Monday, October 24, 2011

The Problem With First Person, But Why Writers Are Drawn To It

Agents and editors are always being asked the question of whether we like first or third person stories. Unfortunately, there is only one answer to this. I like first person IF it is done right and I like third person IF it is done right. In other words, the story and situation dictates the voice you want to use.

Too often, however, writers dive all over first person because (to quote a writer friend of mine), it's because it is easier to write. In reality, writing in first person provides a whole new level of challenges that a writer doesn't really see until it is too late.

Now, first of all, the reason most people think first person is so much easier stems from the simple fact that they are pretty much writing dialogue and that is it. The character is simply talking, either to the reader or to another person. They may even talk to themself. The key is, it is ALL talking. I know, for myself, when I am writing a scene in a story, I have often worked with a digital recorder and just had the characters talk back and forth to each other. In this way, I can "hear" the tone in the voice, I can "hear" the feeling and I can "hear" the emotion.

But then comes the challenge.

In writing we can't "hear" that stuff. That is where the narration comes into play. If you are writing in first person, it now becomes a challenge to bring to the table all of the feelings and emotions, that, if you are talking, you take for granted and don't ever talk about.

There is an additional challenge and that is how much the first person narration "describes" to the reader. Think of it this way. When you walk into your house, do you take the time to mentally describe the surroundings, the smells, the feelings and the emotions? Do you contemplate the history of the house or the dishes on the table. I seriously doubt it. But, the reader needs to know this information. This is that world building element that adds depth to a story, plot and characters. But, because this information is something your characters is likely to take for granted, they won't bring that information out in any form of narration. There is simply no need to.

What about their history with their goals, motivations and their conflicts. Again, this is something we often find in narration alone, and not something a character will bring out.

So, the writers then bring in other characters to create a scene to "info-dump" that information. Unfortunately, in terms of creating a story that flows, this ends up feeling awkward and may even hamper the forward movement of the story. Leaving it out leaves questions for the reader. Putting it in, hurts the flow.

Now, let me make a point here. There is NOTHING WRONG WITH FIRST PERSON. You just have to figure out how to do it effectively. To do this requires research. Take the time to really "dissect" those novels that do it well. (I personally recommend Outlander for this one). Then, find a way to work it into your story smoothly and naturally.

Best of luck on this one.



  1. Thanks for the tip. I'm all about writing in the first person, but only in my blog. Blogs and other unnamed social media activities are like Chuck E Cheese visits. Fun, but no substance and bad pizza. Is it wrong to relax in this manner? Looking forward to your future thoughts.

  2. It takes irony, basically (literary irony not Alanis Morrisette irony!)

    The narrator has to inadvertently reveal things that his/her "dialogue" does not, including things he/she doesn't realize he/she is revealing.

    Therefore, any time an author writes in 1st person without realizing that no narrator is reliable, it will tend to come across as a painfully naive piece of writing. It's the kind of thing that can be pulled off about once (hello Catcher in the Rye) but after that will never fly again.

    Janna Levin used a clever device in the literary novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines -- she riffs on the philosopher's koan: if a liar says he's lying can you believe him? A debate about that paradox is a key element of the plot (the characters are mathematicians/philosophers) but Levin also uses it to slyly inoculate the narration as obviously a lie -- it has the effect of making you drop your resistance. The narrator is a liar, therefore he/she can't possibly have first hand knowledge of the things he recounts, but then again . . .

  3. I agree. The key to first person is remembering that thoughts and dialogue aren't enough. We still need to see, smell, taste what the character does. Great post!

  4. Hunger Games is another fine first person series (YA).

  5. Thanks for a great post.

    I'm just about to start writing my first, first person manuscript. I've always been scared of it, knowing the pit falls, but I'm going to give it a go and see how it turns out.

    Feel free to post as many first person tips as you like ;)

  6. Some great tips here - thank you