Writing in first person point of view has become more popular in recent years, and is, along with third person point of view, one of the most common ways of narrating a story. In my part-time day job, I lecture on the Creative Writing MA at Edinburgh Napier University, and in the past, I’ve taught a 13-week module on Writing First Person. I also love to write in the first person myself: four out of eleven of my novels are written in first person pov. First person narratives offer a lot of extra options that many authors don’t fully consider. So let me give you some tips and suggestions to embracing the power of “me, myself, and I.”
What Is First Person Point Of View?
Let’s start with the obvious, basic definition: first person point of view means writing from the internal perspective of a character and using “I” pronouns throughout. Hello, I am writing this in the first person, right now. In first person, your main character (or someone observing a key player in the story) is also your narrator writing down events, usually after the fact.
With a third person narrative, the camera is metaphorically outside of the character. We’re either riding on their shoulder (close or limited third) or looking at them from an outside angle (objective or omniscient third). With first person, we’re looking out directly from their eyes (something you don’t see often in cinema because we like to see the actor’s faces). One of the effects of this is that it feels confessional in a way that third person doesn’t. You’re getting invited into their innermost thoughts and feelings. It can sometimes feel almost voyeuristic. It can also make it easier to empathise and connect with a character because we are stepping inside their skin (mmm, creepy).
Yet there are plenty of other benefits you can have in first person that are harder to re-create in third.
The Benefits Of Writing In First Person
Writing in first person provides you with a point of view that allows plenty of room for exploration. Here are some of the benefits of using a first person pov.
The Gap Between The Events Of The Story And The Recording Of Them
By having the main character be your narrator, first and foremost, you have the chance to obliquely tell two stories at once: the events of the story, and the act of writing them down. The gap between those allows for some interesting opportunities to drop some foreshadowing. For instance, if the character says, “If I’d known then what I know now, I would never have taken the case when that dame strode into my office.” You can imagine them swigging some whisky and maybe tilting their fedora. With that admission, we know that something happened that the character regrets. This generates suspense and makes us want to keep reading. If you do that too often, it’s annoying and risks jerking the reader out of the story, so you have to know when it’s best to tease it out.
This gap can also affect your narration’s tone: has it been one day since the events of the story took place, or twenty years? Emotions might be stronger if it has just happened, as opposed to the character confessing to a long-held secret meaning their emotions might be more distant as a coping mechanism.
Now, that gap collapses if you’re writing in first person present tense. That can add immediacy, but it can also turn off some readers because we have to believe that we’re somehow reading the character’s mind as events happen. It’s common enough that we’re used to it and many readers just go with it (see: many psychological thrillers, and it’s relatively common in young adult fiction, too) but it doesn’t allow for the telling of two stories, which is sometimes a shame.
Multiple Methods Of Narration
The way the narration is delivered can also offer interesting opportunities. Many devices are in first person: text messages, social media posts, witness statements, diaries, letters, and so on. You can weave those together and have interesting juxtapositions in attitudes to events. If we want to use the more academic phrases, it’s “heteroglossia” (many tongues) or “polyphony” (many tones). It can also sometimes help establish worldbuilding or important context easily without having to set up or explain things to the reader. This is great if you have word count constraints in a short story, for example.
Strong Sense Of Voice
Next, you can really get the flavour of that character’s particular way of speaking if they are writing it down themselves. See Todd in The Knife of Never Letting Go from the first sentence:
The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say. About anything.The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
In the narration, Todd also explains he hasn’t had much education and he misspells things occasionally and speaks in a vaguely Southern American dialect (despite this being in the future on an alien planet). Yet we know exactly who he is and what he’s about. His voice is clear from the start.
Another big benefit to writing in first person is unreliability. Plenty of psychological thrillers rely on the unreliable narrator: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is an obvious one (and popular enough that I don’t have to worry about spoilers as much), and a masterclass of setting up a lying character in the first half and pulling out the rug from under us in the second. Even characters who think they are telling the truth might not be, based on what’s happening around them or within the story. Interesting, flawed characters are also very good at lying to themselves, which lends a lot of opportunity for narrative drive or conflict or emotional angst.
