First person writing is much misunderstood, and many people will tell you to avoid it like the plague if you want to get published. It is true that many editors and publishers are less than keen on first person stories, but that’s because it is so very hard to do right, and so often done wrong. With that said, however, if you’re a lover of first person and you want to make it work you’re in luck – it can be done!
So, as someone who often writes in both first and third person I’m going to give you some basic hints and tips that will put you on the path to creating solid works in first person. These tips, I should note, are built on my personal experience; they’re not gospel, and you don’t have to take them on board. It can’t hurt to give them some consideration, however.
But first, the pros and cons of first person writing.
The Pros and Cons
To be honest, I love first person for the depth of personality which you can give characters with relative ease. First person, for the reader, is like listening to someone telling a story – if this person is interesting and eloquent you can listen to them all day. On the flip side this means that you really have to invest in all your characters or the reader will quickly pick up on the similarities or weaknesses and lose interest.
First person writing also allows you to create an intense sense of immediacy and intimacy between your characters and the reader – these things are happening as we read and they can be tinted with the characters personal feelings, too, which makes it much easier to show rather than tell. The downside is that it is very easy to fall into telling. It’s key to remember that your character is telling a story, explaining the events, not talking to the reader like a friend relaying gossip.
A story too centred on the main character quickly becomes like listening to that one friend who only ever talks about themselves; difficult and tiring.
To sum up;
Pros: immediacy, personality (and with the two, intensity), conducive to showing rather than telling.
Cons: easy to fall into telling, very character centric ( this can narrow the field too much), and you’ll have to deal with some people’s knee-jerk dislike of the style.
These are not the only pros and cons, but they are the key ones in my opinion.
So how do you kick your first person writing into good enough shape to prove the haters wrong? Well, you could start by doing the following things;
- Minimise the protagonist; I know this sounds silly when I’ve stressed how important the characters are to first person writing, but hear me out. I don’t mean erase all their interesting qualities and unique voice, I mean make them non-intrusive to the reading experience. Everyone knows someone that always talks about themselves right? If you’ve done it they have, if you’ve got it their is better (or worse, if its an illness), and if you have an opinion they have a personal and most likely tragic circumstance to make you feel shitty for thinking that way. Don’t make your character that guy. I always find that the best first person narratives look outwards 80-90% of the time and inwards only 10-20% (at a push). Think about Daphne DuMauriers Rebecca; in Rebecca the nameless protagonist tells her own story, and yet it doesn’t feel like she’s prattling on about herself ‘me, me, me’ all the time. She speaks of the world, but she does it through a point of view which is unique to her. This is the kind of feel you want to obtain. When editing ask yourself – if I was talking to my character, would I be bored of their shit by now?
- Shun ‘Me’, ‘Myself’ and ‘I’; as an extension of the above, one way in which you can do this is to remove the use of ‘I’ as often as you can as it’s the surest way to turn the focus inward. It should be noted that if you’re producing literary work your character will probably be forgiven for being more self involved than most, but you should still try to keep it as limited as possible while retaining the plot and feel you want. When writing in first person these words may as well be adverbs; they have their place, but need to be rarities for their full impact to be felt. For example, instead of saying;
“I knew she was lying to me because she wouldn’t meet my eye. She failed to answer my questions with clarity and the longer I waited, the longer the silence drew out, the more certain I was of her deceit.”
“She was lying. We all knew it to be true because of the way her eyes shifted from person to person and the sweat on her pale top lip. The more questions I asked of her, the less clearly she answered and as the silence drew out her guests began to shuffle. The candles flickered as though set aflutter by the heavy , awkward silence, and those who sat between us shrank back.”
You might have noticed the fact that the first excerpt gives us no indication of any other party-goers, or even the setting. This is the danger of allowing your character too much limelight. The second excerpt, however, manages to set (or perpetuate a sense of) the scene and atmosphere, including other guests, and drawing attention to the active character at that moment – the person lying.
