When Writers Write hosted Barbara Kingsolver, she said something that has haunted me since that night, but in a good way – not like Chucky.
She wrote every scene of The Poisonwood Bible from all five of the character’s viewpoints. The words discipline and dedication do come to mind, but if you think about it, it is a brilliant exercise. She created five distinct voices, so distinct, you do not even need to read the heading to know who the narrator of that section is.
When you write in third person, you can use the character’s name to keep your reader on track, but with first person you need to work harder, because all you have is the ‘I’. Please note that you also need to differentiate between, and create different voices for, your
characters in third person. But for this post, I want to focus on first person.
One of my pet peeves when I read a book written in first person with multiple narrators is that I don’t always know who is speaking. One book used two first person narrators – a young girl and an old man. They sounded the same, which, you’ll agree, is odd. I had to keep going back to see whose chapter it was. It drove me mad.
How can you avoid this?
Know your character: The more you know about your character the more distinct they will be. Do they speak in long sentences? Do
they go off on tangents? Remember, this is not only for dialogue. This is for internal thoughts too. First person is intimate. The thought processes and vocabulary should suit the character.
Think about body language: How they move will often have a direct influence on their speech and thoughts. Is your character in constant motion, fiddling, touching, talking non-stop or are they stationary, using minimum movement and giving only single word answers.
Use visual aids: When you are in a character’s viewpoint try to have a picture of them nearby. I usually find pictures on the
internet or in magazines and stick them up when I write. It helps to see them.
Change the font: This seems silly, but it helps. Choose a different font for each character. This forces you to stop and take note of the
Use a prop: If your character has a favourite item, keep it at hand, if possible. Maybe your character wears a hat or a prominent ring.
Wear the hat or the ring while you write their scenes. It’s like role-play at your desk.
These are all good to keep in mind when you write in third person as well. Don’t get lazy just because you can use their names.
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by Mia Botha
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