Tip #38: How To Write In The First Person

Does the title interest you? Perhaps you are wondering what there is to say on this topic, other than using “I” instead of “he”. While it is not complex, the first person is one of the most delicate and nuanced areas of writing.

Treat it with the appropriate skill and caution, and you can achieve literary greatness. Treat the first person poorly and risk sounding like a footballer’s memoir.

Not a footballer's memoir
Not a footballer’s memoir

Authority

This is relevant to both fiction and non-fiction. Using the first person makes the narrator seem like less of an authority. A study reported in The Wall Street Journal found that people who say “I” more often are viewed as subordinate.

For your blog and non-fiction writing the relevance of this is obvious. If you want to sound knowledgeable about a subject, limit how often you refer to yourself. You might notice that my blog posts are often addressed to “you” rather than saying what “I” think.

In fiction, the effect of first person narrative is that it adds a subordinate element to the character who is narrating. These characters, even if they are strong or influential within the plot, will often have the feeling of being undermined.

I, Claudius is a novel about the most unlikely ruler of the Roman Empire. He is disabled and quite cowardly.

I, Algobog, have no flaws
“I, Algobog, am never subordinate!”

Perspective

A number of characters can fill I’s shoes. They can be the protagonist (Claudius in I, Claudius), an intimate associate of the protagonist (Dr Watson in A Study In Scarlet), a minor character (Nick in The Great Gatsby) or someone who is relating another character’s experiences (unnamed in Heart of Darkness).

The reliability of these narrators varies wildly. While the protagonist or his close friend knows what happened, their thoughts and feelings, they may be biased to some extent. The minor or ancillary character should be more impartial, but less aware of true events and the characters’ thoughts.

A literary game of Chinese whispers
A literary game of Chinese whispers

Style

Where should you use the first person and how? It often works best in novels with a psychological element to them and where the character’s vulnerabilities are a prominent issue.

What happens when you use “I” is that the reader gets a glimpse inside the character’s mind. They have full, unrestricted access to certain aspects of the narrator’s actions, thoughts and feelings. It is much like a fictional autobiography.

Have a poke around inside
Have a poke around inside

This approach lends itself to fiction with themes exploring the mind or emotions. You can build on the character’s mental or emotional vulnerability by manipulating the narrative. Make “I” brutally frank with how terrified, desperate or upset they were or have them hold back in a way which makes it clear to the reader exactly what they are hiding.

Let me know in the comments if this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?

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Tip #37: How To Choose A Name For Your Character

Name tag

It’s a hard choice to make. Give your character the wrong name and it could break the reader’s connection with them, with all the doom and despair which follows.

Of course, there are more important things in fiction. There is plot, style and narrative. But people form their first impressions of someone in a very short time. Tell me a character is named Algobog and already I begin to form a mental image of them…

Monster
Algobog

Naming a character by genre

The genre you are writing in will go some way towards determining a character’s name. Contemporary fiction means a present-day name, no surprises there. This will also vary by location (not many named Freddy in China).

Fantasy names are generally longer or more abstract. This can take a lot of creative thinking if you want something completely original. I have no idea where Patrick Rothfuss got the name Kvothe from.

A simpler approach is to borrow from the “dead” languages. Voldemort may have Latin inspirations (vol-de-mort = flight of death). Gandalf means “wand elf” in Old Norse.

Sci-fi names tend to be shorter and a little more funky, futuristic. It can simply be a case of fitting vowel and consonant combinations together until you land on something plausible. Hariten, made that up on the spot.

Popular character names

This is the pinch. You want your reader to be able to empathise with the main character. Will you feel sympathetic towards someone named Algobog the Supreme Kaatharlek?

Monster
“Look upon my visage and despair, ye mortals!”

One method is to have a look at the most popular names for your target audience (e.g. US, UK, Kazakhstan). You can find this information online.

Harry was an excellent choice for J K Rowling, given Britain’s habit of crowning people named Harry (aka Henry). Luke in Star Wars also seemed to work.

Character names by theme

Here is a good example, Scarlett from Gone With The Wind. What do you think about a character named Scarlett? They are red. It’s the raciest of all the colours. So Scarlett is probably a loose cannon, perhaps even a little “fast” for her time.

