f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 3 of Characterization – The Protagonist Paradox

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Day 3 of Characterization – The Protagonist Paradox

In first-person books or third-person limited manuscripts I see there is a, perhaps, unexpected trap into which many novelists falls—their main character is indistinct.

It’s probably the last thing you’d expect. Here’s a novel starring this character and yet because the bulk of the narrative focus is filtered through their perspective they become flat, their voice muted in our need to “drive” the story. They become themselves, but they also become our mouthpiece as well…unless we’re really careful to keep in their voice.

A few (very random) suggestions for establishing an authentic, engaging, but not overwhelming voice:

1.) Repetition of phrases. Most of us have little pet phrases that we use in conversation. Create some unique ones (or borrow them from someone other than yourself) and sprinkle them throughout, especially in dialogue. I wouldn’t worry about putting too many in…easier to take out, than add.

2.) Write in some real person’s voice that you know well. You’ll end up adapting it to your needs, but it might give you the flow you need to start.

3.) This may sound fanciful, but pick a style of music you think best represents how your character “sounds” and play that music when you write.

4.) Stop writing when the only sound in your head is your own voice.

I’m sure there’s tons of other ways, too, but I don’t want to start playing writing coach. I will turn the question around and ask “What’s worked for you?”

I’ve faced this paradox in my first two books and I’m facing in my current work. Side characters will often drop right into their “voice” and yet I’ve not fashioned out a distinct enough place for my main characters to speak. It’s a weakness of mine as a writer, so I want to make sure to let you folks, who may have found more success, speak out.


Go to Day 4 of our discussion of Characterization.