First Person

I was reading a short story the other day, and for the first two pages I was entirely frustrated. I was trying to form a picture of the scene, and while I had a couple of descriptive comments about the narraror, I was missing a really, really important fact. I didn’t know the narrator’s gender. Sometimes that doesn’t matter, but this time it did. Of course, to cause that confusion one must write in the first person.

I habitually start new stories in the first person. Many of the stories I submit are still in that voice. I have yet to sell a story for actual cash money that is told in the first person (not that I’ve sold much in third person, either). I don’t think this is a matter of editorial bias, and I’m skeptical about many of the reasons editors and other writers cite. For me, it boils down to this. I can write “I” and save myself a whole lot of work on characterization. I know who I am. The problem is that you don’t. That’s surprisingly easy to overlook. While I think I’m getting intimate, the reader is saying, “who the hell is this?”

Most of the time first person is just the author being lazy.

Not always, I must hasten to add. The Monster Within cannot be told except in first person. In this case, however, the narrower perspective is all about establishing character. It’s about learning who Hunter is as Hunter does.

Tonight I’m working on a story I’m supposed to be holding until I get my almost-done work sent out. It’s in the first person. The first paragraph makes sense in first person, and as planned the end will justify first person as well. But the story is expanding, and the benefits of first person are getting lost in the story. That’s the trap, I think. As storytellers, we want to speak directly to the audience at the start of the story, to set the stage, and again at the end, a debriefing of sorts. For the rest of it, the reader can benefit from descriptions of our main character from outside. By getting away from the narrator’s perspective we can see the narrator much more clearly.

So, here’s my humble advice for writers everywhere, should you choose to accept it. Always use third person unless: 1) It is fundamentally necessary to the story that it be told in the form of a journal. 99% of all stories told this way don’t have to be, so if you think this applies to you, you’re probably wrong. 2) The narrator MUST speak directly to the audience. See Princess Bride. 3) The narrator is a liar, or at least you want the audience to consider that possibility. This can include self-deception. See Catcher in the Rye. 4) Your name is Emma Bull, and your novel is called Bone Dance.

First person does not make the story more intimate, but it definitely narrows the perspective. Use with caution.

4 thoughts on “First Person

  1. Three of my favorites listed there, all in first person. Kinda undermines my argument. You can add a hard-boiled detective or three as well, but you already know who those guys are. You read the name of the author and then when you see “I” you know more about the character than he knows about himself.

  2. Hmm. I’m thinking of Kenneth Roberts, and Mika Waltari, and Nancy Mitford … all first-personists and none of them at all lazy…oh, and Robert Graves, too. Their books are some of my favorites, because they allow me to sink into the narrator’s character and see the world through his or her eyes. Probably Waltari’s “The Egyptian” has been the greatest influence on my own writing, and why I prefer writing in first person as well.

  3. There are a lot of good first-person stories, and there are even more good third-person works. As I dig into this I’m finding that first person is generally less intimate, rather than more. It’s counterintuitive, but when I convert a story to third person I suddenly discover all kinds of devices I can use to make that character more real. More intimate. Your mileage may vary.

    First person enables monologues, and god knows I enjoy writing a good monologue, but so often monologues are used for backstory (I wrote one of those tonight!), and even if the backstory is necessary there’s no compelling reason it has to be a monologue.

    Your assignment for tonight, dear readers, is to diagram that last sentence.

    I’m not saying first person is bad, but I am saying I understand why some editors consider first-person perspective as a strike against a manuscript before they even start reading.

  4. When a first-person story resorts to monologue to reveal backstory, it’s at least as annoying as when two characters in a third-person narrative start telling each other what they both already know to give the reader the backstory. Both really annoy me and indicate an author too lazy to find a more natural way for the reader to learn what’s been going on. Really, what both situations involve is fleeting references to thoughts that come to the surface that relate to the past, not a telling of the complete past.

    I find third person is harder to write than first person, but I prefer third person because it feels more, um, I’m not sure why, but more right. I’m still inside my main character’s head. Since I write mysteries, that’s a critical point. It is cheating to keep from the reader information that my main character has, and it is cheating to give the reader information that my main character doesn’t have. The reader should know what my main character knows, at the same time she knows it.

    What is interesting is that people who have read my work can’t later remember whether it’s in first or third person — they just remember being inside my main character’s head. I generally take that as a compliment.

    I don’t currently have time to take you up on the diagramming challenge, but if I have time this weekend, maybe I’ll get it done.

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