Writing in First Person

These days everyone writes in first person. It seems that you can’t turn around without seeing another book written this way. And another. And another.

But why this sudden trend of first person? What is this collective madness? And should you be joining in?

I'm sure my mother told me something to do with my friends and cliffs...

In order to answer these questions perhaps the first one we need to answer is why you would write in first person to begin with. And come back to the question you should be asking of every element of your writing: What does it do for the story?

Let’s back this up a bit for an explainer. For those who don’t know, writing in first person is telling the story from the point of view of one person, using the word “I”. This style of writing could take the form of your viewpoint character telling you their story as if they’re sitting across from you, or as if they’re narrating a story with the brain-to-mouth filter off or even as a type of stream of consciousness.

First person is an easy way to give a story immediacy. I’ve talked before about the way tense can make a story more immediate and real and how this can affect the way we perceive the story. In first person, the narrative is being filtered through the protagonist’s (or the protagonist’s sidekick’s) eyes. This translates very easily to the reader because, after all, they’ve got a lot of practice at seeing things filtered through their own eyes and perspectives. First person doesn’t require the mental translation that third or second person requires and doesn’t have the distance that that translation creates.

First person is also a great way to help your reader empathise with your protagonist. Because we spend so much time with them and in such an intimate way we get to know them. We know how they process the world and how they think which allows the reader to care more for your character. It’s one thing to view an horrific event through the lens of a third person narrative, there’s enough distance there to give you a chance to divorce yourself a little from the events. But what if that event is happening and we can see the effects of it from within someone else’s head? New level of trauma there.

It’s also a great way to explore contradictions of character. Everyone’s experienced displaying completely different emotions and feelings outside than they do inside. From something as mundane as being bored at a party but hiding it under a veneer of politeness to internally screaming for your enemy’s blood while enjoying a round of mini-golf, first person narratives are made to explore those contradictions. They also help to explain actions that might otherwise be seen as illogical and out of left field. There’s nothing worse than a character doing something that leaves the reader confused and spluttering that the character simply wouldn’t do that while the author insists that there’s some kind of internal conflict there that explains everything. First person gives a unique perspective on a character’s thoughts and motivations.

So that’s that, right? First person is awesome at creating a complex and immediate character for your readers to identify with. Why did we even bother with the other forms of writing? Clearly first person is boss and we should all start writing that way and no other way right this second.

Except, writing in first person also comes with a truckload of disadvantages.

For example, writing in first person means that your story is limited by their point of view. If the character could not possibly have seen it, it cannot exist in the narrative.

One of the stories I’m writing at the moment has run up against this roadblock. I planned out the whole thing, broke it up into chapter-sized blocks of stuff happening and then began filling in the blanks. I then realised that one of the ‘chapters’ I’d planned all happen completely outside of my protagonist’s knowledge. Even more unfortunately, I can’t simply get rid of those scenes. They’re central to the plot. So now I’ve got a full chapter (about 3000 words) to fill where my character’s slumming around being completely clueless before receiving a phone call right at the end to let him know that the plot requires his attention.

He's probably going to end up starting a fight...

You can solve this problem by not being like me and having your character instigate any and all plot points. No action happens outside their view because they create the action. But then you miss out on some interesting plot points.

I recently went to go see the Hunger Games movie. If you’ve been living under a rock, the Hunger Games is a young adult novel told in first person about a girl who, through circumstances, ends up on a televised reality-tv-ish gladiator death match (It’s much better than that. If you haven’t already read them, go now. You may have to wrestle a copy off a preteen because all the stores have sold out but it will be totally worth it). Because the books are told in first person, we’re only privy to the thoughts of our protagonist who, once trapped in the arena, can’t see what’s going on outside.

The movie doesn’t have that limitation. Instead of being inside the arena the whole time, we’re shown scenes looking at the people who control the show. We’re given a glimpse at the callousness of those outside and we’re given a reason for the games to have the form that they have. None of which makes it into the book because it would be impossible for our protagonist to know these things.

First person also has the same limitation that we as people have: it’s impossible to know what others are thinking. Just as first person allows us to get to know the main character on an intimate level, it throws up a barrier in front of every other character. Unlike in a third person scenario where another characters motivations could be explained in a quick sentence or two, now we’re stuck trying to work out why everyone else does what they’re doing. Your main character doesn’t have telepathy, just as in real life.

