Coming on Too Strong

What makes the first-person narrative voice compelling can in inexperienced hands prove off-putting. The immediacy of the style is its foremost lure. Merging with a character is easier when the words seem to come from your own mouth. You can be casual with readers, letting them in on your asides, wry or otherwise. What is often lost amid all the familiarity, however, is: something worth reading about.

One way the trap of too much self-reference opens is because a writer who is bold enough to betray confidences may be used to carrying the real world by storm. That is true of many writers who turn to writing after a successful career. Along the way even a formerly shy teenager who felt most at home in a library may have shed that outsider skin after learning how to tell a good joke or acing the competition to a level that is well above respectable. 

All of those accomplishments are part and parcel of the insider approach. To a certain extent, they are beneficial. Readers need to grasp an ongoing onslaught of commentary, and citing experiences familiar to them smooths that path. Past a certain point, though, well-schooled patter must be abandoned in order to stake out truly new ground. I personally prefer that the process start on page one, but I’ll give an author 10 pages to show what’s up their sleeve.

Can you get out of your own way fast enough? I don’t want, for instance, wry commentary on a gated community. I want one whacko who is actively causing trouble in the community. All of the intimate details of the I-voice may cause a narrative to unwind too deliberately. You may think that the jaw-dropping incident in Chapter 4 will rivet the reader to the page, but what if I don’t get to Chapter 4? What if I get tired of the narrator being such an excellent yuppie?

A majority of writers would be better off choosing a protagonist that doesn’t resemble their life story at all. You have your take on the world that is going to flavor the story no matter what. Yet if you begin with what is foreign, you will have to follow the character’s strange ways—because you chose that starting point. Get to that jaw-dropper on page 4.

Exercise: The protagonist will always be you. So at a very early stage, think through what you want your themes to be. How could your lead character exemplify those themes? If you pick someone too much like you, you’ll see right away if the story’s obstacles are too ordinary. Go way beyond that—and find a character who would actually do that stuff.

“The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” ―Charlotte Brontë

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.