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Monday, March 7, 2011

First Person Narrative: My Aversion, and An Exploration of Technique

When I am reading a work of fiction, I want to be transported to another place and another time and into the mind of a main character. A story told in first person may be the obvious choice to immerse the reader; but I have an aversion to first person.

It struck me, thinking about it a while back, there is an obvious reason for this: When I am reading an expertly written narrative told in third person (preferably close limited third, as close to first person as you can get), I become the character I am reading. I don’t just identify with their thoughts- I become their thoughts, I experience their sensations and their emotions. I see what they see, and I hear what they hear. At the most magic of moments, I forget I am reading a story, and I become the story. If a narrative is told in first person, there is a “remove” from the experience, because, I can never be that person telling the story.

Another factor: if they are telling the story, the story has already happened; it cannot be happening now. In a third person narrative, even though the story is told in past tense, there is a sense of the story happening in the now, that circumstances are unfolding, and not only does the narrator not know what will happen next; the reader does not know what will happen next. In first person, the narrator knows exactly what will happen, and the charm is in the telling.

There are exceptions to my aversion. The “charm in the telling” is the key. Sometimes it is the strength of a character, their idiosyncratic view of events, and the author’s clever use of syntax, creating a unique voice for that character, that makes me forget I am reading a first person account, and I am swept away by the story. Sometimes it is the lyrical quality of the author’s own style, lulling me into compliant duplicity, and the necessary “I” becomes irrelevant, as I am enthralled by the integrity of the story and the narrative weave.

First person, done well, is a challenge. When writing in first person, the author is limited to what the first person narrator can hear and see, including the character’s own interior thoughts. Close limited third carries this same responsibility, as the author sticks to one point-of-view for each chapter or scene.

If a first person character is not a witness to an event, they can only provide hear say, or perhaps, they may speak to someone in a scene who can relay a piece of critical information, or, in the worst of devices, overhear a conversation through a vent, or hide behind a screen. Mostly, it’s their interpretation of an event they have personally witnessed, or experienced, and their own thoughts about that event or experience that allows them to tell a tale.

For the reader, there is the issue of narrator reliability. Do we trust this first person narrator, and their interpretation of events, or, is part of the intrigue for the reader, deciphering their own sense of the truth out of the narrator’s delusions?

Another critical factor in first person narrative is the age of the character telling the tale, and their distance from the events. Are they a child telling the tale? Are they a twenty-something adult or an older teen? Are they middle aged, telling an event from their youth? Are they relaying their own story, or the story of someone else? An expert telling requires the writer to stay consistent to that age, and to that tone.

There is the added layer of capturing the voice of an earlier “me,” possibly a child, while relaying the current “me” telling the tale, a person presumably transformed in some way by the experiences and events they are relaying, so that they are not the same person, emotionally, intellectually, physically, or spiritually (in the larger, humanistic sense of the word), as they were when those experiences and events took place.

There are guides to writing that propose that first person narrative gives the reader immediate identification with the main character telling the story. In most first person, I do not find this to be personally true. Unless the first person narrator engages me from their first few lines, there will definitely be a “getting to know you” period, and what I may find out is that this person and their story situation is boring, or I just don’t like this person, and I stop reading.

For me, these two factors must be in place, for me to take the time to read a first person narrative, more important than the circumstances of the story they are telling: A three dimensional character with an intriguing point of view and a personal way of speaking, and the strength of the writer’s own style propelling me forward.

I’m trying again, the idea of throwing out a number of questions, and asking the reader to respond in any way they choose.

When you select a story told in first person, what factors do you look for?

If you are a writer, do you enjoy writing in first person?

Have you ever begun a story, where it “told itself” from the point of view of a single character, and a first person narrative was the obvious and only choice? (This has happened to me.)

If you’ve written in first person, have you encountered any difficulties, and how have you overcome them?

I admire quality first person writing. I have read short stories and novels told in first person that satisfy my need to be transported into another world, in terms of place, time, and point of view. How about you?


  1. Hi Annie! I'm only an amateur, sometimes wanna-be fiction writer. It's not a burning ambition for me to write, as much as 'I have a story that I'd like to tell' sort of writing.

    As I've inferred to you before, several years ago my daughter and I sat down to write an adventurous novel together. She's a very talented and creative spirit, and her writing skills amazed her teachers, and of course my wife and me. We were all further amazed that later she chose to put aside writing and pursue other art forms.

    But at the time she was at her zenith, we went on a retreat together for a week, hoping that we could jump start our writing project.

    Our process was to work from 9am to 5 pm, each day, and based on an outline that we started with, we each went off to a private sanctuary and wrote for a bit. Then when the time seemed right, we would meet up and read out loud to each other what we had written, assembling the work into a notebook, with very rough editing so as to tie it together. What was fun was that we didn't know what direction or change of ideas that the other person would take, and yet we somehow found a common voice within our work.

    But the voice had variety in tone and pitch. We agreed to not worry about first person, or third person or even staccato phrasing. The goal was to get the idea and the plotting on paper and worry about viewpoint later. Sometimes one paragraph would contain several points of view.

    We had a great time, but at the end of the week life was such that we had to put the overstuffed notebook on a shelf, and there it still sits taunting me. I've thought about the project many times, and feel that the core idea is valid, but I'm at a loss to know what the writing point of view should be.

    I agree with what you say about first person, and personally I think that to write that way, for me, is a temptation to be lazy. That is to say, I think it might be easier to write that way, but that the best novels I've ever read were third person, and the effort or skill or talent to do that well is beyond my current abilities.

