Writing the “I” Out of Your Fiction

Novelists draw from their own lives to make their scenes come alive. But too much autobiographical material can sink your fiction.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss ways to keep your fiction (and memoir) from becoming too “I”-centric.

Write What You Know

We write out of our own experiences—and that’s a good thing. Yet if we base all our characters, actions and reactions upon ourselves, fiction can feel one-dimensional. In your fictional world, you’ll want a cast of characters that don’t all sound like you.

If you reach inside for every character’s personality, attitude and actions, your fiction will sound as if there is only one person represented—you. You want your cast to reflect the world where you’ve set your story. Maybe this is why readers chafe against characters who don’t feel authentic or who seem to only reflect the author’s experiences.

Much has been written about authors who co-opt a culture they themselves have little to no connection to—think the memoir about being raised by wolves, subsequently found to be fabricated. These days, if you aren’t a member of an ethnicity or culture, readers will demand you not try to embody those values. Again, write what you know.

Take Notes

So how do we ensure our fiction isn’t sounding too much like the writer? One way I try to expand my catalog of personality types or cultures is by keen observations that I write in a file or journal. As a careful observer, you can expand your range of personalities and attitudes simply by jotting down sketches of things you experience in daily life. When I was younger, I had a trove of memories to draw upon—and I still do. But the times change and with them, cultural, and societal norms. Be current.

They say a key to good writing is in the act of perpetual noticing. Be an observer, no matter what the occasion. Take details from several sources to create a unique character for your writing. This is called a composite character and can be very helpful in masking a real-life person’s identity.

When you invent your characters and world, try to avoid stereotyping. Even bad guys usually have something redemptive in them.  We’re all complex, with varying degrees of good and not-so-good qualities. By tapping into a character’s motivations, you can draw a more three-dimensional character for your work—even if that person wears a black hat. Or a tiny American flag.

Try not to stereotype your fictional characters.

Emotions Dictate Action

When you write your story be sure that different characters don’t all reflect your own emotional reactions. This is a key component of avoiding the “I” trap. Different people act and react differently. Their emotions are dictated by their pasts, their presents and their hopes for the future.

Another caveat: Try to keep your urges to educate readers out of your fiction. Too many stories and novels shove information or specific biases into their work. These ulterior motives almost always slow down your story and clutter it with what feels to readers like a demand. Let readers experience your story, feel all the emotions and come to their own conclusions.

These emotions tie into motivations. We fiction writers hear a lot about motivation, and it’s true that a character’s motivations drive a story. Use your own lifetime of experiences in your work but remember to examine it for your own prejudices and preferences. By varying your characters’ motivations, you’ll be more likely to end up with a well-rounded work that readers can believe in.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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