How to Write a Character Poem
Dynamic characters don't belong solely to fiction writing. Character poems, also known as persona poetry, are a genre where authors take on the roles of people other than themselves. Sometimes they are spoken in first-person, directly in the character's voice, but they can also be third-person accounts of the character's intimate thoughts. Writing a character poem requires you to select a unique persona, perfect the character's point of view and craft a piece that reveals his or her voice.
Choosing a Persona
The word "persona" comes from the Greek word for "mask." Think of character poetry as the wearing of a mask of another person, as if you were attending a costume party. From historical figures to literary characters to famous people, you are not limited by the number of personae you can choose from. In "Jessica, From the Well," Lucie Brock-Broido speaks as Jessica McClure, an 18-month-old girl who was trapped for two days after falling down a well. Edgar Allan Poe wrote his own character poem "Annabelle Lee," which tells a haunting story of lost love from the viewpoint of a fictional speaker.
A New Perspective
Effective character poetry offers a fresh take on an existing story. If you are writing from the perspective of an well-known character, writing what readers already know won't leave an impression. However, imagining your way into the character's mind can reveal a unique perspective. Mary Ann Samyn's book "Captivity Narrative" includes several poems about Alice from "Alice in Wonderland," where Samyn imagines Alice's confused and awestruck thoughts throughout her journeys. The story itself is known to readers, but the poems attempt to present a new voice and source of internal conflict.
Creating character poetry is like an actor creating a role for a play; as the Writer's Resource Center states, "you are writing as if you were that other character." You should imagine what the characters' voices would sound like, what things they might notice and how they might interpret these experiences. You might consider the characters' ages, interests and beliefs to shape how each voice sounds. In "Spoon River Anthology," Edgar Lee Masters writes from the perspective of over 200 characters who speak from the grave about their lives. From children to the elderly, Masters renders a unique voice for each character.
Form, a poem's structure into lines and stanzas, can be used in character poetry to mirror the speaker's circumstances or personality. Because of the characters' unique voices, authors often choose free-verse, creating their own form without any pattern of rhyme or meter. Samyn's poem "Alice Falling" takes an erratic free-verse form, reflecting the character's confused state. On the other hand, Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" uses iambic pentameter, an extremely rigid form with a pattern of ten syllables alternating stressed and unstressed in each line. Narrated by a nobleman suspected of poisoning his wife, the measured form reflects his desire to maintain composure and cover his lie.
In the end, character poetry should teach us something new about humanity, history and the meaning of stories. According to "Hinged Journal of Converging Arts," character poetry lets authors "travel between space and time" in a search for their voice's significance, often speaking for those who cannot. In "34," Patricia Smith writes from the perspective of the 34 residents who were left to die in a nursing home during Hurricane Katrina. The piece's significance therefore comes from sharing an unfamiliar side of a familiar historical event.
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