Writing from a first person perspective plants your readers directly in the story – they can immediately access the voice and inner thoughts of a main character, straight from the horse’s mouth. As the hallmarks of a first person perspective, using ‘I’ and ‘my’ makes it easier for the reader to experience the proceedings as though they’re right in the narrator’s shoes…
But first person narration can restrict your story in several ways, too.
For one, when you write in first person it removes insight into the thoughts and feelings of other characters – the narrator must interpret these, acting as a filter influenced by their own experiences, insecurities and beliefs. For example, the narrator’s neighbor might be plotting murder, but if he’s at all good at hiding it, your narrator – and therefore the reader – won’t have a clue.
Given the natural demands when you write in first person, it’s possible to fall into the trap of describing thoughts and emotions over and over again. Do this too much, and your narrator will come across as self-absorbed, boring and introverted. You can avoid this by having them describe sights, sounds and other external stimuli as much as – or more often than – their own personal lives.
But, even still, there’s a challenging balancing act to be performed here. Whilst you want to separate the reader somewhat from your narrator’s inner monologue, you also want to simultaneously pull them into the action – which is nearly impossible if you use too many distancing words such as ‘I’ and ‘my’. These words let the reader experience the story from the narrator’s perspective, but when a scene is action-packed or when you need to convey emotion, you want the reader to be at the centre – not feeling like they’re hearing about it second-hand.
Take this sentence, for example:
I saw the ‘Closed’ sign dangling from the shop window, but I could hear someone moving inside. I stood on tiptoes to look through the glass and saw a pair of eyes staring back at me.
Here, the reader is being told about the narrator’s experience. It’s like hearing a story from a friend… but the scene would be more immersive – would allow the reader to take up that primary position – if the narrator stepped aside a little, like this:
The ‘Closed’ sign swayed in the window as a bang and scuffle sounded from somewhere near the back of the shop. Behind the glass, a pair of bright eyes darted into view, staring right at me.
As always, there are exceptions to this approach. Sometimes you’ll want to have the reader experience things first-hand, and sometimes you need to have your narrator report events, such as transitions between scenes, back story and flashbacks, or relatively inconsequential details.
It helps to match the narrator’s voice with their character. Although this sounds obvious, it’s easy to slip into writing in your own voice with added ‘I’ and ‘my’ words. Where does your character come from? It’s difficult and often inadvisable to write accents, but can you play with cadence and slang? Are they male, female, well educated, poor, lazy, funny, gloomy, silly, old or young?
‘Call me Ishmael’ begins one of the most famous first person narrated stories of all time – Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville. Reading widely ensures you get a feel for how other authors use first person, and what works and what doesn’t. For example, Harper Lee uses only one ‘my’ at the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird to set the first person perspective:
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football again were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.
As with any aspect of the writing craft, it helps to get feedback from others – so if you’ve considered all of the above and you’re still on the fence about your first person narrative, get a trusted friend to cast their eye over your manuscript.
Have them note any points in the story where they feel too distanced – like they’re listening passively to someone droning on and their attention is starting to wander, rather than feeling like they’re directly connected to the events that unfold.
It may seem simple on the surface – but in practice, it can be extremely challenging to write in first person, taking a deft hand to find balance.
What do you think? Is the first person perspective a favorite of yours, or the bane of your writing? What techniques or self regulation do you employ to maintain a balance that keeps your readers happy?