“Why am I telling you of all this?”

I almost always write in the first person, and so I need to be able to crawl inside my protagonist’s skin. I need to know why they act as they do, feel as they do, and why this story is important. Why are they telling me this story? What’s its significance?

This is something I’ve struggled to overcome in my writing. I have characters living inside my head that I don’t know well enough to commit eighty- or ninety-thousand words to them. I’d much rather that they pay rent, so I’ve started having them write the story’s preface.

Here are a couple things to include in order to successfully learn your main character’s message and to get a glimpse into their personality.

  • Where they are after the story–If the main character is the point of view character, chances are that they survive in the end. But don’t be afraid to write the character viewing the world from after their death. So show your readers a glimpse into how the story ends. Make the situation interesting enough that they will want to see how the character got there.
  • Let your character speak their own words–Don’t over-think what you’re writing. Instead, let your fingers fly across the keyboard and don’t censor your character. You’ll be surprised what actually comes out of their mouth.
  • Don’t show your hand–Your character may know exactly how the story ends, but that doesn’t mean your reader should. Foreshadow the drama of the end and create enough suspense that your reader won’t be able to stop turning the pages.
  • For your eyes only–This little exercise doesn’t have to make it into your final draft. It doesn’t need to be in your first, either. It serves its purpose so long as you know your character, and your story, a little better by the end of it.

I’ve done this a few times, and I’ve noticed a better understanding of my characters. I usually go through multiple drafts because each time I get closer and closer to my character. I learn why this story is important to them and why it must be told. If their motivation motivates me to write for them, then a reader will get caught up in it too. They’ll keep turning the pages beyond the first chapter. And they’ll remember the book long after they’ve finished the last sentence.

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