Letting the character choose the name

There are two ways to look at this. It will tie things together if a character’s personality matches up with their name. It’s also useful to signal something to your reader via a name. In Vikingr, Ulfr is a nasty piece of work (Ulfr = wolf in Old Norse). Erikr means “alone ruler”, and it sort of makes sense. In Harry Potter, Voldemort’s name is apt for his character.

But you do not have to rely on hidden meanings. The sound of a name can give a lot away. Harsh noises like a hard A, O, F, S or T will suggest someone tough or dangerous: Severus Snape, Malfoy, Sauron, Saruman, Gandalf, Algobog.

"Cower before me!"
“Cower before me!”

Soft vowels paired with gentle consonants make for a very peaceful first impression: Frodo, Hermione, Elgerbeg.

Monster
“Cuddle much?” – Elgerbeg

If you get stuck, do not panic. Sometimes a name just feels right for a character. Other times, it’s something which grows on you. Good luck!

Let me know in the comments if this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?

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Tip #36: Fear And Courage In Fiction

Fear

There are so many ways that fear and courage can crop up in fiction. In a fight, romance, disaster or life choice. Fear is an excellent way to make the reader empathize with a character. Courage can make your readers like them more.

So what is courage?

As a concept, innate courage does not make much sense. Have you ever met a courageous cat? There are aggressive cats, idiotic cats and loyal cats. But why would a cat be brave? From a survival perspective it has no reason to be brave. Still, a cat and a person can act with courage.

It’s less of a thing in itself and more of a process. Courage connects a motovation with an act, against a background of peril. Your character is in a dangerous situation, but they take a risk and act because they want something.

It can help a writer to think about courage like this. You do not need to worry about recreating an abstract concept of “bravery” in a character. The events create the mood. This provides more room to manoeuvre.

The soldier who fights to defend his/her country might still yelp in fear every time they hear a dog bark. A murderer might bravely track down victims during a police manhunt. The most courageous, and dangerous, people are those who have already promised their soul to Hel and seek no place in Valhalla.

Courage

Why is fear harder to write?

Fear is an emotion, a variety of feelings. It does not need any excuse or purpose. You could be safe in bed, asleep, and still feel afraid. There are countless different types of fear on a sliding scale of severity.

Fear of violence

In that short second when an obscure figure walks around the corner in front of you, what sort of fear is that? It’s a ball in the bottom of your gut which jolts up and punches your heart. It’s an improbable combination of burning adrenaline and ice-cold panic. Find it between the butterflies of stage-fright and vomiting terror of imminent death.

Phobia

This is specific. You see whichever thing frightens or revolts you most. It’s no use, you cannot stop yourself from imagining it on you. Your skin crawls, itches. Terror sets in and you want to slap your arms, set fire to your hair and jump in a river to get it off. Are you scared of insects? Have you ever asked yourself why we do not kill all insects and make the world a better place? Fear can become disgust, anger or degradation.

Fear of emotional loss

Most of you will have experienced this type of fear. It’s hollow. You feel like a passenger trying to climb the Titanic’s hull while it founders. Whatever you try, however desperate, there is no hope in clinging to a sinking ship. It drags something out of you.

Indecision

Fear has many guises. It creeps up on you with least warning when you have a vital choice to make. Experts say most (if not all) of our decisions are subconscious, with only the illusion of conscious thought. Indecision is a war between the silent mega-computer of your mind and an alert fear of the consequences. Stress, fear’s favourite outfit. The shriek of internal gears grinding against each other and a roadblock inside your head.

Fear of the unknown

Here is the most abstract form of fear. Your character stands on a small island of knowledge in a vast sea of the empty and unfamiliar. The void grows around them until it presses inwards, an irresistible force. Your character’s only choice is to bury their head in the sand or attack, burning through the shadows with their desire to understand.

Void

Let me know in the comments if this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?

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Tip #35: Writing Evil

Tip #35: Writing Evil

At the moment I am watching Narcos on Netflix. It’s a fictional series based on the true events of Pablo Escobar‘s life. A number of things in series have stood out for me, as a writer.

I’ve already written about Characters Who Do Bad Things. In that post we looked at how you can draw on your own experience to create a fictional person who robs, kills or commits any other crime/sin.

