writing in first person

So, it’s getting towards the boring end of the afternoon, where my editing brain has zonked out, and I opened a file with an almost-finished short story, and I found myself just staring at it, or, more accurately, being annoyed with Word defying my attempt to make the file display at full screen size (yes, I know, I don’t understand it either).

So I asked Twitter what I should write about, and someone (waves to Bryan) suggested I write about ‘the pitfalls of writing in first person and how to avoid them’.

I thought about that for a while, because the previous few posts have been about science, which means I am overdue for a post about writing. But… just what are the pitfalls of writing in first person?

Uhm…

Other than that some people claim to hate it, except ‘when it’s done well’.

So what is ‘done well’ and how does ‘done well’ distinguish itself from ‘not done well’?

OK, I can imagine a few scenarios. You may have prose that is overly voice-y which may annoy some readers. The prose may succumb to too much internal thought that is whiny and boring. Inexperienced writers may start two in every three sentences with the word ‘I’.

But are any of these things unique to first person writing? Not in the slightest! You can just as well have an annoying voice, whiny internal thought and repetetive sentence starts in third person, or second person if you want to be contrary.

So what does it mean when someone says ‘first person is not done well’? It means, my dears, that your writing overall doesn’t work for them, and wouldn’t have worked for them had you replaced all your I-s with he-s or she-s. It means that something in the writing jarred them, and it most likely wasn’t the fact that you wrote in first person.

Not convinced? Take a random book, and ask random readers who mentioned they enjoyed this book a lot to identify the POV. Most likely, a significant number of them will say ‘I don’t remember’.

So: first person or third person, it does not matter. What matters is that your writing doesn’t bore the reader, regardless of POV.

And those avowed first-person haters? It’s their right, and no one or nothing would probably change their mind anyway. There are some things some people don’t like. That’s OK. After all, nothing is going to make me drink Coke either.

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21 comments on “writing in first person

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention writing in first person « Must Use Bigger Elephants -- Topsy.com

  2. Well said. I tend to like first person as it can (emphasis on ‘can’, not ‘does’) bring the reader in tighter to the MC. It gets tricky sometimes to feed info the reader that the MC doesn’t know, which if you’re writing in 1st person, it’s kind of hard for the MC to tell the reader something he/she doesn’t know. (Following this?) But there are ways around almost anything, and I love a good unreliable 1st person narrator.

  3. Using the 1st person in a novel does however present the writer with some very special plot problems. Firstly your PoV character has to be present at every key scene – or has to be told about it (which latter can mean loads of reported he-said, she-said conversations).

    Secondly, it is difficult (but not impossible) to clue in the reader without also clueing in the PoV character to what is going on.

    Thirdly you don’t get inside the head of any other characters.

    I actually love writing and reading 1st person books, and I think I do it pretty well – but I don’t write them any more. My sales are not good enough to have such a huge slice of the reading public pick up a book, look at it, and immediately say: “Oh, I won’t read this. First person is horrible!”

    • It’s true about the character limitations, but I think that a lot of what is written in multiple POV would be better written in single POV, because it keeps the reader much more closely involved with the character. Getting into the head of other characters is cheating in a way, and can take away a lot of tension.

      I really don’t think that the number of people who flatly won’t read first person is very large, especially not amongst teenage girls and younger women, which is the audience you want to attract as fantasy writer.

  4. It can be and has been well done in short stories (Alastair Reynolds uses first-person often in his stories) although it is a bit more tricky to maintain in a novel. The one novel that employs it well is Frederic Pohl’s “Gateway”.

    • I don’t see why it’s trickier in a novel. The only thing you can’t do in first person is cheat with a scene from someone else’s POV, so you’ll probably have to plan your scenes better. Which may not be a bad thing, really.

  5. I don’t think it’s that simple.

    When I reading slush, I got to a point where one day where I shouted “I don’t want to read another first person story”. Scared the poor dog 😦 Of course, the very next story I read *was* first person and I liked it very much.

    What set me off though, was a narrator who I couldn’t “see”. They were walking through the story, doing things and saying things, but they just never came alive. Yeah, that can happen with the other POVs but with first the point of view character and the narrator are the same, so if they’re “invisible” the whole story falls flat. Whereas with third, the narrator can be invisible and it’s not a problem, in fact it’s usually desirable 🙂

    When it works, first person POV is a wonderful thing, but it’s not as easy as some writers like to think. (Easy to use, hard to master?) I think it works best when the narrator’s voice is distinctive and carries their personality with it.

    • As I said, you’ll find unidentified narrators in other POVs, too. What makes me scream is if a story yammers on about an unidentified ‘she’ or ‘he’ and there is absolutely no reason wy this person shouldn’t have been named or identified.

      It’s a sign of poor writing, not necessarily the POV.

      • I like to read fist person POV and I prefer to in write first person.
        In real life we never really know what is in another person’s head; we can only deduct through their actions and words, I prefer books to read this way as well. First person keeps the reader in the dark angsting right along with the main character as the plot unfolds, creating more tension and mystery.