Unless they do... which could end interestingly

Mostly, though, the main disadvantage of first person is that everyone is doing it. Thanks to the success of a number of books using the technique, demand for first person narratives has never been higher. Which means, of course, that if you want to succeed at writing a book in first person you better be damn good at it because you’ve got a lot of competition.

First person is a great way to tell a story. It offers an immediacy and an intimacy that is incredibly hard to capture in other forms of writing. But it does have some disadvantages and they should definitely be considered before you charge into the fray. I’m not saying don’t do it (Mostly because I adore first person) but if you do be aware of the choices that you’re making and do it well.

That said, there's always something to be said for blundering in heedless of the danger


About Meg Laverick

I can never be found without a cup of tea in my hand or a notebook in my bag. In between university and generally being awesome I read, write and nerd (that's a verb, right?). I also like analysing things that are probably best left alone.
This entry was posted in Fan Fiction, My Writing, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Writing in First Person

  1. Joe Pineda says:

    I’ve come to realize that first person narrative is a device used by many American writers, both great and maybe not so much.

    So far, Fools Die by Mario Puzo is the first book I’ve read in a while that uses both the first and third person in an effective way. 1st person segments are narrated exclusively by the character of Joseph Merlyn; 3rd person segments cover Cully Cross and his rise in Las Vegas.

    I’ve never written any first person pieces of great length. Perhaps that will be my next challenge. This post helped me know what I’m up against.

    I’ll share it over Twitter pretty soon!

    • Meg Laverick says:

      Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed the post (and my scribbles)

      It’s not just American writers who are jumping on the first person bandwagon. The whole world has caught the fever.

      I’ll have to check out that book. I always love a good recommendation. The best example I’ve found of mixing first and third person so far is in the Bartimaeus books by Jonathan Stroud. But I think a lot of that is because I adore the voice of Bartimaeus himself. Another great example of first person used well is in Fated by Benedict Jacka where there’s a whole mind control bit where the style of narrative actually changes so you really do feel as though the protagonist has been hijacked.

      If you haven’t tried first person yet I do highly recommend it. It’s lots of fun being in someone else’s head 🙂

  2. Joe Pineda says:

    By the way. Loved the illustrations. Great content!

  3. subtlekate says:

    Thank you. Great post. I too have noticed the influx of first person, and in present tense.

  4. Lainy Wolf says:

    I do like first person. I just think i’m sick of it lately. ha ha. Haven’t read the hunger games yet (i’m still trying to figure out when it became popular. It was sort of BOOM hanger games! Woo!) Jake’s sister said she was disappointed with the last books so i’m a bit wary.

    I’m currently attempting to read Game of Thrones at the moment which is not written in first person (surprise!). I’ve had to put it down with disgust because i would like to see the majority of the characters die and the story be done with. I have no love for any character yet. I don’t think i can stop reading it though, something draws me back but its going to take me a while. In between my bouts of hate for the characters i get completely confused. Every single chapter is from the point of view of a different character. I don’t really like jumping but i wouldn’t mind it if he didn’t seem to jump to a completely different part of the story. You finish one chapter and then seem to jump a considerable amount of time to something else. Its like ‘Did i miss a few weeks somewhere? Oh… yes. i was supposed to. -_-;’. There’s a whole bunch of stuff i don’t think is relevant but i can’t say that for sure because i have no idea where anything is going apart from there is going to be a fight for the throne eventually. i think. The main problem is i don’t care for the characters… i can also tell the author is male through his writing.

    On a completely different note, i saw someone who looked exactly like you today. Even sounded the same. Except she was smaller. A good head shorter than me and that is saying something. It was like a mini you. Very uncanny.

    You haven’t found some kind of way to shrink yourself and decided to come up the mountain have you? XD

    • Meg Laverick says:

      Ah you have foiled my evil plan. I thought shrinking myself would be enough but obviously I didn’t count on your keen eye.

      Hunger Games fever really kicked off around Christmas I think and then through word of mouth it just kind of… Exploded. But it deserves the hype. The first book is just mindblowing. I’m not a huge fan of the next two but its all worth it for that first book.