How To Write In First Person
When writing in first person, you have to think carefully about who your character is and what their voice is like. A character from my secondary world fantasies would have to speak fairly differently to a character in my near-future thrillers set on Earth. Here are some of the questions I ask myself as I develop my character and my first person narration:
1. How Would My Character Speak?
What sort of words or vocabulary would they have? What about class markers? Where did they grow up? What slang would they know? Are they short and sharp in their responses, or do they love a long, fluid, verbose sentence? What is their default mode? Sarcastic, pompous, timid? What happens when they are stressed or pushed beyond their comfort levels?
2. The Gap
How long after events is this character writing down the story and under what circumstances? Has anything in particular prompted them to write it? Are they going to use a specific device? I cite Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb constantly, as she sets up FitzChivalry Farseer’s reasons for telling the story right from the beginning. We know he’s somewhere isolated, writing down his memoirs instead of writing a history of the Six Duchies, the fantasy land where he was raised. So, the story itself starts out when he’s six, but it’s from the viewpoint of an adult looking back and is retrospective in its tone.
3. Considering Theme And Structure
Are there any thematic or structural advantages to writing in first person versus third? In the Micah Grey trilogy, which starts with Pantomime, I chose first person narration because the character is genderfluid and begins the book presenting female but then runs away and joins the circus as a male. But their internal understanding of their gender didn’t change. Keeping it in first helped erase me as the author/narrator imposing a gender at the sentence level. It was easier for you to just read Micah as Micah.
What was interesting was that in reviews, people wrote about Micah using different pronouns (she, he, they, etc). I found it interesting that they were bringing their own assumptions and viewpoints to that character, even though they were all reading the same text. Murderbot by Martha Wells does this too, though her protagonist is a sexless robot.
4. Presenting Multiple First Person Narrators
If you have more than one first-person narrator, think about how you are going to present them. In my book False Hearts, which is about formerly conjoined twins in a near-future San Francisco, one twin, Taema, writes in first person present tense, to give her thriller plot a sense of urgency. But Tila, the other twin who is in prison accused of murder, is meant to be writing down her last will and testament but instead decides to tell the story of her and Taema’s childhood, so those flashbacks are in first person past tense. Because they were identical twins who were quite literally conjoined for the first sixteen years of their lives, they had a similar vocabulary, though a different attitude to events. Changing tenses was also a way to help differentiate their registers.
Further Tips For Writing In First Person
- Don’t overuse filters. We’re already in the main character’s head. Overusing filters like “I saw,” “I felt,” “I noticed,” “I heard” can create a distancing effect and hold us at arm’s length. A lot of the time they can simply be snipped out unless you want to actually draw attention to the action for another purpose. You also don’t need to add “I thought,” after direct thoughts either, in my opinion (though your mileage may vary). I tend to just set them in italics in present tense and let the reader infer that’s what’s happening.
- Know that your protagonist can’t know everything. It can be hard to let the reader know all the information if the main character isn’t privy to it. Beware of having your main character conveniently eavesdrop on important conversations too often, which can sometimes be a bit of a cheat.
- Find a good balance of interiority versus external description. Describe what that particular character would notice or mark out as different and unusual. Likewise, consider when a character would describe a memory in detail and when they might do a quick summary to get us to the next important scene that’s worth expanding.
- Distinguish between first person pov characters. If you have more than one first person point of view character, make sure it’s easy for the reader to tell them apart within a paragraph, even if there are no names stated. I also personally don’t like doing more than two first person narrative strands, though this is again a personal choice. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik manages to balance five first person point of views, which is the only time I’ve seen that many in one book.
Writing In First Person
Writing in first person offers a lot of interesting narrative and crafting opportunities. If you have always been a third person writer, perhaps try branching out to see what it offers you. Or if you always write in first person, I hope this helped you consider things in a different way. This is obviously only a small portion of the things you can explore, but it details the main concepts and is a good place to start. Happy writing!
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