Six impossible things

Thinking about first person

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about viewpoint, and first-person has been on my mind lately.

First person seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it viewpoint. I’ve heard folks say that it’s the easiest viewpoint for a beginner to use, that no one should ever use it, that it allows for more believability, that it’s always autobiographical (and therefore, in some obscure fashion I’ve never really understood, suspect in fiction…as if first-person should only be used in actual autobiography or memoir). I’ve heard readers say that they like first-person because it’s so immediate, or because the reader always knows the main character survives, or because “all first person stories sound like they’re written by writers.” (What?)

Let’s start with a definition: first-person is any story in which the narrator or viewpoint character uses “I” outside of dialog. The most common variety is as-it-happens narration, as if the main character is telling the story to the reader nanoseconds after the events happen, but epistolary fiction (a story told in letters, like Sorcery and Cecelia, or in emails) and journal excerpts are also common. Stream-of-consciousness writing – the sort that tries to mimic the chaos and distraction of the narrator’s thoughts, second to second – is usually used in short fiction (probably because it’s very difficult to sustain at length).

I think that a lot of the mistrust of first person comes from the fact that it’s something all of us do regularly in real life. Everyone has written letters or emails; lots of people have kept a diary or a journal at some point in their lives. This makes it seem easy and predictable, something everyone already knows how to do…except that when you’re writing fiction, it’s never easy or predictable. Since experienced writers and editors know this, they get suspicious of anything that looks too easy.

At the other end of the spectrum are the new writers who think first-person is the trick to making writing easy and predictable. They’ve written emails, they’ve kept a diary; how different can this be? So they plunge ahead and make all sorts of mistakes, which lead the experienced writers, critics, editors, etc. to shake their heads and blame it on trying to write first-person. And next thing you know, how-to books and writing teachers and advice blogs are forbidding anyone to use it.

The truth is that, like every other viewpoint, first-person has both strengths and weaknesses. There are some beginner mistakes that are nearly impossible to make in first person; there are others that are an order of magnitude easier. The trick is in knowing what they are and in knowing whether your particular writing strengths and weaknesses are complimented or reinforced by the natural strengths and weaknesses of the viewpoint.

The first and most obvious characteristic of first-person is that the writer is stuck in the narrator’s head for the length of the story (or at least the length of the scene, if it’s one of the rare multiple-viewpoint-first-person novels). It is glaringly obvious whenever the writer strays outside what the narrator can see, hear, know, or reason out for him/herself. If head-hopping is something you have trouble with, first-person will keep you from doing it if you are paying any attention at all. Of course, you’ll probably find it incredibly difficult and frustrating when you can’t just jump to some other character and show how he/she feels or thinks, and you’ll be driven half mad figuring out how to let the reader in on important events or information that the narrator didn’t happen to be present for, but I did say that it wasn’t going to be as easy as it looked, didn’t I?

The second and only slightly less obvious characteristic of first-person is that whether it’s letters, diaries, stream-of-consciousness, or standard narrative, every line has to be in the voice of the narrator-character…not that of the author. This can be a lot trickier than it sounds, precisely because everyone uses first-person a lot in real life. When you’re used to speaking in your own voice, it can be hard to imitate someone else’s consistently, especially if the differences are subtle. It’s much easier if the narrator-character has a strong voice, including but not limited to vocabulary, syntax, and idioms.

A subset of this is that what the character notices also has to be in-character. This means, for instance, if your character is a farmer, she will likely notice and comment on every garden and the health of every plant (or at least, the useful plants, i.e., food), but may or may not have any interest in describing hairstyles or the interiors of other people’s homes. And what she does say about them will be from her own perspective and in her own words, not yours.

Logically, then, if you are good at “getting into” the mind of your narrator, but bad at sticking to what he/she sees and/or terrible at conveying information that the narrator isn’t around for, using a first-person viewpoint would force you to work on those areas you have trouble with, while giving your ability to get into the character’s head a chance to shine. On the other hand, if you are rock-solid on the what-the-narrator-sees stuff, but shaky on voice, doing a good strong-voiced first-person who does not sound like you will give you a novel’s worth of practice at using a character’s voice when your natural inclination is to use your own. It may be a bit of a trial by fire, but it’s likely to be effective.

If you have trouble doing a viewpoint character’s internal dialog, first person will likewise give you lots of chance to practice, though whether you make use of the chance or not is up to you. If, however, you are predisposed to writing internal monologue even in third-person, you may find that first-person encourages this tendency to an unfortunate extreme, and you may not want to try it until you’ve brought your description and narration skills up to the same level. As always, if you’re going to work on your skills, the first thing you have to do is figure out where you’re weak.

11 Comments
  1. The book I’m writing now is in first person, though I’d like to think I’m avoiding the common mistakes. All my previous books were in 3rd person, and I’ve found that this really helps me get the voice of the main character.

  2. I’m one of those writers who tends toward a LOT of internal dialogue, even in third person … so first person is a dangerous path for me. I realized that I write such a tight limited-view third person narrative that I was once able to switch a book from first to third without having to alter anything except the pronouns. Which is why I’ve been working on multiple-viewpoint stories ever since.

