The definition, pros and cons, and the most basic hints for style when employing first person writing can be found elsewhere on this site (Psst! The link is back there!). Rehashing them would be pointless, so on the assumption you know all this I’ll move right on to some more in depth tips for polishing your first person writing skills;
- Begin with your character, but involve the world; there is an old piece of well-worn advice that says you should start your story with desire. In first person writing this is doubly key; you need to start with your character, and they need to want (or need) something. The main danger facing character-driven stories, as many first person stories are, is the danger that they will become stilted or spiral inwards. Begin with your character and set them in a busy, vibrant world. The hardest thing to do is to create a world that seems to go on without the protagonist, but it’s essential to widening the scope of first person literature.
- Cultivate and deploy their voice; first person writing succeeds when the character has their own, recognisable voice, and when the writer uses it consistently. First person writing should be a conversation between the reader and the protagonist, not a droning monologue. A lilt in speech patterns, sense of humour, wit, anxiety; all of these things should come through in the way your character interacts with the world and the reader. There should never be a need to “tell” in first person writing; you’ll never find it easier to “show” your characters emotions, reactions, and personality.
- Confide in the reader; your readers should feel that they understand the character, that they know them better even than they know themselves. This is how you build sympathy for even the most unlikable or unreliable of narrators. First person writing gives the unique opportunity to build an intimate relationship between character and reader. Use it.
- Engage all the senses; first person stories can quickly become too cerebral and self-involved. Tether your character to the world they live in by engaging all of their senses. What can they smell, see, feel, taste, hear, and how does this tie into their current situation. A character with no medical training may not know what an infection looks like, but the smell from the wound, or the feel of it can communicate to the reader that something is going wrong. Very often your reader will know more than your character, and this is okay.
- Remove the dampers; there are certain phrases which dampen the impact of your characters experiences by forcing your reader to experience the story second-hand. “I thought”, “I saw”, “I heard”; remove these from your roster and throw them in the same pile as adverbs. They can be used to great effect, but should be avoided as a matter of course because they create the effect of the story being told to the reader rather than them experiencing it. Your reader should live vicariously through the character, not be a coffee-shop captive hearing someone’s life story.
- Keep the momentum; a very common mistake people make with first person is sacrificing action for long-winded descriptions and monologues. If you’re writing literary fiction this might be more accepted, but even then you should remember point 1; as much as every story begins with desire, it is also developed and driven forward by desires and needs. Your character needs to find out what Doctor X’s evil plan is to stop it, they want to know why Ava left without saying good by, and they act in order to achieve these things.
Finally, don’t be afraid of first person writing; it might seem like a hideous, horrifying hill to climb, but there are few styles which allow you such intimacy with your characters. If you don’t feel first person is right for your book as a whole I would suggest writing a few passages for your characters in first person to get to know them!