I spent a good portion of the last few days reading submissions, and whenever I do so in a concentrated period of time, I start to trip over writing patterns. In this case, the pattern emerged almost immediately, as it only served to solidify a suspicion I’d been forming for months: First person POVs are all starting to sound the same.
This is an exaggeration, of course, but not much of one. First person seems to have become the point-of-view of choice, particularly in young adult fiction where I rarely see anything else, and in some cases it is brilliantly done. There’s always a shining star of an example, a project where the voice is distinctive and consistent and draws you into the story. Unfortunately, these instances are few and far between.
First person narrative offers the writer a very specific set of challenges, the most obvious one being to come across sounding like the character and not like oneself. With young adult fiction, the second most common problem is capturing the teen voice—sounding like the young adult in question rather than a grown up struggling to remember their own teen years. Unfortunately, what seems to be happening is that writers stop there. They appear to believe that sounding unlike themselves and/or like a teenager is sufficient, and they move on to address other writing issues, from plot to pacing. But those challenges are only the beginning.
Who is your character? Who is this person telling the story? What makes them different, unique, worthy of taking the role of storyteller? First person protagonists are more than their actions within the story, they are the voice that welcomes the reader into the world, and as such the writer’s job is to know exactly how that character sounds. Who are they, and how is that reflected in the way they speak?
Speech patterns are a vital part of characterization, whether you write in first person, second, or third. Word choice and rhythms convey everything you wish to tell, or conceal, about your characters, and this is especially important when you are focusing on the voice of your story. What part of the country or world is the narrator from? You don’t need to spell out a heavy-handed, hard-to-read accent in order to make it clear that your speaker is from the American South or Asia or Eastern Europe; word order and vocabulary choice, along with a few facts, can put that voice firmly into the reader’s mind. Is your narrator well educated? From a wealthy background? Or do they come from a rural, poverty stricken locale where most kids stop going to school by the time they’re sixteen? How would each of these individuals sound?
Even characters who come from an average background—suburban teens whose main concerns are boys, grades, and parents—need to sound like individuals. If the character is interesting enough to become the focus of your novel, they are interesting enough to have a specific voice. The average teen narrator crawls out of my submissions pile sounding whiny and self-involved. The teen years can seem to be a selfish time anyway, but adding on a poorly written first person POV makes the entire opening of a manuscript sound like me, me, me. Even if that is your character’s persona at the start of the story, it cannot come across in a generic manner.
So how do you make your character sound unique? You need to get to know them, and often this happens in the process of writing your book. As the story progresses, most writers learn more about their protagonists than they did when they began, discovering how they react in various situations and what that says about who they are and how they come across to the reader. The key is to go back to the beginning once you’ve made these discoveries and incorporate them into your character’s opening voice. Don’t just revise for plot consistencies—make sure your character sounds consistent as well. This is important for any point of view, but with first person any deviation in personality or voice is much more obvious—and much more jarring.
Also, ask yourself what your character would be willing to share. Just because the thought might go through their head, does not mean it is something that needs to be voiced within the confines of the story. Restraint can sometimes be a good thing. In the same way that you should not include every bit of research you’ve uncovered while preparing to write your book, you should not have your protagonist blurt out every fact about themselves or idea to cross their mind simply because you, as the author, know that it exists. Information can inform the character’s personality without being included in the narrative itself.
First person POV can be an exciting, wonderful way to draw a reader into a story, but, if poorly done, it can also bore them to tears within a matter of pages. With first person, a reader knows almost instantly that this is the voice they are going to be following, this is the character who will lead them on their journey, and your job as the writer is to make that character a compelling one—someone with whom the reader wants to spend some time. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be likeable—they can be intriguing or fascinating without being nice or loveable—but they do need to sound distinctive and to make the reader curious.