    Yet, I'm still tempted to try a first person narrative, making it an eccentric voice that reads a bit more like a storyteller who has a magnificent tale to tell (which is an idea that is fraught with danger).

    In order for anything of that sort to work, I remind myself that writing a traditional novel is only one way of telling a story. I've been tempted to take a course in screenwriting just to get the story on paper, because then viewpoint is less critical than solid plotting and dialogue.

    Or perhaps I'll design the story to include images (my specialty) and the end result could be a graphic novel, or one of those children's books that all ages can enjoy, and to hell with the great American novel.

  2. Hi Thom,

    Thanks for sharing about your collaborative project with your daughter, and your ideas about first person and point of view. I admire anyone who can make a novel work, whether it's first person or third, but my natural inclination is to both write in third person, and to enjoy the complexity of reading a novel written in third person, particularly those told in multiple points of view. Writing good first person is as challenging as writing in third, with both similarities and differences in approach.

    In a first draft, and in beginning efforts at writing fiction, you and your daughter's approach was perfect. The most important thing is to get the ideas and the words on the page. What I found helpful, in addition to just writing, was reading and highlighting quality books about writing. I have a link to a bibliography of the books I found most helpful listed on my sidebar, and I add to it periodically.

    Though I've been writing fiction (more off than on) for eighteen years now, I still consider myself a beginner, but I learned a few years ago now, when I took classes in creative writing, that through self study, I had mastered some of the basics, including a good command of point of view. My weakness in longer fiction is plotting, but I suspect that weakness will be solved, if I just manage to finish an entire novel; the process of writing and revising it teaching me how to shape a first draft into a balanced work.

    I have a link to a number of posts about my personal writing process, along with quotes from established authors, also on my sidebar, or you can click on the label below this post. Many of the author quotes are duplicated on my supplemental blog, Flowering Dream.

    It's great your daughter is talented in both writing and in art. I see the potential in both of those areas for my son, along with music. But I also see him setting those aspects of himself aside, in favor of other consuming interests.

    The collaboration aspects are intriguing. There are authors who write in partnership, and novels that have been written, with established authors trading chapters. There's a name for that, probably collaborative fiction. As an exercise in one of my writing classes, we each took turns writing a chapter in a novel. It was a valuable experience, and I think I wrote about it somewhere in this blog. I was amazed at how it was possible to use someone else's initial ideas and characterization, and continue in that tone and rhythm.

    I'd love to hear your ideas about your project.

  3. I shy away from writing in the first person, finding third a more comfortable fit. Today, especially in middle-grade and YA novels, first person is overused, in my opinion. To write in first person you need a really strong, unique voice. Also, as you point out, first person is limiting. By definition, you have to stay in one person's POV. When first person is done correctly, it can be wonderful. It's impossible to imagine Huckleberry Finn written in anything else! But too often writers choose first person because they think it is easier. And don't get me started on writing in second person!

  4. Hi Catherine,

    As part of my job, we review new books as they come in, and I have also notice an overuse of first peson in J and YA fiction. I usually read the opening paragraph, and go, eh. Sometimes, a strong personality leaps off the page, but more often, the character is bland, and the story situation contrived. To me, the best first person, is when the writer "had" to write it that way, because the story began in a character's voice, as opposed to choosing to write in first person (if that makes any sense!).

    In my opinion, second person is a gimmick, sometimes entertaining; best employed for flash fiction or very short stories, because it becomes tedious for the reader, very quickly, and again, it should be used only if the story "had" to be told in that way.

    I have mixed feelings about present tense. In my opinion, it is also best employed in short pieces, or as a mix with past tense in expertly written literary fiction (Margaret Atwood successfully mixes tenses, in ways the reader doesn't even notice), or in popular fiction employing literary technique. I've written a couple of short stories in present tense.

  5. I just love your craft posts.

    I write in the first person sometimes, but not that often. Much of poetry is just veiled first-person, I think (the word "you" really means the speaker).

    I like to write in the second person often, where I am directly addressing the reader (not a hypothetical "you"--the real reader). I sometimes imagine certain people standing in for that reader to make it as direct as possible (does that make sense?).

    Very often, I write in "we"'s. I'm not sure how successful this is always, but I often talk about what we do, us people, how we approach living.

    Very thought-provoking post and comments! Thanks for this.

  6. Hi Hannah,

    You are one of the people I put in the category of "expertly written" and "successfully employing technique." The different ways you write a poem always appear natural and integral to the piece. Your work is a great example, that if it works, nothing will seem out of place.

    As I was writing this, I wasn't thinking about poetry, and I didn't think about the fact you use second person, You (but actually, as you say, you are addressing the reader, rather than expecting them to become the "you"). Your use of "we" is always universal, in a natural way. Somehow, you always do pick the things that through the "specific" we can all identify with, and say, yep, I've experienced that, or, yep, I agree, and I never thought of it that way.

    (For anyone reading here, who hasn't read any of Hannah's work at The Storialist, I highly recommend her poetry and her site, linked in my favorites on my sidebar.)

    I like your statement in the comments: "Much of poetry is just veiled first-person, I think (the word "you" really means the speaker)."

    To me, the best poetry is autobiographical in origin. I've tried a "trick" recently that I think has strenghtened some of my poetry- changing the first person "I" to third person, to give myself a bit of distance and objectivity from whatever event or emotion triggered the poem, in my efforts to substitute imagery for the equivalent of "I want" and "I need" (if that makes any sense!), a bit of symbolic "showing" rather than telling, though there is always a balance in all good writing; sometimes it's okay for the speaker of the poem or a character in a story to explain what they mean, or to express their confusion, or to summarize a conclusion or a revelation, and the way that they tell it is part of the journey.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You got me thinking.