This is taking things further. Here we will look at “evil”. The evil personality never looks back over their shoulder and recognises the trail of blood and suffering behind them. Their eyes are fixed ahead, ambition drowning out all remorse.

Background

You need a foundation on which to build your evil character. This is neither a criminal background nor a childhood story which rationalises their behaviour. Before they are a villain, they are a human.

In theatre, the script writer or director lets his audience know when to hiss and boo by giving his character a mark of evil. For Shakespeare’s Richard III this is a limp, a crooked back. For others it is black clothing or a scar.

Pablo Escobar

Looking at the example of Narcos (the real Pablo Escobar pictured above), the antihero is a pot-bellied, round cheeked man with an amiable personality. You cannot help feeling as if you could be friends with this guy. He is charming before he is ruthless.

While he is not deformed, that does not mean he has the cut-jaw handsomeness of a Hollywood villain. International drug traffickers tend to look like any other middle-aged businessmen. That is because they are businessmen (although they trade in drugs, exploitation and violence).

Businessman
What real villains look like (not him specifically, he’s a stock photo)

Complexity

What makes Narcos a compelling show to watch, and similar books enthralling reads, is that this likeable character does incredibly depraved acts. How can your character be the epitome of human evil, but also someone the reader feels sympathy for?

I will use another example from real life to demonstrate this. Fair warning, it is a dark topic to discuss. Disturbing.

There are individuals in the world, now and in recent history, who commit some of the worst atrocities possible. In fact, they have at times carried out every one of the most depraved acts of evil imaginable.

But when people encounter them in the news, fiction or film their first reaction is pity. They immediately sympathise with those who carry out massacres and genocides.

How can all of us not only avoid blaming mass-murderers (and worse), but actively empathise with them?

Here is an example of the sort of people we’re talking about:

Child soldier

That is not a short soldier, but a child under the age of fifteen.

Double standards

We all have double standards. Child soldiers prove this point. There are many crimes for which it is impossible to forgive an adult. We are so eager to forgive children for apparently any crime that it has become a problem.

This article was published by an NGO dedicated to protecting children’s rights. If you read it, you might also be shocked to find at the end:

“the majority of children choose to become soldiers and are real players of the conflicts”.

Perhaps you think this only refers to their willingness to be recruited, which they later regret?

“The taboo of child soldiers for armies and the simplistic vision of the phenomenon in public opinion is a major challenge in resolving the problem, because it tends to want to grant a certain immunity to child soldiers, without accounting for the complexity of the problem and the conscious will of the child soldiers.”

How to write evil

This is where you, as an author, can create profound complexity which challenges the reader’s way of thinking and makes them want to absorb as much insight from your novel as possible.

Take a persona who fits the do-no-wrong stereotype: child, beautiful woman, handsome & charming man, religious figure, political champion. Now, add the amiable personality which continues this sense of “good”.

Turn the story on its head with evil. Shock the reader by opposing the character’s personality with their actions.

There is nothing wrong with a traumatic background or circumstances beyond the character’s control which explains how their moral compass became corrupted. Every child soldier is a victim of trauma.

But keep the crucial element of conscious will. Humans are not automatons. At some point there will be a pivotal moment when the character stops thinking “I can’t” or “I have no choice”, but simply says “yes”.

Pure sympathy lets the reader off the hook easily, and nobody said we have to be nice to them.

Let me know in the comments if this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?

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Tip #34: How To Write Fiction (step-by-step)

Key

You probably know how to write fiction from your reading. It’s not a conscious activity for you. But there are times when the words refuse to flow naturally. This post should help when such a catastrophe occurs, giving you a template to work from.

Opening

-Gerald rode into Winchester with his feet dangling down his horse’s flanks, toes resting lazily on the stirrups. Could he honestly call it a town? The state of the streets made him want to turn his eyes away. Sewage ran as a thick brown slurry down a channel in the centre of the street, raining down from windows overhead. Wretched figures in ripped tunics shambled into his path, raising their grubby hands to beg for coin.-

The simplest way to open a chapter is with one paragraph which sets the scene. Your last chapter could have been set anywhere at any time. Show the reader whose eyes they are looking through, where they are, what they see and how they feel about it.

