Explore the Fictional Character That You Present to Readers | Jane Friedman

Explore the Fictional Character That You Present to Readers | Jane Friedman

Photo by 愚木混株 cdd20 on Unsplash

Today’s guest post is excerpted from the new book The writer’s Voice: Techniques for Tuning your Tone and Style by Anne Janzer (@AnneJanzer).

In December 2022, the New York Times challenged several children’s authors and writing teachers to identify whether ChatGPT or human 4th graders wrote a collection of essays.

The experts could not always tell the difference. Nor could I. Many of us find that unsettling.

When we read, we form an image of the narrator as a human being. With good fiction, characters come to life in our heads. Even when we encounter writing from a “brand” or a chatbot, it’s hard to resist giving it a personality. (I thank automated help chatbots when they answer my questions.)

Your readers probably don’t know you personally. As they read your words, they interpret your voice and create an idea of the person writing those words. They construct an image of you that is, in a sense, a fictional character.

Even the most dedicated journalists, memoirists, and professional writers engage in a type of fiction: the way they portray themselves in print. When we write in our own voice, we present a curated version of ourselves. The complete self would never fit.

We do this almost without thinking. In my survey about writing voice, two-thirds of respondents reported writing in a professional voice for a portion of their work. No doubt they sound different when writing fiction, personal essays, journals, and emails to friends and family.

What happens if we think of ourselves as fictional characters—even if we write nonfiction? Could this increase the fluidity of our writing?

Here are three exercises you can use to explore the fictional character you present, even if you write nonfiction.

Sketch your character 

In this exercise, you’re going to sketch a brief character profile of the narrator (which might be you) as that persona relates to the work at hand.

  • If you write in your own voice, remember that you present only a specific slice of yourself on the page—the one the reader needs. 
  • If you write fiction with an omniscient narrator, that persona still has a point of reference, a lens on the world, and a distinct voice.

How about memoir? Isn’t that really you on the page? Yes, although it represents you at a specific time of life. So, draw a quick character profile of yourself at that time, as related to your memoir’s theme. Your entire life won’t fit.

This isn’t the bio that would appear on a book jacket, filled with your credentials—leave that for another time. You’re trying to capture the personality you hope to project in the writing voice. You can do that in a few short paragraphs.

Keep the writing in the third person so you can zoom out and get perspective.

Remember, you don’t have to show this to anyone.

As you do this, consider:

  • What can you do with the insights from this exercise?
  • Does this shape ideas about what you want your writing voice to be?

Pick 3 adjectives 

Here’s a useful marketing trick. Pick three adjectives that you would like to embody in your writing. They can be anything: smart, expert, funny, compassionate, nerdy, whatever. The options are nearly infinite—and that’s the fun of it.

You can only claim three, so choose carefully. You’ll be lucky to communicate two consistently.

Now choose one of your adjectives and take it to an absurd extreme. For example, one of my adjectives is curious. If I went overboard, I might write an email like this to friends:

Remember that we’re getting together Saturday for wine tasting at 6pm at Pat’s place. I wonder what wines everyone will bring—and if there are any great tasters in our midst. I read a book by a Master Sommelier, and it includes a tasting grid. Does anyone want to try it with me? Maybe we should make it a blind tasting and see how our different senses compare. Is anyone planning to spit out the wine? and what’s the best food to accompany wine tasting? I’ll do some research and bring a snack that works well.

(See how annoying it can be to go too far?)

Try going overboard with one of your own adjectives. Either write a paragraph or two on a current project or use the following prompt: Write an email to friends about a gathering on Saturday.

Having tried the extreme, consider how far you usually go on this spectrum. Does your writing show up displaying the voice you want? Too much or too little of it?

Try on another character

Pick a favorite fictional character—one you know well and that you can inhabit easily.

Choose characters with distinct voices. For example, if you love reading mysteries, pick your favorite sleuth or detective: Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade. Consider any of the Harry Potter characters. Or, try on a movie character.

Put them to work writing for you. How would Snape write that email? How would Yoda begin your blog post?

For example, I tried asking Poirot to describe my favorite hike, and he just complained about his shoes and the lack of a tisane.

If you don’t have a writing project in mind, use this prompt:

Write about a specific place you love from the perspective of your chosen character, who may or may not love it.

Pay attention to what you learn from writing in another voice.

  • Was it fun to write in an unfamiliar voice?
  • Did writing as another character shift your perspective? For example, if you used the prompt, did it make you consider the place again through a new lens?
  • Are there elements of that character’s voice you might call on in the future?

portrait of author Anne Janzer

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