Writing Through A Stranger’s Eyes

I get variations on the following question frequently:

How do I write in first-person and still sound like someone else?

Here’s my answer.

I have one basic process that, if you try it, will help your first-person characters not all sound like you. It’s this:

Become that person.

Close your eyes, feel yourself living inside that other person’s body. Are you fat? Skinny? Short? Tall? Breathe in, and notice how your lungs expand in this new body, how your change in height and weight makes you sit differently in your chair, how if you walk, your body moves differently.

Imagine how you speak—your accent, the words you use—they’ll be different. The sound of your voice will be different. How you see colors, how you hear sounds, how you taste food will all be different because you’re inside someone else’s skin. If this body you’re inhabiting smokes, you won’t be able to taste or smell much.

If YOU smoke, they’re tasting and smelling things you have forgotten.

Imagine how they think, how they feel, what they do—and with your eyes closed, do all these things from inside this other body.

Then you write.

Hope that helps.

SOME ADDITIONAL DETAILS ON THIS CONCEPT

First person is a unique viewpoint. It is “I went, I ran, I fought, I lived, I loved, I mattered.” Not he, not she. Me.

But it can’t be the “ME” that is you. First person requires you to know all the things you know, but to know all the things someone else knows, too.

You have to imagine what armor feels like from the inside. You have to feel it bearing down on you as you move. You have to see only what you can see through tiny slits, or rows of little holes. You have to feel where the padding chafes, where your movement is slowed. You have to feel the enormous blind spot where most of your vision should be.

You have to imagine what running into a burning building feels like from the inside. Your heart has to pound, your mouth has to go dry, you have to know that if you fail, someone dies, and maybe you die too.

I love writing in first person, because it is as deep into seeing the world through other eyes as I can get. I love being in someone else’s head. I love writing their words in their voice.

To do this, I have to spend time in their body, have to have lived their childhood, have to have known their friends, liked their hobbies, and walked in their neighborhood. I can do all of this in my head.

When it’s in my head, I can write with their voice.

Doing so is thrilling, it’s fascinating, it’s compelling.

And if you haven’t yet tried it, do. It can change the way you see the world.

Write with joy,

Holly

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Tell A Writer
Holly Lisle
 

Novelist, writing-nerd, dissector of thought processes, writing course creator and site owner here, Holly Lisle has a cat that plays fetch and a whole lotta stuff on HollyLisle.com for both readers and writers.

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