Despite what some people will tell you, first person writing is enjoyable, rewarding, and fairly popular amongst readers; providing it is done well, that is. If you’re new to the craft, or just new to writing in first person, there are some basic hints and tips that can get you off to a good start.
Some of them are even transferrable to other points of view and perspectives!
What is First Person Writing?
First and foremost, it’s important to understand the difference between first, second, and third person writing. I’ll go in descending order;
Third Person – The third person point of view has the reader viewing events from outwith the characters themselves. E.g. “he ran”, “she fell”, “they cried”; third person can have a number of focuses, from close third, where the reader views one character in particular and their knowledge is mostly limited to that characters experiences. Omniscient view points are more old-fashioned, but can still be used to striking effect; an omniscient view point, or far third POV, will have the reader overseeing the whole cast in a less focussed way. Think of J R R Tolkeins The Hobbit as an example.
Second Person – By far the least common style of writing, second person can be very, very clunky and awkward, but it’s not unheard of for people to use it well. Second person makes the reader the protagonist in the most obvious of ways; “you go to the fridge”, “You screamed for help”, “You felt the rope burn your hands” in second person the novel speaks to the reader directly. It’s a conversation, of sorts.
First Person – In first person writing the reader looks through the eyes of the main character, see’s what they see, feels what they feel, and hears what they hear. They gain access to the thoughts of that character, very often (though this can also be seen in close third person narration), and form an intimate connection with that character. “I ran”, “my lungs burned”, “the blood that spilled from my gut”; everything in first person comes from the main character.
Pros and Cons
Everything has strengths and weaknesses; first person writing is no exception to this universal rule.
- It’s easier to build a strong character voice because your reader interacts directly with the protagonist.
- It’s easier to build an immersive experience by referencing sight, sound, smell, taste, and texture.
- First person lends itself well to a fast-paced story; this can, or should, mitigate lengthy purple prose for the most part.
- It can become too centred on the main character and isolate/bore the reader
- You have to work harder to create connections with other characters
- If you use “I” a lot it can become very repetitive
How to write well in first person
Writing well in first person is much like writing well in any style in that it takes three things;
- Attention to detail
Now I can’t help you with items two and three, but I can sure as hell give you advice when it comes to improving your technique. Here are the main things to keep in mind;
Minimise me, myself, and I
Believe it or not, using the words I, me, mine etc in first person can be a real killer if you do it too often. Why? The overall effect should be that the reader watches the story through their eyes, and if you overuse “I” it can start to feel more like the reader is having a one-sided conversation with the main character. This can work if it’s done with flair, of course, but it relies on an amusing and stimulating character voice.
Cut out filter phrases
Somewhat of an extension on the last point, but important enough to be distinct; cut out filter words. What are they, you ask? They’re the first person equivalent of the dreaded adjective.
“I saw”, “I heard”, “I felt”; these are filter words/phrases because they put a barrier between the reader and character. For example contrast,
“I ran to Gerald, but couldn’t help him. I saw him fall and heard his scream as he tumbled to the rocks below.”
“As I ran to him Gerald fell. He screamed on the way down, and hit the rocks below with an almighty crack.”
Now, both sentences have their virtues, but the first is laced with filter phrases.
Invoke the senses
When writing in first person the key to building a tangible connection between your reader and the wold you have built lies within your characters senses. Don’t tell them the campsite was filthy and chaotic, tell them that the character smelled offal and blood and wounds gone bad, and that the air hummed with raised voices. Don’t tell them the hand your character shakes is scarred and warped, tell them it feels rough and lumpy and twists at odd angles.
Begin with action
This rule holds true no matter which point of view you write from; begin with a character in action, in need, and/or in crisis if you want to hook the reader early. When you write in first person it can be a relatively small action, but try to avoid the “book opens with character running away from a nameless horror” trope because… well, it’s as predictable and overused as the “looking in a mirror to describe my character” trope. It can be done well, but rarely is.
Establish a voice and stick to it
One of the hardest things to do for some people is establishing a unique character voice that isn’t just theirs (the authors, that is), but if you can do this early and be consistent with it you’re on to a winner. People will pick up on the quirks your character displays, and if you’re clever they will really carry the quieter moments of your story. Just be sure that you consider what is reasonable for your characters background – if you’re writing an illiterate character it might be a push to have them making clever literary references.
Don’t be passive
Once again, one that should be applied to all fiction; the passive voice is not just out of vogue, it’s a distraction from the flow of your story. More than that, many people find it irritating these days. In case you weren’t aware, the passive voice occurs when the thing that should be the object of the sentence becomes the subject. For example;
“The cat caught a fat mouse.” Is an active sentence.
“The fat mouse was caught by a cat.” Is a passive sentence.
If the house was walked into, or the road was crossed by a hedgehog, you have a passive sentence. Now, passive sentences aren’t necessarily bad, and they’re not grammatically incorrect; it’s more of a stylistic faux pas.
If you can pin all these things down, you’ll have a good foundation from which to develop and grow!