First Person Perspective is far and away the most popular, reader-friendly, and immersive way to tell a story. Readers eat it up! The Young Adult fiction market is flooded with first person stories written through the eyes of a compelling, relatable character as they offer the audience a chance to really escape from reality with someone who trusts them completely. What could be more flattering than that? To craft this kind of experience takes skill and a lot of heart, and a well-told first person work can change literally change the life of your audience.
How to Write from the First Person Perspective:
The first exposure many people have to writing in first person is a personal narrative. The student is asked to tell a story about an experience they’ve had personally, and to write it as they would tell it. This can be an excellent introduction to writing because we humans tell stories to each other from the very moment we learn to string a sentence. For many of us, our first story was probably, “I saw a doggie!” Short, sweet, and in the first person.
The voice of first person is identified by the personal pronouns I, me, mine, myself, we, us, ours, ourselves. For people who lead exciting lives and have experiences to share that others want desperately to hear about, this narrator is the writer. For anyone writing fiction, the narrator is a character who is decidedly not the author. This presents the first question to be approached by the author: Who is my narrator?
Narrators of first person fiction are characters in the story. They can be the protagonist (very common choice), a participant in the action (a major character), a bystander (a minor character, mainly an observer), or even a frame narrator. This last option is more rare, and only gives a face to what would be third person narration in the body of the book. An example of this can be found in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.
First person is sometimes used within a third person work, as a story within a story. If a character is relating an experience they’ve had, without interruption, for several paragraphs or pages, that piece of the story is a temporary first person narration. This is a good tool to use to bring the audience in tight for an emotional reflection of a past event (kind of like a flashback, but not written in scene form).
Pros and Cons:
Readers love first person. I cannot say this enough, even though I don’t agree. People just soak it up! The Color Purple, The Hunger Games, Sherlock Holmes, The Catcher in the Rye, Gulliver’s Travels, all of these are written from a first person perspective. First person has staying power, intimacy with the reader, and young audience appeal in recent popular fiction. The biggest positive about first person is how close it allows your audience to get to your characters. It’s like they’re right there and let into the narrator’s deepest secrets and confessions. It’s intensely flattering, and who doesn’t like to be flattered?
I want to follow up immediately with the writer’s relationship with first person. Narrator characters can be fickle, sassy creatures. The biggest difficulty of writing in first person is getting your narrator’s character fleshed out enough. You really have to get into the head of this person, and they had better be so clear to you that you could practically have a conversation with them on a page and still be surprised by their answers. Know them as completely as you can, and do every character building exercise you can find until you feel comfortable in their skin.
Another drawback is more functional. Unlike third limited, where the author doesn’t have to be in someone’s head all the time, the writer and the audience are stuck in the mind of the narrator. No chance to just step out for a jaunt around the scenery. If the narrator doesn’t see it, he/she has to hear it from someone or read it somewhere. If they don’t know it, the audience doesn’t know it. Also, if the narrator is taking part in the action, you don’t have room for them to watch the other characters. This can make it difficult to develop the others in the scene.
The final drawback I’ll list here (and anyone who works extensively in first can give you more things to watch for) has to do with description. Because everything is “I saw, I walked, I thought”, it’s very hard to resist just telling the reader what’s happening. Showing them is more of a challenge, but by far the best way to keep their attention. For example:
Telling: “I was terrified of him. No matter now much I looked at his face, I couldn’t make the fear of it go away.”
Showing: “My blood pounded hard in my ears, and my knees seemed to lock up against the urge to run or at least turn away. He was still there, meeting my defiant stare with a grin that said I was nothing to him. The leakage around his eyes and what was left of his nose dripped down, viscous and thick, sending terrible ripples of nausea through my gut, but I didn’t look away and neither did he.”
Tips and Tricks:
- One of the most common troubles when starting to write a first person piece is drifting into omniscience. You can be doing just fine, but then have a line slide in that describes how someone else is thinking. It’s very common, especially in rough drafts. Just write the story as it comes, first, and resist the urge to edit. If a scene comes to you in third while drafting, then let it be in third until you can come back to it. First person is very much like a puzzle. Your character has to placed in a position to hear, see, feel, know the scene in a way to move the story forward. Once a draft is out, go back and work each scene like a puzzle. Reposition the characters as needed, and then redraft the scene. Essentially your character is your camera. Put them in the right place for the magic to happen.
- Best tip I ever got on working with first person was when someone asked, after reading my story, “Is this supposed to be you?” Many people start out first person fiction with thinly disguised versions of themselves as the narrator. That’s nice enough for a start, but unless you’re writing your autobiography, your narrator is not you. Let them be different! The freedom of this is excellent, especially when you get to where you can let them be idiotic. The narrator could ignore an uncomfortable truth for much of the story, call someone by the wrong name, have an irrational fear of the letter X, or be an outright liar. You can have a lot of fun stepping into the skin of a person like this.
- Even if the work isn’t going to be in first person, writing a scene or two from a character’s exclusive perspective can do some amazing things for their depth. I love what this exercise does for my writing. If a character comes off to readers as stale, or flat, write a scene in first person from their perspective. Select something that makes them work, or pushes them somehow. That scene may never make it to the final product, but the work you did with it will show through in the quality of the characterization.
Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Writer’s Craft goes into a bit more detail in their post on First Person Point of View. They share some different forms of first person that I didn’t include here.