        My pet peeve in third person books is POV jumping from one person to another like a volley ball match. Love scenes often play out this way. Hate it. You won’t see this in first person.

        About Fantasy writers wanting to attracts teens, young women. This statement surprised me. I’m over 50 and love fantasy. I have many friends in my generation who love fantasy and SciFI. Please don’t forget the older audience (with $ for books!)

  6. I don’t mind first person POV at all, unless:

    A) I am constantly left wondering who the narrator is talking to, or why they’re narrating. This frequently happens when the author doesn’t know that answer themselves

    or

    B) The author plays the “didn’t see that coming, did you game” with me, WHICH I DESPISE. This lame trick involves the 1st person narrator conveniently forgetting/being insane/hallucinating lies so that the “plot twist” isn’t telegraphed to the reader. Ug.

  7. You find that stupid protag in plenty of non 1st person books too.

    The really clever writer is the one where the 1st person narrator tells you everything – and you still don’t see the plot twist coming. Afterwards, you say, “Geez, I ought to have seen that coming” and never: “Where did that come from???” or “Geez, I can’t believe that character was so DUMB.”

    I reckon that “Geez, I ought to have seen that coming” reaction from the reader is the mark of a good writer and I love that getting fanmail saying that. (Of course there will always be one or two who see it coming!)

  8. Eeleen Lee has the two examples I always use when referring to first person POV, Gateway and Reynolds.

    I’ve no massive objection to first person POV, but I have noticed that I just enjoy a solid third person delivey better. No particular reason. That said, one of my favorite novellas (Diamond Dogs – Reynolds) is first person, and Gateway’s another of those novels that I’ll forever love.

    The only thing that _can_ annoy me in first person POV is a badly done reveal. They’re used a lot, from my experience, and there’s nothing worse than that “Oh! I forgot to tell you…” line. If your character knows _it_ in first person POV, the reader needs to know _it_ too.

    Again, though, there are exceptions. Major example… yes, Gateway. So, even reveals or purposeful obscurity can be done well by adding another level (E.g. in Gateway, the protagonist knows _it_, but he has blocked _it_ out. Hey presto, the reveal works.)

    You’re absolutely right though, this isn’t limited to first person, third is littered with the same problem too (I’m guilty of it in just about every first draft I’ve ever written 😦 ), but when it is done badly in first person, it does seem to make me cringe just that little more than when its done in third.

    From a writing perspective, I’ve only ever written one story in the first person, and I can’t lie: It was soooo easy to write compared to third person. Do you find either or easier to write? Or is it much of a muchness to you?

    • I find first and single-POV third about equally easy (or hard) to write.

      What I find truly hard is multiple-POV. Why oh Why did I start writing an epic fantasy with SEVEN POV characters? *wails*

  9. I find the actual writing of 1st person easier. Only one head to get into. And by the end of the book you know that person so well, you don’t even have to think how they would behave in a certain situation.

    But the plotting is a lot harder!

    • I find the plotting actually easier, too. MUCH easier, since you only have one person to deal with, and need to describe the events as if you’re that person. Much more personal, much more intimate. *hates multiple POV with a vengeance*

      • Of course, it’s easier. That’s one of things that bothers me about the proliferation of bad 1st-person stories. Novices take the easy way out,never having to plumb the depths of any other characters but the MC. I feel cheated as a reader because the author comes across as too lazy to flesh out the whole cast.

  10. I find 1st person claustrophobic: I prefer a cinematic view so I can get a feel for the time and place that the character-narrator may not be able to show me because of necessary limitations (age, social status, non-native to the locale, etc.) It often reads like a diary. That’s OK if it’s a memoir, or perhaps a romance (romance is all about what’s in the MC’s head), but not for a thriller or sci-fi, where we need to know more about the world the character inhabits.

    • I hear a lot of writers and editors disparage first person narration, and it only ever comes off as narrow-minded and dogmatic. The best argument against this narrow-minded dogmatism (is that redundant?) is this list of novels, written in the first person, which were both critically and commercially successful. Behold:

      “Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus” by Mary Shelley
      “Dracula” by Bram Stoker
      “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” by Arthur Conan Doyle
      “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain
      “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain
      “The Stranger” by Albert Camus
      “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
      “The Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger
      “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood
      “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami
      “Bellwether” by Connie Willis
      “Timeskipper” by Stefano Benni
      “The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger
      “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro
      “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery
      “Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood
      “Lavinia” by Ursula K. Le Guin
      “The Twilight Saga” by Stephenie Meyer
      “The Hunger Games Trilogy” by Suzanne Collins
      “The Possibility of an Island” by Michel Houellebecq

      These are just 20 titles that easily came to mind. None of them could be accurately described as “claustrophobic,” and as for a “cinematic” view, 75% of them have been adapted into films—some of them more than once!

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