Your reader wants action, active verbs. Rather than Gerald being in Winchester or the town lying between here and there, he is riding into Winchester.

Now you describe the general state or situation of the setting and character. You want this to flow and you want it to be vivid. Rather than treating them separately, describe both setting and person in tandem.

Gerald is turning his nose up and being haughty because the town is in a sorry state. The use of adjectives such as wretched, nouns like sewage and verbs like shambled continues to show Gerald’s distaste while giving more detail about the town and its occupants.

Not once have we explicitly said that Gerald is haughty or the town is a mess. Instead, we’re supplying individual, intriguing fragments which combine to give the reader whichever picture we want to paint.

Purpose

-Where had the damned man agreed to meet him? Gerald did not care for murderers and their ilk, but desperate deeds required desperate men to carry them out. For the sum of coin he had offered, the assassin should have put up a gilded statue to guide him on his way. God, have mercy on his soul. He could feel the sweat pricking his scalp.-

At the moment, your reader is flying without fuel in their engine. You needed that opening to set the scene, but you have temporarily deprived the reader of the main plot. Re-capture their attention before they fall away by showing them why the character is there and how they feel about this part of their plot.

Gerald has a rendezvous with a hired assassin and he is on edge about the meeting. That explanation took one sentence, but as with the above, you do not want to be explicit. You can introduce each element of the purpose individually via a series of revelations.

Reveal 1: The meeting is revealed through a question Gerald asks himself. Self-questioning also conveys a sense of doubt.

Reveal 2: You find out he is meeting a murderer through his general opinion of such men. This adds information about his persona, how he views violent types. Ilk says upper class and desperate deeds adds a sense of urgency or importance.

Reveal 3: Gerald’s thoughts on how the murderer could have helped him find the meeting let us know it is murder for hire. There is also a sense that he is indignant. He expects more for his money.

Non-reveal: His short prayer is not relevant to the main plot. It tells us about his faith, but primarily acts as an add-on to the previous reveal. The prayer suggests that his indignant thought is just an expression of his unease.

Summary: It’s a good idea to have a summary, to cap things off and just in case your reader misread the mood. Gerald is sweating, so he is nervous.

Dialogue

-Was that him? Gerald had imagined from his description the man would be taller, but what other common ruffian would dare to lay a hand on his bridle? A square face bristling with black stubble looked up from beneath the hood of a dark cloak.

“Have you brought my coin, lord?” the murderer asked.

Gerald blinked. His throat was dry as parchment and he could not swallow. How dare the man address him first? “I have brought it, but you must show me proof.”

“Proof you can have, but not here.”- 

By this point you, the author, are getting nervous as well. It’s been a while since your reader saw some dialogue and there is a chance the prose is drying out before their eyes. Your task is to drag another character in front of the lead and get them talking.

Bring in the character using the same techniques as above, keeping it short. Dialogue should not trouble you because it is so versatile. Prose can come before, after, in the middle. Use it to show how your characters react, feel and what they are thinking.

Gerald is surprised so he blinks. This reaction can be short, snappy. His throat is dry because he is afraid. He responds to fear, like unease, by being indignant.

Moving forward

The dialogue and plot will now go some way towards driving the prose from this point. Activity will occur inside or outside the characters’ heads.

The murderer has to lead Gerald somewhere because he said “not here”. There must be either an exchange of payment and proof, or else a twist which means things do not go as Gerald expects. He will react to each of these events and the murderer will react to his behaviour.

This takes the form of alternating dialogue and description. There will be a sequence of description as Gerald and the murderer go to the next location. Winchester will unravel around them as you pick out sights/sounds/smells to describe, highlight Gerald’s reaction to them and give insight into his thoughts about the assassin or the plot.

Then there will be dialogue when they reach their destination and a discussion, conversation or argument takes place. The same pattern will continue to the chapter’s conclusion.

A chapter dominated by dialogue is common. A chapter dominated by description runs the risk of being dry, something I fall victim to and am very aware of when writing.

