Story Basics 101: The First Person

Quick note:
When crafting a story, a writer must choose between one of three perspectives to narrate through; first person, second person, or third person. This post shines the light on the first-person perspective.

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The first-person perspective is all about “me”, “myself,” and “I” (and “we”). Along with the third person (she/he, they, and them), the first person is the most common perspective used for fiction writing. The second person (you) is rarely used. 

First Person Example

Alone, I walk through the woods. It seemed like a good idea at first, a shortcut home. But now I wonder… A twig snaps. The hairs on my neck rise as my skin crawls. Gathering my inner strength, I turn, ready to fight. Nothing is there. My lungs function again. I’m losing my mind.

Diaries, journals, letters, and autobiographies are written in the first person. This makes the first-person perspective a great place for beginner writers to start. We’ve all written letters at some point in our lives, and many of us have kept journals and diaries. Transitioning to fiction is a natural process. However, writing a story in the first person has its pros and cons. 

First Person Advantages

The first-person perspective is easier to write for many writers than the second and third person. Writers are familiar with writing and talking from the first-person perspective. As human beings, we talk in the first person when conversing, sharing details of our day or the past. The “I” flows from our tongues or through our fingers without thinking. As writers, we can get into the character and write a stream of consciousness — essentially, we are the character or become the character.

The most intimate point-of-view is from a first-person perspective. Readers can get into the mind of the protagonist and learn their private thoughts and feelings. The typical reader enjoys getting to know the protagonist on a deep level, so they can relate and emotionally become attached. Readers can live vicariously through the protagonist. One powerful advantage. 

First Person Disadvantages

First-person narrative demand the sole focus is on one character and while intimacy with the reader is an extreme advantage over the second and third person, there is a tradeoff. All story information is filtered through the main character, resulting in restrictive storytelling. There is no outside input from other characters or the narrator. Story details can only come from the protagonist’s perception. If the protagonist isn’t in the know, neither is the reader.

On the technical side of writing, it’s challenging not to use “I” in every other sentence. Overusing any word is sloppy writing. In addition to repetitive pronouns, there are risks of relying on a passive voice (telling rather than showing) and info-dumping because that’s how we talk in our day-to-day lives. Strong writing shows the reader what is happening; a red car was in an accident (telling) vs as I waited at the bus stop, a red four-wheel-drive ran the traffic light ––BAM! (showing). If I were to info-dump the car accident, I would tell the reader the 5 “Ws” and how, in a paragraph, rather than drip the details here and there within the prose. 

When choosing to write in the first person, it’s worth considering a marketing or readership point-of-view; some readers don’t like the first person but rarely do readers detest prose written in the third person. The first person asks the reader to take on a fictional identity. We are accustomed to referring to ourselves as “I”. While first-person fiction is becoming more and more popular, the third person is the default narrative and therefore easier to read for some.  

Warning: people often mistake first-person fiction for an autobiographical tale. 

Comparing First Person to Third Person 

Writing in first person is arguably easier to write but harder to pull off than the third person. The first person executed well isn’t as straightforward as one might expect. Readers have to be invested in the protagonist or they will check out. The third person has the luxury of diluting the annoying main character by sharing the limelight with supporting characters. Think of tv shows or books whereby you don’t like the main character but you go along for the ride because the supporting characters make it worth your while. In contrast, an irritating protagonist in the first person is like being handcuffed to the annoying kid in school, there is no escape. The third person creates a buffer between protagonist and reader by not being in the protagonist’s head 100% of the time. The first-person perspective should be reserved for when you have an interesting character that can carry the story. 

Multi-Point-of-View Stories

Some stories, usually novels, are narrated in the first person by several characters to unfold the entire adventure. Multi-point-of-view stories in the first person require an enormous skill. Each point-of-view character needs their own distinct voice. Years ago, I was asked to read a manuscript. Each chapter alternated between two characters in the first person. The overall content and story concept were fantastic. What let the novel down was the point-of-view characters sounded the same, and I kept getting the two characters muddled, resulting in confusion. I would chalk it up to my comprehension skills, except another reader claimed the same issue. 

Nowadays, it’s acceptable to write larger stories using a mixture of first, second, and third-person perspectives. The first-person voice might be best for one point-of-view character and not another. 

Coming up second and third-person perspectives.

Exercise

Rewrite a classic fairytale using a first-person voice. Or rewrite one of your own stories. Take notice of the differences. 



Categories: Writers' Tool Box, Writing

Tags: , , ,

6 replies

  1. Learning some first person tricks along the way, it’s still good to have someone explain what has just been “happening” as I work at the craft. Have you considered that writing in first person, when your narrator includes some verbatim conversation between characters, that gives the writer opportunity, not to delve into subordinate characters’ minds, but to have what is said and the first person’s reaction to that (not interpretation of that) make the reader understand the working of subordinate characters’ minds? Or do you think, as I am coming to understand, most readers have difficulty thinking beyond he-said, she said? Or my own craft is not polished enough so it’s just me being ineffective?

    Good reading. I’ll be back.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I tend to think the average reader doesn’t think that deep. They’re going along for the ride, so to speak. On the other hand, there are readers who analyse little details and may pick up details beyond the first person protagonist. There is also a reader bias. For example, I grew up around sarcasm and when I read I’m inserting “sarcasm” into lines that are probably straight. When I write, many don’t pick up on the sarcasm. There will always be some miscommunication between readers and the writer.

      You may have better luck with third person. First person is fixated on one character. It would be hard to show the reader how other characters really think/feel because all story details come from the first person character.

      Thanks S. You got me thinking. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’ve underlined a principle I’ve been struggling with for a long time – the fact that most people, today, especially, it seems, cannot or will not read and then, heaven forbid [!] think, thereby fulfilling the tacit contract between serious writers and their audiences. If a piece lacks spinning emojis, kitty-kat or doggie pictures, or spills over one-hundred words, today’s audience cannot be bothered.

        I rather enjoy the few reading my efforts who do think. Even when they think in a way not as I’d expected.

        Zowie. Thanks for your thoughts. I gotta keep coming back. You’re spot-on. I could learn something, if only that I need to find a real trade.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The brain is like a muscle, it needs a regular workout. It doesn’t help that there are so many elements in life demanding attention. Society is kept busy with surface level stuff.

        I enjoy different interpretations from readers. It’s their relationship with the text.

        We can all learn. The learning never stops when it comes to the art of story telling.

        Liked by 1 person

Trackbacks

  1. Story Basics 101: The Second Person – THE WRITING ASYLUM
  2. Story Basics 101: The Third Person – THE WRITING ASYLUM

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