People who liberally sprinkle their conversation with “I”s tend to be at the least irritating, at the worst egomaniacal. But when it comes to fiction, the use of “I” is a whole different story.
When a character speaks to you in first person, she is inviting you into her world in a more intimate way than third-person writing can usually achieve. Not only do you see what the character does, says, and thinks, but you see the actual language of her thoughts—and that language can reveal character more clearly in one sentence than a third-person treatment does in a whole chapter.
A few months ago, I completed the second draft of a middle-grade fantasy novel. People who read it found the world engaging, the plot gripping, but all said they couldn’t really connect with the main character. Some thought the problem was intrinsic to the character—a 12-year-old British choirboy named Danny. But other comments led me to think it wasn’t Danny himself that was the problem, but only the fact that I hadn’t let the reader deeply enough into his head.
So I tried an exercise I’d heard recommended, and had myself recommended to a friend: Write a scene in first person to find the character’s true voice.
It worked. Too well. So well that it convinced me I needed to rewrite the entire book.
In first person, Danny is alive, accessible, relatable, even though he’s not the typical American kid. His struggles and longings are universal in essence though unique in specifics. He has a flair for odd but enlightening images and his own dry sense of humor. His life is fairly rotten, but nevertheless he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s an introvert, but one you feel it would be worthwhile getting to know.
And the thing that most fascinates me about Danny is that I did not create him. Not consciously, at any rate. Like all the best characters I’ve written about, he sprang fully formed onto the page as soon as I gave him a voice. I don’t know if I should credit the Girls in the Garage (my version of James Scott Bell’s “Boys in the Basement,” the subconscious mind at work), or my muse, or divine inspiration. All I know is, Danny lives, and I am grateful.
Now I just have to put in sufficient hours of derriere-in-chair to get his story onto the page.