Fiction writing tip: First-person narration

Writing in the first person—the “I” narrator—has both advantages and disadvantages. The drawbacks have caused many people in the writing business to tell aspiring novelists to avoid the first-person narrator because it limits the scope of the narrative. The information given to readers is limited to the first-person narrator’s direct sensory experiences (what he sees, hears, feels, smells, and tastes) and to some indirect experience—hearsay, conjecture, deduction, emotions, and anything else that concerns interpreting or inventing things rather than witnessing them. Also, writing in the first person tempts the writer to shift into the second-person viewpoint and speak directly to the reader (a big no-no), and it makes it easy for writers to ramble and include extraneous material.

On the other hand, writing in the first person is easy and natural; it creates a sense of intimacy, immediacy, and authenticity; and it can make your lead character easily accessible to readers, which promotes reader identification with the protagonist. Using first-person narration reveals an individual’s experience directly, with a single character telling a personal story and what it means and how it feels to him. The payoff of first person is the sense readers get of sharing what the main character experiences, as if they were tagging along. In this case, readers will get a better sense of the narrator’s mindset, emotional state, and subjective reading of the events described, all of which helps readers to become invested in the story.

Consider the closeness the reader feels to character, action, the physical setting, and the emotional environment all within the first paragraph of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games by employing Katniss’s first-person narration (an immediacy furthered by the use of present-tense verbs):

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

Despite the advantages of the first person, two serious problems show up repeatedly in the work of new writers when they use it. One is the tendency to tell readers way too much about what the narrator is thinking, doing, and experiencing. If you dwell on your protagonist’s thoughts and feelings, he or she may appear to be self-centered or unsympathetic. Compare this with what happens in real life when you ask someone how they’re doing. If they blabber on and on, you really don’t want to hear all that, do you?

Although determining whether you’ve said too much is problematic, this becomes less so as you gain experience. Just remember that you don’t have to report every thought that goes through the narrator’s mind and every emotion he or she feels, just as you would not describe every stick of furniture in a room.

Another problem concerns describing the first-person narrator. Just about any way writers do this is awkward, such as when they use the old mirror device, although this method is still done often. Using the speech of another character can help you create an image of a first-person narrator. For instance, you could have someone say to the narrator, “Even when you’re all dressed up, you still look like a lumberjack.”

Aspiring novelists usually tell readers too much about their first-person narrator’s physical reactions. Examples: My heart sinks to the pit of my stomach . . . My stomach churns . . . The reality of the situation hits me like a gunshot to the stomach . . . A tingling sensation crawls up through my legs and rests in my stomach. Writers often use the stomach when describing how a person reacts. Most of the time, less is more, so writers should limit their descriptions of physical reactions.

Using first-person narration presents another pitfall. The “I” of the narrator and the “me” of the writer should not be the same, should not speak with one voice. Instead, the writer must find a unique voice for his first-person narrator. Every character’s speech should reflect who that person is. Ideally, the reader should be able to distinguish among your characters simply by reading the dialogue without the attributions. That can be a challenge, but you have to try.

Should you use first-person narration or not? After reading what I’ve said here, you will have to decide for yourself.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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