Sometimes, even the best authors struggle with writing a voice that is authentic to their main character. As someone who primarily writes in first-person, I know how hard it is to ensure that the voices of my stories sound unique to the narrators of my stories. However, I’ve come up with a few specific things to keep in mind in order to help me with this task.
How do you write a great first-person narrative? In short, you want to get to know your character as closely as you can, and make sure you’re using their point-of-view instead of your own.
That answer may have just opened a can of worms, but the process of getting to know your main character doesn’t have to be messy. Below is a more in-depth explanation of how to put your narrator’s voice first, and your own voice second.
Understand Your Character’s Lifestyle
This is a great step to start with, because you need to do it when character-building anyway.
Understanding your character’s lifestyle is crucial to your story, because it not only affects the plot, but also affects how your character sees the world around them.
For example, if your character is an artist, they might use metaphors that involve painting or drawing. If your narrator is a chef, they might be more inclined to notice and comment on the produce in a grocery store.
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to better understand your narrator’s mind:
Does my character have a job or day-to-day routine that they spend a lot of time with?
If your character spends a lot of time doing something, it probably molds their mind in some way.
Your character’s day-to-day activity points to terminology, character traits, skills, and knowledge that should all be used when deciding how to write their thoughts.
What hobbies does my character have?
Going along with day-to-day activity, hobbies are important for your character have, because these are things that they willingly take part in.
Whereas they may not mind their job, chores, etc., a hobby implies consistent interest. These hobbies can also be what your character’s mind travels to in times of observation and analysis of the world around them.
Is my character’s view on the world generally positive or negative?
This is a simple question that helps tremendously when it comes to getting started. You need to establish the tone of your character’s voice early on, so if you’re stuck, ask yourself this: Does my character like or dislike what’s around them most of the time?
One of the most important parts of creating a great narrative voice is maintaining consistency throughout the story.
This doesn’t mean that your character can’t change (they should), it just means that the change should be gradual.
The person your main character is at the beginning of the story should not be 100% gone at the end of the story. This is because you’ll be using their skills, knowledge, and interests to shape their point of view. Those shouldn’t vanish even if their worldview does.
Linked analogies and references
A great way to establish consistency is by having your main character make multiple references to their hobbies, interests, etc.
They don’t have to be taking part in these hobbies the entire story, but having their thoughts trail back to something they connect with shows character consistency.
For example, if your character is really into anatomy, there might be facts about the human body sprinkled in throughout the story. However, these moments shouldn’t be random. They should relate to whatever is currently taking place in the plot.
Like you probably have in your own speech, your character could have their own catalogue of vocabulary. This doesn’t have to be something as extreme as a catchphrase, but should be noticeable enough to make it a quirk. Maybe your character says “To be honest” a lot. Or “like”.
This tool can be tricky, because if done incorrectly, it can come across as messy writing. In my opinion, it’s usually most successful in stories that use a conversational tone.
Authors have also utilized different spellings of words and made-up languages to construct consistency. Examples of this would be The Maze Runner by James Dashner and Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Some may think that the tone of their story is primarily determined by the genre and plot, but if it’s a first-person narration, then the tone is actually entirely determined by how the main character feels about the plot. This is why point of view matters so much.
Consistency in tone is especially important for first-person narration, because it’s a direct reflection of the main character’s mind.
A way to establish tone through your character’s voice is by constructing the majority of their thoughts in similar sentence structures (short or long, for example).
Cut The Imposter Blurbs
This step can be done while writing, but often comes in handy during the editing process, when you’re cleaning up the narration of your story. Sometimes, writers will think of a really great line, a really great analogy or description, that doesn’t mesh with the narrator’s voice at all.
I call these “Imposter Blurbs”
It’s not guaranteed that one or two imposter blurbs are going to take your readers out of the story, but it may take away from the believability of it all.
I think a big cause of this is when a writer’s own point of view bleeds into their character’s.
You may know a lot about gardening, but if your teenage-football-playing-narrator doesn’t, then they probably shouldn’t be comparing their day to a slow-growing Himalayan Lily.
Distance yourself from your own writing and ask yourself, would my character really say or think this?
If the answer is no, don’t feel too bad about having to remove it. Consider moving it to a seperate document that you can go back to later. You never know when you’ll be able to use these Imposter blurbs in the future, or when one will spark a fresh idea!
If you’re writing from a perspective that’s very different than your own, it’s also important to do thorough research on the parts of your character that differ from you.
Mental illness, for example, requires a lot of research to be accurately portrayed.
Doing the necessary research can also open the door to lingo, habits, traits, etc. that can add to your character’s believability. Using the example of Flowers for Algernon once again, Daniel Keyes does a great job of accurately writing the voice of a character whose mind is deteriorating.
Not only is it necessary to do research in order to create realistic characters, but it’s also important to make sure you aren’t misrepresenting any one group of people.
Remember: If you haven’t done the research, someone else has, and they’ll know if your voice is accurate or realistic. It’s important to stray from leaning on stereotypes when writing in the POV of a member of any particular community, so educating yourself will benefit you greatly.
The Johari Window
The Johari Window is a diagram that was created by communication theorists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingram in 1955.
The four quadrants within the diagram all represent the different outward and inward knowledge of a person or thing.
It looks like this:
Filling out this chart in the perspective of your main character at the start of your story can really help you understand their place in the world and in relation to others. These four categories are directly correlated to how your character reacts to being treated in certain ways, and how they view and treat others.
What do only they think/know about themselves?
What does everyone including them know/think?
What do others know/see about them that they don’t?
And finally, what are things that no one knows about your main character, including the main character themself (These are things that only you, the author, knows at the start of the novel).
Filling out this chart can help develop your character’s arc as well as their voice. It’s a double-win.
How do I know what point of view to write in?
What point of view you write in depends on how close you want your readers to feel to your main character. If you have multiple characters that you want to follow, you might want to use third person, but could also use first person in multiple POVs.
Third-person narration can vary in closeness to the main character’s mind, but is never as close as first-person narration.
How do I create a unique main character?
Your character should hold a combination of specific quirks, hobbies, goals, etc. If you establish all these aspects of your character, then you’ll have yourself a fleshed-out protagonist. Uniqueness is subjective and varies depending on the genre, but a realistic, believable, and well-rounded character is created the same way regardless of story-type.
Is writing in first person better than writing in third person?
No point of view is better than the other. It really depends on the individual story, and how close to your main character’s thoughts you want or need your readers to be. If you want to learn more about the third-person point of view read this article.