      It makes me happy that you’re reading game of thrones. Have you seen the tv series? I’m just up to book 3 part 2 but I’ve stalled a little because of the same issues you have: the jumping around and the weird totally-a-dude vibe. I’ve enjoyed it overall though. I found the best way to get through it is to pick your favourite characters (mine are Tyrion and Arya) and read the other bits in order to get to their chapters. That way the chapters where I want to kill everyone aren’t quite as painful.

      • Lainy Wolf says:

        Yeah, I was told the first book was awesome so I’ll have to give the hunger games a go.

        After this mammoth of a book for a game of thrones. I really need to get back into reading. I really wanted to watch the tv series but then I decided I’d give the books a try first. I picked it up again last night. Trying to like someone. I have no negative feelings for tyrion so maybe I’ll go for him to get me through for now XD I did have to give a bit of a hysterical laugh when I saw book 3 was a two parter. This guy can write…

        • Meg Laverick says:

          You’re not wrong. I’m pretty sure there’s an edition of the fifth book (the newest one) that a two-parter but I haven’t seen it as of yet. Once you finish the first book you’re free to watch the tv series. It only covers book one so no spoilers.

          That said, I’m super excited about season 2 🙂

  5. Pingback: Revolting Characters | martinlakewriting

  6. phoenixandtiger says:

    I’m actually kind of abstaining from first person for a while after reading Twilight (and I read the first three chapters of Hunger Games… I don’t really see what’s so great about it). So I’m concentrating a lot of third, and a bit of second in fanfic – which is rare enough as it is….
    But anyways. First person. For me, the reason I don’t like it is partially because of Twilight, and the fact that it makes me feel as if I’m supposed to feel things -this- certain way, because that’s what the protagonist feels and that’s the only way that readers are exposed to. I don’t understand anything else that happens, and I just can’t really stand that. Hmm.
    And it kinda sucks how everything’s written in first person now, especially after Twilight.

    • Meg Laverick says:

      Totally give Hunger Games another chance. They are truly excellent. I think the reason why I like them so much is because I don’t actually like the main character all that much. She’s a bit too prickly and distrustful for me. I sympathise with her but I don’t necessarily agree with her choices all the time. And I like that.

      I can see how twilight poisoned your view of the style but its becoming increasingly hard to avoid and there are some really great books out there written like that.

  7. Mhazie says:

    I like reading 1st and 3rd PoV equally, but for the life of me I cannot write 1st PoV fanfic that I’m satisfied with. They tend to just emerge reading rather like me, but on some sort of stimulating drug. I can only think of 3 1st person fics I’ve ever written; Forbidden (in which Max is a sarky, unbalanced teen troublemaker … ok, that’s not too like me) You’re All Mine (in which Brookie is fluffy psycho insane) and a KaiSalima that for the life of me I can’t actually remember its proper title. Which is embarrassing since I wrote like 7 chapters of it. o0 But yeah, so I’ve only managed it by either making the characters OOC from the start, or by simply shoving my own personality pretty much wholesale into one of those underutilised BB girls.

    So yeah. I completely agree that it’s cool and can be really useful, but I really can’t use it at all in fanfiction. -.-

    • Meg Laverick says:

      Haha. I enjoy writing 1st person fanfic (could you tell?) I always manage to put waay too much of my personality into the characters – especially poor, abused Rei. I like to pretend that I can get away with it 🙂

  8. Pingback: How to write a novel « Mike10613's Blog

  9. Ben says:

    I just wanted to let you know I picked you for the Lucky 7 award. Congrats!

  10. NyNy says:

    A really good post may I say 🙂 I personally cannot STAND reading 1st person fics these days, in my opinion they just don’t seem to be written as well as they could have been written in 3rd person. Sure it might be easier to express someone’s opinions better in 1st person view but you can easily change that to 3rd person and the description would be a lot better in that point of view too. By the way, I wrote a post about my own fiction pet peeves on my blog so I hope you will read and comment with your own! http://nynyonlinex.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/fiction-pet-peeves/

  11. Pingback: Point of view… | Literally Blue

  12. Pingback: Random thoughts | The Inspired Ladybug

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s