Writing in first person. A bad idea?
Of the two main points of view (POV) used in fiction, first person and third person, first person is the one most often poorly done among new writers. Before I justify that statement, for those of you still new to the game, let’s take a quick look at what POV means.
First person POV uses “I” to tell the story: I didn’t understand why any of this was happening. The insanity of it began two weeks ago, when Sam showed up. Sam is my older brother, who vanished five years ago. I opened the door, and before the shock of seeing him wore off, he said, “I’m dying, and you’re next.”
Third person uses “he” or “she” to tell it: She didn’t understand why any of this was happening. The insanity of it began two weeks ago, when Sam came to see her. Sam was her older brother, who vanished five years ago. She opened the door, and before the shock of seeing him wore off, he said, “I’m dying, and you’re next.”
For a moment, let’s consider why an author might choose to write in the first person.
(1) It’s easy to maintain the POV. As long as you stay firmly in the narrator’s head, the writer is less tempted to slip into another character’s head (called head-hopping) by accident.
(2) It’s more personal because it brings the reader closer to the character.
(3) New writers in particular believe that it’s more natural for them—and easier—because they can project themselves into that character.
Yet this can lead to problems. It’s too easy for the author to project his or her own speech patterns, mannerisms, thoughts, and beliefs onto the character. While this may indeed be what the author intends, it may result in the character having too much of the author’s persona, instead of being a truly independent—and probably more interesting—character. And readers will pick up on this.
Many classic and contemporary novels use first person: The Great Gatsby, Robinson Crusoe, The Time Machine, The Vampire Diaries, The Hunger Games, and a number of other YA novels. But L. J. Smith, who wrote The Vampire Diaries, wrote many of her other YA novels in third person. Eragon, as well as the Harry Potter and the Twilight novels, are also in third person.
So, what’s wrong with using first person? Go back and look at the examples I gave at the beginning. At first glance, these would seem to be equivalent, except that maybe first person puts us a bit closer to the narrator. Take a closer look. The second passage contains a piece of information missing in the first one. Do you see it? We don’t know the gender of the narrator in the first one. When you read it, did you assume the character was a male, or a female?
When the reader is given a piece of information, he will make some sort of assumption. Lacking other clues, in the case of gender, he may assume it to be that of the author. Or he may assume it to be his own gender. I once critiqued a story where the author never gave the character’s gender, not even at the end. This short story was about a lover sitting at a bar lamenting that his girlfriend had just dumped him and ridden off on his motorcycle. I assumed the person at the bar to be a male, even though the author was a female, and the character did feel masculine enough. I learned, after asking the author, that this was a lesbian love story. Oops. Not that it mattered to me, because it was a good story, but the fact that the author never told me led to an incorrect (but reasonable) assumption based on my own sexual orientation. I never considered the alternative.
How far do you have to read into Hunger Games before you know the narrator’s name is Katniss (nickname Catnip)? Even then, are you sure it’s a she? How much further do you have to read to be sure? There are hints, but you go quite a ways along before you’re convinced. Sure, “Katniss” sounds like a girl’s name. We meet Gale, a character with a unisex name, but we’re told a few paragraphs later that Gale is a “he.” Then comes the line where Katniss mentions, “There’s never been anything romantic between Gale and me.” That mostly clinches it, but only if we make that assumption of a heterosexual relationship. Can the reader be sure in this post-apocalyptic world that homosexuality isn’t the norm? Or do you assume that the narrator is a female because the author is a female? Of course, I’m assuming that the reader has no advance knowledge of the story and is reading it for the first time.
I’m not bashing Hunger Games. I’m only pointing out that when we choose to write in first person, we have a few extra things to attend to.
In a first-person narrative how do you let the reader know the character’s name? In my example passages above, I could have done it by having Sam mention her name when he sees her. It would be natural for him to address her by name. And how do you describe your character to the reader so it doesn’t come off as obvious telling on the part of the narrator? One obvious way—and one you should avoid—is to have your character look at himself in a mirror. That’s generally considered to be a cliché. But every so-called “rule” in fiction writing has exceptions. Just me sure that your case warrants being one of those exceptions.
Many times, new authors fall into one of the other traps of first-person narratives and dig themselves a deeper hole: telling instead of showing. When writing in first person, it is very easy to have the character ramble on as if talking to the reader and telling every minute detail of the setting, the character’s background, the current situation, and so forth, until—perhaps many pages later—we finally learn what the story is about. By that time, I’ll likely have closed the book. Lapsing into a diary-like narrative can quickly become boring, even if one intends it to sound that way. The last thing a writer wants to do is bore his readers.
Another difficulty with first-person narratives occurs when the narrator is the only character present for some time. If the writer isn’t careful, the story can degenerate into a kind of monologue that fails to engage the reader. There may be stories where this approach is in the best interest of the narrative and possibly unavoidable. Just be aware of this problem and carefully consider your solution to it.