- The three S’s; Show the physical, Streamline speech/thought and keep it Simple. It’s especially important when writing in first person that you remember the character has a body, and that this body will take precedence in their mind should something happen to it. Pain, intoxication and other physical reactions will directly affect your writing when using first person as they will change the ways in which your character speaks to the reader. Short, sharp sentences with a jagged and unfocused feel may represent anxiety, and loose, baggy sentences which trail away from the matter at hand may be the result of drug or alcohol consumption. When writing such scenes imagine yourself a first responder at an accident. Will a victim of a car crash tell you calmly that they may have a concussion, that their legs are broken and that they are afraid they will die? No, they’ll cry, scream, maybe even fall unconscious. When you write in first person you are inside the person affected, and so you have to relate their world view believably. Info dumps through dialogue are annoying in third person, so imagine how much worse it can be in first person when you have access to so many more tools. Why would a person tell another that they have trouble trusting because their father left their mother when she was pregnant with their sister? More to the point, why would they think it in such blunt terms? The circumstances would have to be exceptional. Cut away all dead weight from your though and speech patterns and make them dynamic enough to wriggle off the page all by themselves. Finally, keep it simple. Write the way your character thinks and speaks – if they are blunt and clear cut write that way, if they are sneaky and manipulative contrast the way think to themselves with how they speak to others, but don’t over-complicate it all with metaphors and symbols. You’re not trying to make your reader work for the full picture, you’re relaying it to them at the right time in the right way they’ll get what you’re trying to say without laboured metaphors.
Also known as Non-linear Narratives. It would be my advice that anyone new to first person writing avoid starting with convoluted or jumping timelines as though they can be very, very powerful (such as with Kevin Powers The Yellow Birds) they can also be very confusing and frustrating, (see The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford).
In truth, it’s a separate discipline which requires as much work to master as writing in first person, so attempting a crash run at both when you have a firm grip on neither is likely to end very poorly. Of course, doing so will most likely provide the steepest learning curve you can find; it may be a valuable learning experience, but don’t pin your hopes on the result being instantly published and receiving wide acclaim. This style will gets its own post (which can be found here), but right now I’ll sum up the basics you need to consider when jumping through your timeline in first person.
- Keep it simple; I feel like, and others must too, I say this all the time, but it’s rarely less than useful. Making your timeline transitions too complex or intricate will result in losing your readers through confusion or frustration. For example;
He was a good husband to me, but then I always knew he would be. From the moment he gave me his coat when we were sixteen to how he would hold my hand on my deathbed, Tom was a good husband. I would realise that too late.
This is an absolute mess, anyone with sense who reads it will see that, but not everyone will be able to pick out why. The problem is it tries to mash together hindsight with present and future tense events to create an all-round picture. It may be possible to do this well, and if you do send me a damn link because I WILL buy that book… but right now that’s just a mess. You can give the same information by doing this;
Everything hurts when you’ve been hit by a truck… funny that. But Tom took my hand so gently that it didn’t even twinge; we weren’t alone together, but we might as well have been. His eyes were so sad, but so loving. He had always been loving, always patient, rarely angry. From the moment he gave me his coat at sixteen, after that Christmas dance, until this moment Tom had been a blessing. If I closed my eyes I could smell the frost and woodspice aftershave, feel the feather-light snow brush my ears… almost see it when they opened again. Tom looked so young and so weary as the room began to darken.
This is an example of how you can shift timelines while your character is anchored in the present by using memory. It’s less confusing than having your characters consciousness shift, like during a flashback, when in first person. Flashbacks, once again, can be done well, but should be employed less liberally than the former examples. A good rule is to shift in the timeline, whether this be through flashbacks or narration, only when it cannot be avoided. If your story is just as good without the scene then there’s no need for it to be there.
When using flashbacks, however, remember that your characters consciousness with change in first person; they will have access to only what they knew and could do then. The reader will know, in this case, more about the story than the main character (in this scene), though by and large you should aim for them to stay in sync in that respect.
- Make sure it’s relevant; this is an extension of what I’ve said above, but it does have its place (which is convenient given what’s to follow). It is possible to deploy flashbacks, time shifts, and memories which are well deployed but contribute nothing at all to the story, no matter how interesting they are. These are the most insidious scenes when it comes to editing; you’re proud of them, you love the way you’ve written them, and yet they bring nothing but superfluous dressing to the table. You needn’t delete them, but I would suggest setting up a folder for such off-cuts. Save them under the name of their original work and give a few words about whats happening. If you’re ever stuck you can flick through this folder and see if there’s anything fit for re-purposing
- Keep your style consistent; you may wish to change the voice or tweak the outlook slightly if doing an extreme time jump, but keep your writing style as consistent as possible to avoid irritating the reader. Switching suddenly to using slang, for example, might be too much, but weaving some cursing into the voice of a character who was once, for example, much less prim, proper, and “Christian” during a flashback or shift might emphasise how far they have come.
These are the very basics, of course, and there’s always more to learn, but these hints and tips will at least get you one or two steps down the road to creating lively and well-presented first person stories.