Putting the “I” in your novel–writing in first person
People seem to have a lot of opinions when it comes to first-person narrative in novels. There are people who abhor the very idea and some who even go so far as to say they won’t read a book written in the first person.
But here is a newsflash: those people are both wrong and boring.
Listen, don’t shoot the messenger.
Okay, I might be a touch biased because I personally love first person. In fact, it’s become the only POV I like to write in anymore. There is so much immediacy and emotion I can evoke from writing in first person. Personally, I think it’s more dynamic and captivating overall.
But obviously not everyone is going to feel that way. It’s hard to say where the ire for first person derives (well, I have my theories, but we won’t go there), but the good news is you don’t have to listen to those people. Because for all the people who claim they don’t like first person, there are just as many who do.
What is first person narrative?
First person narrative is when you write using the words “I”, “us”, or “we”. It’s when your story is told through the eyes of one person and we spend time in their head, hearing their thoughts and seeing what they see.
Some well-known books that use first person include:
The Hunger Games
To Kill a Mockingbird
Bridget Jones's Diary
The Hate U Give
The Handmaid's Tale
Genre and POV
Like so many things, it’s important to consider your genre when you’re choosing your narrative point of view. There are specific genres where you’ll see first person a lot. Those include young adult, romance, thrillers, urban fantasy, and mysteries, for example. Why does it work so well for these genres?
Because we only know what the narrator sees in a first-person story, this type of narrative works well for thrillers and mysteries where you don't want the clues to be revealed too soon. You can make use of what your narrator doesn’t know to help drive the story forward and bring your reader into the know at the same time as your protagonist.
There’s something about the depth you can get with a first-person perspective that works very well for YA. Since young adult stories center around a protagonist who’s finding their place in the world, it can be very powerful to be in their head, feeling and thinking through all their emotions.
A similar theory applies to romance novels. During a romance arc, your characters are feeling some of the strongest things they might ever experience. By telling that story from right inside their heads, you can use the first-person narrative to hook your readers directly into their plight. When that third-act breakup inevitably comes, you can have your readers wallow in the same despair and, when they finally achieve their happily-ever-after, they can be cheering alongside your main character.
A note: None of this is to say there aren’t countless thriller, mystery, romance, and YA novels written in third person that aren’t also amazing in different ways. Any book at any time can be written either way and be equally good.
Other reasons first person works
Aside from the two things mentioned above, there are a couple other reasons you might choose to write in first person.
Offers credibility and relatability
When your main character feels like they’re talking directly to readers, there’s a certain level of intimacy you can achieve that lends both credibility and relatability to your story. If you’re writing a protagonist that maybe isn’t super likable, you can make use of first person by getting into their heads and showing the reasons they act the way they do, for example.
If it’s necessary for them to be an actual expert–maybe they’re a detective solving a crime–you can also increase their credibility using first person because their actions, thoughts, and knowledge aren’t diluted by anyone else’s perspective.
A view through their lens
When you write from a first person perspective, the only opinion we get is that of your character. The only experience we feel is theirs. That includes all the things they choose to tell the reader and all the things they might choose not to tell. If you’re aiming for an unreliable narrator, using first person can work well because everything they’re seeing is filtered through their personal lens. It also makes it easy for them to leave out certain details that can trip a reader up and lead them in a direction they don’t anticipate.
Personally, I find it much easier to incorporate humor into my stories when I’m writing them from the first person. There’s just something about using the candid, off-the-cuff thoughts of your protagonist that allows for a biting and sarcastic wit that just doesn’t seem to work as well for third person narration. Maybe that’s just me, though.
True story: I once had an editor tell me she didn’t actually care for my style of humor and, ouch… I think I’m funny.
Types of first-person narration
Essentially, there are two types of first-person narration you might consider writing.
The first is first-person central and is likely the type you’re most familiar with. This is where the main character is the central protagonist and the story is happening to them.
The second type is first-person peripheral, and this is where your narrator is more of an observer in the story. They’re the ones offering background information and their own speculations as the story happens around them.
Tips for writing first person
If you want to take the plunge into writing first person, here are a few tips to help get you started and ensure your narrative is on point:
- Be up front. Let your audience know right away that this is a first-person story. Your novel should lead with your character anyway, so this is actually pretty easy. Make use of that “I” somewhere in your first sentence and you’re golden.
- Avoid distancing verbs. It can be easy to fall into the trap of using phrases like “I thought” or “I felt” a little too often when writing in the first person. These are verbs that distance the reader from your writing, which is the exact opposite effect you want when choosing to write first person. Remember that you can simply state their thoughts because you’re already in their head. Instead of “I felt the tremors beneath my feet,” you can write, “Tremors rumbled beneath my feet.”
- Avoid using “I”. Similar to the above, many writers can fall into the trap of using the word “I” too often. Obviously, you can’t write first person without using it, but be mindful of how often this little word is popping up. Especially at the beginning of sentences. Mix up the way you introduce thoughts and ideas. “I nestled back on the cushions,” versus, “The cushions cradled me in a nest of warmth.”*^
*Listen, this is a good tip for all your writing regardless of what POV you’re writing.
^But when you're doing this, also be mindful you're not sliding into too much passive writing, kind of like I did there in my example. It can be easy to fall into that habit. For more on what active versus passive writing is, have a look at this article.
A word on using italics to convey internal thoughts: When writing in the first person, you can make use of italics to convey internal thoughts… but if it’s written in first person, aren’t they all internal thoughts? There are two schools of practice on this notion and you’re likely going to find people who disagree on both sides.
Modern practice in traditional publishing is to err on the side of not italicizing inner thoughts, but there are people who love them and are going to keep using them.
Personally, I don’t care for them and am in the school that says, it’s first person–it’s all their thoughts so you don’t need it. I only use italics for thoughts when I really want to emphasize them.
But it’s your story. You do what makes your heart happy.
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