When doing first person, the writer must always remember that he can reveal only what the character sees or hears or knows. He can’t go into the head of any other character. This can be limiting and may require the writer to resort to clever maneuvers to impart essential information that the narrator is not otherwise privy to. Always be conscious of who the narrator is really talking to. Try to make it sound as if it’s not directly to the reader but more like thinking out loud. And how does the narrator treat the reader? Compare the two following paragraphs, one in first person and one in third person, and note the difference in the voice of each.
My blue eyes and spiky blond hair attracted a lot of attention from the girls in my class. Whenever I ran shirtless on the track, my six-pack abs and muscular biceps guaranteed stares as I ran past the practicing cheerleaders.
His blue eyes and spiky blond hair attracted a lot of attention from the girls in his class. Whenever he run shirtless on the track, his six-pack abs and muscular biceps guaranteed stares as he ran past the practicing cheerleaders.
Finally, one principle should guide your decision to use a first-person narrator. The narrator should also be an INTERESTING character, not just a narrator to whom interesting events happen. If you’re going to thrust the reader into your character’s head, be certain that head is one the reader will enjoy being inside of.
I strongly recommend that you check out some novels written in first person. Study their openings with an eye to determining whether it was the best POV to use. Did the author ensure that you knew enough about the narrator to make him or her interesting enough that you wanted to spend a whole novel inside that character’s head?
That said, following is the opening of chapter 1 of my first novel, More Than Magick. The novel is written in first person when in the main character’s POV, but I used in third person for all other POVs. Why did I choose first person? Well, for some reason my gut told me it felt right for the novel, and I haven’t regretted that decision. I’ll let you judge how well it works. Note that I didn’t give the character’s name until the second paragraph. All I say in my defense is that this was my first novel, written over ten years ago. I’ve learned a lot since. Were I writing this today, I’d still keep the first person, but I might modify that first paragraph a bit.
My senior year in college had ended. It was Thursday morning, the day after finals. Two things kept me on campus: a graduation ceremony on Sunday and my job. I was dorm resident advisor and had to stay until the dorm was empty. I received free room and board in exchange for babysitting undergraduates. In the past year I had learned to be tolerant; I had learned to counsel; I had learned when to shut my door—all valuable, real-world skills.
The RA’s room had a coveted location near the door, although making it easy to sneak women in and out of the room undetected surely was not the designer’s original intent. However, this coming Sunday I, J. Scott Madison, was graduating at my virginal best, having been scared spermless by the do-it-and-watch-it-rot Army training films thrust upon an impressionable, pubescent child of twelve. At least, that’s where I had convinced myself the blame lay.
UCSD sits above a gorgeous beach along North Torrey Pines Road in San Diego, where the students surf at lunch. I didn’t surf, and I didn’t worship the Great Yellow Ball in the sky. Scholarships aside, at those tuition prices I was there to study, as the Colonel frequently reminded me.
With nothing else to do until graduation, I caught up on my TV viewing. During the commercials I alternately considered grad school in marine biology and a real job. The Colonel still hoped I’d choose career military, as my brother had.
I’d gone on a few job interviews, mostly for the experience, and had papered my dorm door with the rejection letters. For sure I wanted to get away from La Jolla, second only to Beverly Hills with its pretentious inhabitants.
When TV soap opera time arrived, I grabbed my wallet, locked my door, and went hunting for lunch. An ad on the dorm bulletin board outside my room caught my eye:
WANTED: College graduate with no outstanding obligations interested in fieldwork in a war-like atmosphere. If you are a marine biologist looking for that last hurrah before undertaking grad school, this job is for you. No experience necessary. Must like to travel. Excellent pay. No résumé required. Leave message at the number below.
A phone number followed.
No résumé required? Was this a prank, aimed at me, a last dig from those under my care? The monetary reference piqued my interest, though. I needed money for the summer, and I didn’t want to live at home.
During lunch at the all-you-can-eat buffet at Pizza Hut, the ad played games with my mind. If I went to grad school, I was still fair game for my father’s career suggestions. What if the ad wasn’t a prank? What if it was my chance at autonomous, Colonel-free living? When I got back to the dorm, I wrote down the number and went into my room to call.
A machine identified itself as Jake. It asked for my name, phone number, and the date and time I was calling. It thanked me and promised to get back to me. I gave my dorm phone number, not my cell. If he was legit, he’d call right away. If not, my phone would be disconnected Monday with no forwarding number. I’d already exchanged email addresses with any friends I wanted to stay in touch with.
Why had I called? The ad said, “Travel.” I hated to travel. Life as an Army brat had dragged me through six different grade schools and five different high schools.
“Field work in a war-like atmosphere.” That chimed military, and reinforced the prank aspect.
And how many job applications are made by leaving a message on an answering machine?