Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Struggle With Writing in First Person

I just finished reading two proposals for stories that I truly thought would have had a ton of hope. The query letter rocked. I loved the premise in the synopsis so I was totally excited to read the partial. And that is where things fell apart, and thus the inspiration for this post. The stories were in first person, and, like so many other proposals I have seen, both fell short in the same way.

I have always contended that writing in first person is amazingly difficult. Authors will often argue that it is easier. So which is right? In reality, both perspectives are correct, but it is what each of us are defining as difficult. Let's start with the authors.

So many authors love writing in first person because the story just flows from their brains to that manuscript, and the reason is simple. As the author transports himself or herself into the mind of the character, they just need to have the character talk. If you think about it, writing in first person is pretty much dialogue.

I know this is so true. When I wrote the poetry for my second book, I did much of it with a digital recorder. As I drove to various locations and ideas for poems came up, I just had to talk. Because poetry is about sound, this made for writing the poetry a fairly easy task.

But now the question is, why do I argue that it is difficult. It all comes down to the depth of the storytelling. When we write in third person, we have the ability of all of that narration to create the world building. We can describe scenes that, normally, the character would not ever consider talking about.

I heard an author present on this once before at a conference and I think the example was perfect. Consider this. When you walk into your home, do you scan the entire room, mentally describing all that you see? Do you talk about the china that is in your hutch and remind yourself of the history of those pieces? Do you, when the dog runs up to you to say hi, discuss the history of that dog and how you came about getting the dog and why he means so much to you? If you are like me, you are just interested in kicking off your shoes and sitting down for a second after a long day. You might only be thinking about the dinner that has to be cooked in 30 minutes to get the kids out the door to soccer.

The difficulty with first person is how to gracefully and fluently add this information into the story without it becoming too forced. As an author, you really don't need all of that information because it is already in your head. You know what that house looks like. You have all of that additional information. For readers, this is the first time they have come across that setting. They have a blank canvas and without that information, they simply have characters talking. The world building is just not there.

Now, does this mean that I will not look at a first person story? Absolutely not. If done well, we are instantly transported into that world. We are there 100% with the characters. If it is not done well... I guess you know what my answer would be.


  1. Great post. And great explanation of the difficulties of first person.

  2. The writer has to be really good with the unreliable narrator. It is an innocent way of writing. At the same time the reader needs to be in on it. First, there has to be a positive connection between narrator and reader and second, the reader has to understand and accept that the narrator is going to make mistakes in his interpretation of his world.

    Not every writer can pull this off. That's where a writer has to be honest with themselves otherwise they are robbing the reader of a good story.