The ‘danger’ of writing in first person

Also posted on my author site.

When talking about point of view (POV) and writing in first person, inevitably someone will bring up that it’s OK, as long as ‘it’s done well’ and that ‘it’s not for beginning writers’. Invariably also people can’t quantify what is meant by these statements and the sentiment against writing in first person is merely described as ‘I don’t like it’. Well, that doesn’t help the writer very much, because if it can be ‘done well’, just what constitutes ‘well’ and what ‘not so well’.

After seeing a lot of published and unpublished first person stories, I have some thoughts about this. Feel free to comment.

First person tends to be very voice-y

How I got this injury, Doc? Well you’re not going to believe this but we were in the undercover car park and there was this dude, who, you know, didn’t like me parking in his spot and so he honks at me, and gets out of the car and starts swearing, like, you know, half the words I never heard before. So I got out. He was massive, man, massive, and I was just standing there, trying to back away, except my butt was already against the passenger side of my car and I had nowhere else to go. And then Josh, idiot that he is, decided to wind down the window, and so I fell with my butt through the fucking window and into his coffee.

Obviously this character needs a good kick up the behind. He suffers from over-use of certain words, and he’s hands-up-it-wasn’t-my-fault kind of whiny. Do I really want to spend a whole book with this guy? I fear it will get annoying very quickly.

First person can be very meandery-talky

I grew up in the country where we never had the opportunity to learn music, so when I first saw a French Horn I thought it looked like a demented trumpet. I was twenty-two at the time, and awkward, shy and very much like a country bumpkin. But my best friend played in this orchestra and asked me to join. At the time, I could barely tell one end of the trumpet from another, but he said that didn’t matter. I got lessons. My teacher Sophie was the craziest person I’ve ever met. Apart from the French Horn, she also played the piano and was an accomplished artist. She lived in an old house in the Inner West, shared with four other students. This is how I met Dave…

Yeah, yeah, blah, blah already. This life history continues for two pages into the story and nothing has happened except a meandering recount of some person’s life. I’ve lost interest.

First person can be distant

In the first example, because the story is narrated, rather than presented in real time, the author puts a filtering layer between story and reader, namely the opinions and interjections of the first person narrator. It’s not that you couldn’t do this in third person, but it’s more instinctive to do this in first person.

Basically, if you end up narrating instead of presenting a story in real time, you tend to over-describe and lose tension. Sometimes the gained flavour of the character’s voice is worth it, but I suspect that any character who sounds like a standard teenager or uneducated lout ends up annoying a lot of readers long before the end of the book. In similar fashion, a character who just waffles on about something while the story’s setting is devoid of action or setting in the here and now will bore a lot of readers.

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10 comments on “The ‘danger’ of writing in first person

  1. In my experience as a reader, all of these mistakes can happen in any point of view. They are not any worse or better whether one is writing in first person or third person.

    The key is to learn to write well, and to use whatever form works for the story and the character.

    • I agree, but somehow these things are more prevalent and instinctive (to the writer) in first person.

      I wouldn’t really call them mistakes as such, because I don’t think these things are provably (egads, is that a word?) wrong. They’re just things that tend to make the fiction annoying or drag for a lot of readers.

  2. Patty, thanks for putting in the examples. They make your point clear. If a new author is not sure what POV to use, one method I learned was to write a scene in both first and third person. This gives the writer an idea what each means to them and how they will have to write.

    Above all, I believe in 1st person, the character must be likable in some way, otherwise a whole novel is too long to spend with them.

  3. You have nailed the pitfalls of writing in the first person right on. I did write “Through Kestrel”s Eyes in the first person as a challenge. I think it works well but I do admit I struggles to make it real and stay with that one point of view. The other mistake that tends to creep in is bits and pieces of other points of view. But I love a challenge.

  4. Sometimes, though, I think we read for company, and first person can be much better for that because it gives us a more direct connection with the viewpoint character. But I agree: if all you’re looking for is a rip-roaring adventure that focuses more on plot than character or ideas, first person isn’t the best.

  5. I must confess, writing in First Person is what rescued my writing. Up until a few years ago, I only ever wrote in Third Person. Lots of rejections, no sales. Finally, in some desperation — and believing that sometimes when you’re so stuck, your only option is to go 90 degrees and break through the wall — I tried First Person. It was highly uncomfortable for me, but after a time, I got used to it. Now, most of my short fiction is written First Person, and it works very well for me. I am not sure if this means I am a “natural” or maybe the voice-y nature of First Person works well for short stories — because you have to rope a reader in ASAP and hold them fast, or they won’t invest the time.

  6. The Digger short stories I sold were all written in first person, because as you say, it’s very voice-y, and apparently the voice was appealing. However, when I wrote Hero Go Home, a novel featuring the same character, I couldn’t see writing in that voice for 100,000 words or more, so I switched to third and was able to tell the story a lot more flexibly.

    I have written a novel in first person, but it was a noir, so first person fit with the genre, and it was short. I like writing in first, but I think it works best in smaller doses.

    • About two years ago, I changed an entire novel from third to first when I realised that the narrative would benefit from the character’s outlook on the happenings. He’s a diplomat, but with a rather dry, laid-back kind of humour and has a fair few skeletons in his cupboard. Political/SF thrillers are often in third person with a lot of POV characters (at least the ones I’ve read). I wanted to do something different.

  7. I do science fiction with multiple points of view (not omniscient, but clean breaks when I change POV.) In my WIP I have one major character whose sex I wanted to conceal for the first third of the book (woman masquerading as a man) but whose thoughts and observations needed to be reported. I wrote that character, and that character only, in first person. I think it works, but I guess I’ll find out.
    First person can certainly work–try to imagine Huckleberry Finn in third person.

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