragedy, in the pooper’s voice.

I needed some of that (the insight; not the poop) for the novel I’m currently revising. I liked how the basic plot turned out in the first draft, but some of my characters were a little thin. So I rewrote my character sheets in first person. And not just the back story bits, or the vignettes I often write to sort out key moments in a character’s past. I did the descriptive stuff in first too.

For example, my lead’s physical description was initially this:

Short, slender—5’2” & 110 lbs.

But in first person, it became this:

Yes, thank you, I’d love to tell you how small I am—f#ck you very much for asking.

The interview only went downhill from there, but it helped me further flesh out her mindset.

I’m still writing the actual novel in third person—as soon as a first-person narrator starts reciting dialogue, part of me thinks, “Dude, there’s no way you remember that conversation word for word. Unless you’re Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, in which case, carry on with your freakish recall.” A third-person narrator isn’t any more reliable, of course; in the end, every novel is just an author making stuff up. But for me, third person’s veneer of trustworthiness (usually) works better for telling a story, while first person’s immersive nature is ideal for creating characters.

Even if it makes them yell at me.

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