All of us -- both as authors and as readers -- want characters we can relate to and connect with. Nothing can kill a plot much faster than cardboard shadows roaming the pages. I’m sure we’ve all been victim to this plague at one point or another, whether the infection has been injected by us as the author, or we’ve tried to read a book that has them.
The question as an author is, how can we avoid flat characters and get ones our readers feel they can pinch?
When we start out writing, we all have areas we can improve on. In fact, even once we may have “mastered” one technique or area, we’ll find there are still ways to sharpen it further. That’s why I always say that writing isn’t a destination but a journey -- a metaphor that holds true in so many ways.
So if we are to improve our craft, the old adage, practice makes perfect, is always in play. When I started out writing, I didn’t even know where it was headed. My goal was simply to write a full-length novel. I didn’t see beyond that until a few months after I finished the first draft. And it wasn’t until I wrote Tiesthat Bind, the first Madison Knight novel, that I realized how serious writing was to me. Going from a single goal to a lifestyle, I was reborn an author. It’s quite likely my situation mirrors your own. You may also relate to the fact that once you decide you want to make money with your books and have people “out there” read them, you have to refine them to the point of exhaustion, and beyond.
Along my journey, I discovered I needed to sharpen my characterization. I went back to Ties that Bind repeatedly revising and tightening until Madison Knight came alive off the page. It was at this point I proudly published the novel satisfied she was relatable and like a real woman I could run into on the street.
This didn’t happen overnight. As mentioned, it took many return visits to the manuscript and time. Maybe you’re wondering how I knew what I was looking for? Here’s how: writing first person POV saved my writing.
Possibly you’re cocking an eyebrow right now, or smirking at the statement, but it’s true. Think of it this way: the most popular point of view to write in is third close. That is the use of “he” and “she”, where as the author you’ve distanced yourself immediately by pulling out of the character’s head. You may argue that third close gives you “insider knowledge,” and it does if executed properly. That latter part is the key. So, how do you get there?
Think of writing first person. The use of “I,” “me,” “we” and “us” become the terms used in this point of view. It instantly feels more personal. By using “I” and looking at emotions and situations in first person, you are right inside that character’s mind. You feel what they feel, see what they see, hear what they hear, and smell what they smell.
In consideration of this, my suggestion to all authors is: write something in first person.
For myself, this came in the form of a full-length novel (Restitution, not yet published). But you don’t have to write a novel. Why not just try a short story, or if you’re struggling with a scene, re-work it (for your purpose) in first person?
Close your eyes. Immerse yourself in the scene. Breathe in deep and focus. You are your character. How do you feel? What do you see? What do you hear? You get the idea.
By writing in first person, it benefits your writing in at least two ways:
1. It strengthens your intimacy with your characters, and in turn, your readers -- even when writing in third close. In fact, I find when I’m writing close third in a first draft, I have inadvertently put “I” because I felt that close with the character.
2. It takes away any hesitation to branch out and try something new. This is very important, because as author as we must continually challenge ourselves.
For myself, after I wrote Restitution, that was then I revisited Ties that Bind. In fact, at the time of this post, I have written three novels utilizing this point of view with a fourth in the works. Here’s another challenge for you: switch off between first and third to play with the plot of the story and further heighten conflicts and create more suspense.
Of course, my advice to all authors, write any story the way it demands to be told. For me, I took on the challenge of mixing first and third in a few thrillers I have written. My thriller/police procedural Eleven (first in the Brandon Fisher FBI Series) utilizes this and is currently available for Kindle or in print.
An effective way of switching between characters for different scenes, mixing first and third or not, is another challenge -- and another post. For now, just keep writing, and heck, why not give writing first person a try? It might save your writing.
This article was written for, and first appeared, on Dixon Rice's blog here on December 4, 2012.