Character in Poetry

When writing, many new poets make the mistake of telling us a thing as opposed to showing it.  In truth, many writers, not just poets suffer from this habit.  Let’s look at how to avoid that pitfall.

We’ve all read the angst-ridden emotional poetry of our teenage days, singing a song of woe, telling us how they feel.  Consider such pieces, if they were re-written to show us instead.  I could tell you how an event made me feel, how it affected me, and you would have some understanding, but it would be limited to an emotional span.  If the reader didn’t connect with that particular emotion, we would find them bored and disinterested.  On the other hand, were I to tell them what happened, show the event that inspired the piece, or even a similar event that evokes the same response, that allows a broader understanding.  An easy way to do this is to insert character into poetic form.  If I create a fictional character, within a fictional setting, and set it to poetic form the reader now has someone to associate with.  That character can be as in-depth as is needed for a piece.

I have seen pieces written about specific characters from history, Napoleon Bonaparte writing a fictional letter to his beloved wife as he waited for death while incarcerated.  There was a piece entitled Rebel Quantrill, written in the voice of William Quantrill, an American civil war guerrilla fighter.  Then again, there have been countless pieces written about or from the viewpoint of a completely fictional character.  Sometimes these characters are given name and story, at other times they are merely an invisible, nondescript being that exists as a story-telling device.  Many ballads take this approach.  Consider if you will, a piece like Broken Dreams of a Broken King.  (one of mine, found in January under Unexpected Question.)  It has a clear character interaction, though the speaker is never identified.  Still, the emotion is apparent, the story is there.  We never know who the character is, and we don’t need to, we know the experience and can empathize with that.  Consider also the previously featured piece Dreams of Flight.   (This can be found in A Comparative Study, under February.)  We never know who the speaker is, but we feel the journey and experience it with him.  That piece would have been much less effective if it were written as ‘I feel’.  The difference between saying I feel and in describing what is felt is massive.

This brings me to a fascinating philosophical point of what I like to call ‘I, self’ mentality.  The I, self always describes things happening to him, from his perspective.  To the I, self the thought process is always I first, I think this, I feel this.  If we avoid that in writing, we can show what happened as opposed to telling it, which offers the reader a better chance of empathizing.

Try an exercise, write a poem without using the word ‘I’ once.  See if you can, see what you can come up with.  Let the story behind the I take center stage and avoid mentioning the I.  If you write an experience as it was experienced, give it away to a character.  Make it he or she, as opposed to I,  and see how it flows.  If we are writing an experience into a piece, or an emotion, then we are already giving it away, so why cling to the scraps of ownership?  Allow it to be completely put out there, keep none of it for yourself.

In conclusion, the idea here is to include the reader, never exclude them.  You can create a character for them to empathize with, you can avoid any personification if you prefer, but to tell a story will always be just that.  If you as a writer wish your readers to feel the piece with you, allow them to, show them how it felt by bringing them along with you on that journey.  Give the experience to them, allow them to feel it for themselves and they will remember it.


One thought on “Character in Poetry

  1. I’m getting some great responses already for this challenge, in a few more days I’ll post them in a follow up. Great work, poets, keep them coming!


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