    My biggest complaint against first person narrative is that it is used so, so frequently (in YA, at least), and I get sick of it after a while. When I start begging for omniscient POV, that’s when I know I’ve had too much first person POV!

  3. I have a main character who’s a high-school drop-out. In revisions, I got so frustrated at trying to make her vocabulary more hers, less mine, that I added in some hints about how she reads a lot, just so I could stop worrying about some of the language. But I really enjoyed thinking about the things she might and might not know when it came to description — impressionist painters? french furniture styles? names of fabric? I think after plotting, working on voice might be my favorite part of writing.

  4. Oh, wow!

    “If, however, you are predisposed to writing internal monologue even in third-person, you may find that first-person encourages this tendency to an unfortunate extreme, and you may not want to try it until you’ve brought your description and narration skills up to the same level.”

    Raising my hand!

    I’ve been writing using tight third person, mainly because, as a reader, that’s my favorite.

    One thing I’ve noticed, as a reader, is that the degree of tightness of the third person seems to have a little flex in it. Sometimes the focus is very tight indeed, limited completely by the POV character’s limitations. Other times, the focus pulls back a little and gives the reader a stronger awareness of what is happening for other characters in the scene. It usually includes information that the POV character probably does know or realize, but the information is presented in more of a third person omniscient way.

    That works for me as a reader. It does not disturb me. But I’m wondering if I should avoid that flex when I myself am writing. I’d love to know your thoughts on that issue.

  5. I am not really an internal monologuist, and I often write short, minimalistic, head hopping narratives of perception and misunderstanding. Then I get caught up in a world and spend hours on description and action and furniture design. I think first person is good for me, because you’re restricted to the character. I can only describe what she notices, only dramatize the actions she sees, and only recognize the furniture she recognizes. And if I go on a ramble, she’ll let me know she’s getting bored.

    What I find challenging about 1st person is that it’s harder to get away with beautiful sentences. If I’m really in the character’s head, and she’s really a very pragmantic person, I feel restrained, and the writing ends up being very basic.

  6. At random:

    First-person can be used in a very sneaky fashion if the writer is skillful enough. Consider Agatha Christie’s _The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,_ which is told in first-person, observing Poirot as he investigates the murder; told in first-person, I say by the murderer who never lets on until Poirot has fingered him, whereupon he Tell All in a suicide note. Christie glossed over the narrator’s selective omissions so gracefully that nobody noticed till the end, and then storms of criticism were raised. Lawrence Block did the same thing with one of her “Burglar” novels, I forget which one.

    I am told that the convention for generic romance novels (Harlequin, e.g.) is that they must ALWAYS be in third-person, never in first, “so the reader can identify with the heroine.”

  7. One of the things I found most difficult about writing a full-length novel in first person (the first time I’d done it since, I don’t know, probably fifth grade?) was making sure the protagonist had a solid, plot-based reason to be present during all the major plot turning points. It’s far too easy to handwave that, or to accidentally end up with your main character somewhere else when all the important stuff is going down. (This was one of the many things that annoyed the heck out of me with Twilight.) The second most difficult thing for me was establishing a voice that didn’t sound forced. It took me about 30K of writing to get to a voice I liked, and then I had to go back, and rewrite the first chunk five or six times. I had assumed it wouldn’t be a huge jump for me since I normally right in tight third person POV. Wow, was I ever wrong…

  8. I used to really dislike reading first person, and I don’t remember exactly why – I think I felt that it was unnatural for the narrator/protagonist to be speaking directly to the reader, or something like that. I avoided using it when I attempted to write my own fiction, unit I finally finished a short story – which I’d written in first person. So first-person and I are friends now, but I still think that it should be used with discretion.

  9. I’m having a little adventure of my own with first-person. Currently, I’m only done with the prologue and a bit of the first chapter, but already I’m facing an issue. See, my MC is a lot like me, but distinctly different in certain ways. So I’m trying not to have her sound so much like me, but then I’m afraid I’ll lose that part of her that IS like me. What to do, what to do…

    Also… same story, an outside-of-the-manuscript issue. I’m basing several of my minor characters on people I know vaguely from school and then aspects from my own family. What I’m wondering is if I should tell those people that they’re in my story, ask them if I could use them, or what? I think it would be a bit weird to just go up to one of them and say, “Hi, can I use you in my novel?” And I’m not sure if there’s some kind of protocol for this. I know that if someone wrote me into their story, I’d like to know, just to see what they thought of me, but that’s from my perspective and I don’t know if theirs would be the same.

  10. I read a lot of YA and find that first person is a very common point of view. Too often, however, the voice that goes along with it is kind of cliche (the world weary, sarcastic teenage girl).

    But like anything in writing, when done well, it really pulls me into the story, connecting me to the story. Megan Whalen Turner’s athe Thief is an excellent exampl of 1st person done well.

  11. A good method to learning how to narrate in your character’s voice is learning to think in someone else’s voice. Take a character from a book, or maybe one from your favorite television show, and be them for the entire day. Think in their accent, and respond as they would respond when out and about. Sure, you get some weird looks, but it really helps when trying to learn how to dip into other people’s heads.

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