Getting into character for first-person narratives

I'm either playing Mr. Bumble from Oliver or a flasher in a trench coat.
I’m either playing Mr. Bumble from Oliver or a flasher in a trench coat.

When I decided to make The Ghosts of Reseda High a first-person narrative, I had to go back to my experiences at Reseda High School to figure out how to write it.

In high school, I performed in several musicals. In a 1978 production of Dames at Sea, I played Hennesey, the harried Broadway producer. As a testament to my singing abilities, I had the only role that didn’t have a solo. (And no, we didn’t do the shared Hennesey/Captain role in our production.) My acting experience taught me a lot about getting into character. I had to learn the character’s mannerisms, how that person spoke, and even how that person felt. You can consider it a junior varsity version of method acting, but it was a lot of fun — and helpful.

How does acting help in writing a first-person narrative?

When writing in first person, I have to become the character. Backstory and character development become important in understanding the narrator, even if all the information doesn’t appear on the page. What is this person’s upbringing? How do they see themselves and the world? How do they speak? What words do they use? How do they act when they’re happy? Nervous? Upset? And what makes them happy, nervous, or upset? Who are their friends and why? How do they respond to the reactions of others? What are their greatest hopes and fears?

These are the basics of method acting, but writing a first-person narrative requires more work than that. The advantage of the page over the stage is that we can experience what a character is thinking and sensing, not just what they’re saying and doing. This requires the writer to go even deeper than an actor.

A writer has to experience what it’s like to be in that character’s body. Is the character healthy or sickly? Is he athletic or does he have chronic pain? How does it feel when he picks up a silk tie, a hot pan, or a cold beer? If that character has sex, how does it feel physically and emotionally to him? If that character gets sick or injured, how does it feel? How much pain does he suffer? How does he deal with it?

There are a couple things to consider when using a first-person narrative.

The narrator has to be somewhat likeable, even if he is a villain.

We want the narrator to be someone who (at least at the beginning) seems likeable or interesting enough for the reader to want to inhabit his skin. A great example is American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. The narrator is the worst kind of villain, but he’s appealing because of his 1980s wealth and impeccable style. He is a person to be abhorred, but he is also someone we have to admit that we admire.

The narrator’s knowledge must be limited.

In everyday life, we don’t know everything that is going on, including the things that may be important to us. The same must be true with the narrator. As writers, we can imply something is going on outside of the narrator’s knowledge, but we can’t say it explicitly until the narrator finds out.

For example, if the narrator’s wife is cheating on him, you can show her spending time away from him with increasingly flimsier explanations of why. He can find unexplained charges on her credit card and the same phone number showing up on her cell phone. Readers may think they know what is going on, but they have no more facts than the narrator.

You also need to show how the narrator reacts to the information he gets. Does he deny it, even as the evidence becomes stronger? Does he become suspicious? Paranoid? Does he confront his wife? Is he too afraid to admit what he thinks he knows?

Writers talk about the “unreliable narrator,” but our limited knowledge and our emotions surrounding that knowledge make everyone unreliable narrators of our own stories. This is why the sensation is so powerful when the narrator and the reader realize the truth.

The key in writing an effective first-person narrator is to understand everything about that person, how he sees the world, and how he reacts to what he sees. To do that, you need to get into character.