But why this sudden trend of first person? What is this collective madness? And should you be joining in?
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.
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.
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.
- Different Perspectives, Different Emphases (silverpens.wordpress.com)
- Writer-Talk Tuesday: Let’s Talk POINT OF VIEW (kayedacus.com)
- First or Third Person? (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)