Curtains down

-Gerald risked a look back towards the town, now sleeping under a starlit sky. Was that the end of it? Somewhere under that blanket of darkness, a murderer would be counting coins in the back room of a tavern filled with warmth and laughter. The cold crept into Gerald’s tunic and gnawed at his skin. God, forgive him for what he had done. He kicked his heels into the horse’s flanks and cantered away down the track. He did not allow the animal to slow until Winchester was swallowed by the settling night behind him.-

Finish the chapter with a piece of description or dialogue which gives the reader a clear signal that it has ended. You can use a cliffhanger or sudden, important event. This is different from being abrupt, where the micro-story ends in the middle of its flow.

Here Gerald has ridden away into the night. The reader is picturing the darkness which gathers around him, so they know that the events of this chapter have concluded.

Alternatively, it could still be light when he leaves Winchester. In that case the murderer might watch him depart, a wry sneer tugging at the corner of his mouth. Or they could clasp hands to seal the deal, Gerald feeling the lines etched into the other man’s palm and pitying the victim who will soon feel them pressed around their throat.

It could even work if the murder asks “How do you intend to pay, if you brought no coin?” and the chapter ends. What is most important about the ending is that it paves the way for the next chapter.

If the next opens with “I brought a diamond the size of your fist.” then the reader feels cheated. They want Gerald’s inability to pay to be a defining event, explored in the following chapter. Similarly, the reader does not want him to ride off into the night and then return as the next chapter opens because he forgot that he hired a room to stay in Winchester.

Do not swallow all the tasty morsels before ending the chapter. Leave something you can chew on in the next one.

Let me know in the comments if this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?

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Tip #33: Writing The Opposite Gender

This is a post about gender issues in creative writing, not society. If any of the views below come across as sexist or feminist, it is unintentional. We’re exploring gender in fiction as a way to prompt thought or debate, to improve our writing.

Gender

The issue with gender in creative writing

In fiction, as in life, there are always at least two genders: male and female, man and woman, Adam and Eve. You, the author, can only ever be one (ignoring any debate about gender fluidity).

So you have a problem. At some point you will need to write a character of the opposite gender in a way which makes them more than just meat for your male/female character. They might even be your protagonist.

I had this problem writing Firequeen (previously The First Covenant). Kai is the female main character and I put a lot of thought into what the significance of that was for me as a writer. Are women motivated by revenge? Do they act on and respond to it in the same way? How are her thoughts different?

Why is there an issue?

You might be thinking this is all nonsense. A “progressive” society for us means one in which men and women are equal. We’re not about to debate that issue. But how can it not be true that men and women are fundamentally different, apart from physically?

Hydra

The exceptional creature above would disagree. It’s a member of the Hydra genus and (as well as not ageing!) it reproduces asexually. Growing up with a different physical and hormonal structure to the opposite gender creates variations in thought and behaviour.

Minoan woman

Do you recognise the above figure? It’s an Early Cycladic figurine from 3300-2700 B.C. The artist took great care to sculpt the model so that it would be recognisable as female. Drawing a distinction between male and female in art is a tradition going back millennia.

Your readers expect characters to think, speak or act differently based on gender. Their behaviour might overlap, but at least a small distinction will be made.

How do you write about the opposite gender?

Male/female characters will be meat for your protagonist on occasion. Your main character will be somewhere and you need X to walk past. Is X male or female? Are they attractive or ugly? Do they strut or shuffle? Do they have a PhD in astrophysics and a sense of humour to make a Hydra chuckle?

One of those questions was irrelevant. This is a filler character, more minor than any other. They’re meat and their gender will be decided to suit the author’s purpose.

But sometimes your protagonist will be a member of the opposite gender. In that case you can’t make them meat. You have to get inside their head.

Save yourself the trouble and accept that you cannot understand how a man/woman thinks. Every human mind is unique. That is both the problem and the solution. You do not need to understand the male/female mind because you can make it up.

Give each main character a unique persona and this in itself will draw a distinction between them. Whatever your subconscious gender bias does not include, the reader’s innate preconceptions will fill in.

Put yourself in the lead character’s place and try to give a real impression of the human mind rather than the male/female mind. The gender boundaries will draw themselves.

Our Early Cycladic sculptor did not write “female” on his figurine. He carved a human form and left the viewer to draw whatever assumptions they wished.

Let me know in the comments if this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?

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