Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How to Express Emotion in First Person

How to express emotion in first person

First person point of view is used to display a character's voice to the reader. For many writers, third person sounds to formal, too distant, to effectively reveal a character's internal tone and voice. First person lets the protagonist tell us the story through his own personal filter of personality. In essence, the author tells the story in third person. The character tells us the story through first person. When your character's wit, intelligence, pain, and/or insights are as valuable to the story as the events or plot, tell the story in first person.

The flip side of the first person filter is that it is, well, a filter. That means every action and event is perceived by the character, and then the character tells us about it. If your character is truly engaging, then that's fine. Most of the time. But in a story's most important, gripping moments, we don't want somebody else to tell us as story. We want to live the story. We want to get so absorbed in the narrative that we forget about everything else that's happening around us. And for that to happen, your character needs to get away.

How to Express Emotion in First Person

Show, don't tell. It's in expressing emotion where we most commonly violate this truism. But it's in first person where it's most deadly to violate it. When your character tells us about an emotion he's feeling, that emotion is being processed through a logical filter - and the emotion itself is lost. In the case of expressing emotion, "show, don't tell" can be taken in two ways.

Don't think, act. When we get angry, we don't think "I got angry." Our fists clinch, heat rises to our face, and our actions become aggressive. When we are hurt, we stop, and the sensation becomes the only thought on our minds. Everything else loses importance to us as we focus on that one source of pain, and try to eliminate it.

Backstory is king. Our most powerful emotions are bared when years of planning, caring and worrying are stripped bare in a moment. That isn't the type of sentiment that can be expressed in a line, or a paragraph. The groundwork for true pain is laid in the setting of the story. Your fear of drowning began when you saw your mother drown as a child. When you get near water, you have flashbacks to that moment. So when you see your own child drowning in the water, it has significance to you beyond the obvious turmoil of the situation itself. And to continue with that line of thought.

Let the action do the work. To continue with the previous example, a mother watching her child, in and of itself, is a traumatic event. It can't exist on its own, but while it's happening, try just letting it happen. The input from your character can come during the editing process. Take a look at how the event looks uncut to get some perspective on where commentary is needed.

Remove the filter. "I felt my hands shake" is wrong. The correct sentence is "My hands shook." New writers (myself first and foremost) have the habit of over-using the protagonist's voice in critical moments. The voice needs to be used to set up those moments, sure. But when the game is on the line, your character's witticisms and grave observations need to be thrown to the wayside, at least most of the time.

Like all writing advice, these are guidelines, not rules. The important lesson is awareness, not a specific technique. There are more different ways of thinking about this than I could cover, or even imagine. First person is an important point of view for character expression, but it needs to be moderated as much as it is explored in a successful story.

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