May 13, 2016

Are You Your Protagonist? Overcoming the Challenges of Writing First-Person Fiction

By Stephanie Austin Edwards

“Good writing is about telling the truth,” bestselling author Anne Lamott has said.  Though I couldn’t agree with her more, when I reflect on this notion, I usually end up with a lump in my throat.

Of course, my aim is always to stay within the zone of truth.  However, like all writers I capture and cull ideas from a variety of sources. Those sources can be events told to us by others, events we have witnessed, or versions of actual events we experienced.  They can also be snippets from something we read or saw on TV, in a movie, in a magazine, or live theater or most importantly, what our creative source is showing us at the time.

Once captured, we must shape these ideas into something believable on the page.  If we do so successfully, the story will ring true and could potentially pass for biography or even memoir.  Thus the choice of first-person makes some people jump to the conclusion that a work of fiction is a memoir in disguise.

I’ve faced this conundrum time and again.  Only after I switched the voice from third to first person upon an editor’s recommendation during the process of drafting my first novel did the characters and the plot come alive.  And only then did the immediacy of the protagonist’s story grab the hearts of my critique group members when I read to them.  Making the switch was no easy task.  My novel, What We Set in Motion, is 374 pages. Changing from third to first person was an unforgivingly meticulous process, but I preserved.

Although far more engaged by the first-person narrative version, members of my critique group began referring to my protagonist as me. "When you had that argument with your daddy and he slammed his fist on the table..." They’d say.

I would gently correct the "you" to the protagonist’s name, Nadine, and proceed to address the questions. As this same mistake went on and on, I began to think that they didn’t get it, and I had made a huge mistake.

Ultimately, though, I became aware that in confusing my protagonist’s actions with my own, my readers were far more engaged in the story than they’d been before.

That, I discovered, is the beauty of first-person narrative.  Of course there is always some intersection between author and characters, fact and fiction, and a good novel always leaves readers wondering where to draw the line--even with third-person stories.  But first person brings a unique immediacy, grabbing readers’ hearts and imaginations in a particularly powerful and tangible way. 

There are, however, other drawbacks to choosing first person than mistaking an author for her characters. Readers might perceive a first-person story as lacking distance or feel that the worldview it offers is too narrow.  They may find that the point of view of secondary characters doesn’t shine through.  As the author, you may fall into the trap of using too much inner dialogue.

Here’s how I recommend overcoming the challenges these issues pose>

Lacking Distance
Stay away from too much internal dialogue and move the story forward with scenes showing the desires and emotions of other characters. In first person, when the narrator/protagonist reveals his or her emotions through dialogue or narration, a direct connection can be made with the reader.

Secondary Characters
In order to have a stimulating story, interweave subplots of other characters. Balance the narrator's storyline along with the stories of secondary characters and tie them all up at the end.

Inner Dialogue
Again, moving the story forward with scenes and subplots that rise and fall will help the narrator stay out of too much internal dialogue and narration summary. Write your story in scenes to ground the reader in the lives of all the characters. This will show the narrator's reactions rather than telling about it.

Once you’ve honed your craft to overcome these challenges, you’ll discover that the benefits of writing in first person are invigorating.  Besides the immediacy it brings to readers, first person allows us to create a greater sense of intimacy, a stronger connection with the protagonist and most of all, believability.

And if readers end up wonder where the line is between fiction and memoir, that’s a sign that you’ve succeeded in telling your characters’ truths.
Stephanie Austin Edwards is a writing teacher, novelist and grant consultant.  Following a twenty-two-year career in New York City working on Broadway, in film and on television, she returned to her roots in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Her debut novel, What We Set In Motion won the Best Submission Award at the Atlanta Writer’s Club Conference in 2013.

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