A while back, Facebook friend Diana May-Waldman asked me, “When you write, do you ever get stuck in character for a little while?” My initial response was an instantaneous, “no,” but then I got to thinking about it.
I write two series in first person: my Eddie LaCrosse novels, and the Firefly Witch short stories. When you write in first person, you’re telling the story in a particular character’s voice, not your own. It may be similar–I’m not sure how you could avoid that, especially if you’re writing a series–but even if it’s identical to the way you speak to yourself in your head, to the reader is becomes the inner voice of your character, and you have to be aware of that.
After five novels and a handful of short stories, it’s now incredibly easy for me to slip into Eddie LaCrosse’s voice. And it’s a fun voice: he’s cynical, which means he’s got a great sense of humor, and he’s seen everything, so it takes a lot to impress him. Part of the enjoyment of writing the series is thinking of new things just to see how he’ll react. And because he’s the viewpoint character, it also means that I never have to worry about how to present something: everything comes through his perceptions. If he doesn’t experience it, it must not be too important to the story.
Ry Tully, my other first-person character, is different in a lot of crucial ways. First, he’s not the main character of his stories: his wife Tanna is. In the same way Watson chronicles Sherlock Holmes, Ry gives us Tanna’s adventures from an outsider’s perspective. He’s a down-to-earth small-town newspaper editor, while she’s witch, a psychic and a college professor. And the reasons for this are probably the same ones that led Conan Doyle to his approach: Tanna often knows things that would kill the suspense if we were inside her head. Far more importantly, Ry represents the reader in a way Tanna never could. He’s amazed, astounded, and terrified by what they encounter, while Tanna seldom is; and when she is, it amazes/astounds/terrifies Ry even more.
(Another interesting thing about Ry: I have no “ideal” image of him in my head. I’ve always envisioned Alien-era Tom Skerritt as Eddie, and Nancy Travis as Tanna, but when I thought about who best visually represented Ry, I came up blank. Perhaps it’s because I originally wrote about Eddie in third-person, and saw him objectively, before deciding to shift to his perspective, whereas Ry has always been written in first person, so I’ve always looked out from his eyes.)
I’ve been writing about Ry Tully almost as long as I have Eddie LaCrosse, and both reflect the hard-boiled influences of Hammett, Chandler and Parker, all of whom wrote stories with cynical, tough, first-person narrators. And there are undeniable similarities between these two characters. But in my head, they’re never the same, and only occasionally do I find myself saying, “Whoops, that’s something Ry would say, not Eddie,” or vice versa.
So I’ll have to modify my original answer to, “Rarely.” But thanks, Diana, for making me think about it in ways I never have. It’s always good to pick apart your inner process and make sure you’re not sabotaging yourself.