Should You Write in First Person?

Every writer starting a new project must make fundamental decisions about viewpoint. First person or third person? (Let’s leave second person to academics unconcerned about sales.) Single viewpoint or multiple viewpoint? And your answers to these questions should be based upon your understanding that:

1) they are not the same question, and

2) you should do what’s best for the story you’re telling.

First person, of course, means that one of the characters, who may be the protagonist, uses first-person pronouns and speaks directly to the reader: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” The first-person narrator is typically the central character but doesn’t have to be. Nick Carraway narrates The Great Gatsby, but I think the titular Gatz is the big cheese. This is not the same as deciding whether to have multiple viewpoints. Many first-person novels, like Gatsby, are told entirely from a single viewpoint. Others, like my Dark Eye, are told primarily in first person by the protagonist, but switch periodically to a third-person antagonist. Many other recent thrillers have used the same approach.

In my Ben Kincaid series, I wrote the first eighteen books in third person, but for the nineteenth, Justice Returns, I used first-person Ben as narrator (though I occasionally jumped to other viewpoints presented as interview transcripts incorporated into Ben’s record). This helped me energize the story and make it seem fresh rather than yet another iteration of the same thing. I’m not sure any of my readers even noticed. I have yet to see this change mentioned in a single review. Which may lead us to another conclusion: If you write it well, these technical details that writers obsess over may be largely invisible to the reader.

So you have many mix-and-match options. Which should you employ? In my writing retreats I have noticed a tendency for many first-time writers to choose first-person narration. I can see why this might seem appealing. On the surface, it might look simpler, more obtainable. (Indeed, the earliest examples of English novels—Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, and Joseph Andrews—are all first person, possibly emulating the fake first-person confessions sold at pubic hangings in that era). If you’re striving for reader-character intimacy, that is, to get readers inside your character’s head, it seems like a natural approach. But there are three factors you need to understand before you write in first person, especially for a project as large as a novel:

1) First person is not easier—it’s harder.

2) First person has serious narrative limitations.

3) Some readers strongly dislike first-person narration.

Let’s take those in order. First person is not easier. It may seem so, especially if you imagine that the character’s voice is your voice, perhaps the flashy, wisecracking, insightful superstar you see in your mind’s eye, always one step ahead of the others and leaving the room with the perfect esprit d’escalier (the snappy comeback you only think of an hour later while angrily reliving the scene in your head). But the truth is, no fictional character’s voice is exactly the same as your voice, and even if it were, maintaining that voice consistently for 80,000 words would be a challenge. You must tell the entire story in a specific voice, and if it slips even for a moment, the reader will feel that something has gone wrong. I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m saying it’s not something to attempt in your first book because you think it will be easier. I first attempted first person for Dark Eye—after I’d been publishing for more than a decade.

First person has serious limitations. Anytime you write in viewpoint, you’re restricted to what that character knows. But when you write an entire book from a single viewpoint, your narration is limited to what they can see and hear. The novel The Hunger Games is told entirely from Katniss’s viewpoint, but the film version broke from her viewpoint occasionally so the reader could see the riots breaking out while she was trapped in the game, or President Snow forming his evil plans while pruning his roses.

As I mentioned, you could write a hybrid first-person/third-person narrative that occasionally jumps into other viewpoints. This creates page-turning suspense, because the reader learns something the protagonist does not know. Even then, however, the form has limitations. What if your narrator is not reliable? What if your protagonist is in denial about her problems (like Susan Pulaski in Dark Eye)? How will the reader figure it out? It’s not impossible—you could reveal clues in a conversation with a trusted comrade, a dream sequence, a flashback (ick), or some kind of external record, like a videotape or interview transcript (Justice Returns). But it’s challenging.

Finally, you must realize that some readers just can’t tolerate first-person narration. I’m not sure why this is. It doesn’t bother me, but I’ve heard others say a book loses all credibility once a character starts talking directly to them. Some moviegoers can’t stand voiceover narration (mentioned in The Opposite of Sex) and I suspect it is much the same thing. Engaging readers in the fictional construct we call the novel requires a major suspension of disbelief. You have to lull their conscious minds into forgetting that these are just words on a page and lure them into a shared imaginary world created by your sentences. For some readers, when a character speaks directly to them, the illusion is shattered. It is much the same as when a movie character “breaks the fourth wall,” that is, speaks directly to the camera (as in Deadpool, over and over again). Once the illusion is shattered, you’ll probably never get it back.

First person is best used when you have a specific purpose for choosing that form. Gatsby uses it so we witness Nick’s eventual disillusionment with the man he initially worships, which gives us insight into his dubious ideals, and implicitly, the dubious American Dream. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time uses first person to help us understand how an autistic youth thinks. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie uses first person to deceive the reader and pull off one of the all-time great feats of misdirection. Room is narrated by a five-year old boy, a classic unreliable narrator who doesn’t understand the horror of his situation. Huckleberry Finn uses an uneducated first-person narrator so the reader can witness his growing awareness of the deceit and inequity in the world.

I considered first-person narration for my newest novel, The Last Chance Lawyer. I was creating a new protagonist, Daniel Pike, and I wanted to get readers into his head fast, liking him and empathizing with him. I wanted readers to understand what drives this lawyer who loves extreme water sports, lives on a boat, and forgoes briefcases and dress shoes for backpacks and Air Jordans. But having him explain all this to the reader, or even remarking consciously upon it, seemed a bit of a cheat. I was convinced I could get the reader on board without alienating those who hate first person, or relinquishing the option of jumping to other viewpoints to generate mystery and suspense. Although the book is in Dan’s viewpoint 90% of the time, I used occasional diversions to show the conspiracy growing and the threats to him personally, a tightening web he learns about long after the reader does. I made a conscious choice, after due deliberation, based upon the book itself and what I wanted to achieve.

None of this is intended to discourage you from writing whatever book you want to write. If you’ve got a first-person character voice desperate to get out, go for it. My goal, as always, is to have you make decisions based upon solid information, not misapprehensions. And there are some signs that first person may be gaining wider acceptance. It has become much more popular in young adult fiction. In the wake of The Fault in Our Stars, many YA books now feature first-person female teenage protagonists. I’ve seen it catching steam in the romance and SF fields as well. My bottom line advice is, first, that this may not be the best choice for early writers who will have many other problems to work through, and most importantly—don’t attempt it unless you have a good reason.

Links:

Justice Returns

Dark Eye

The Last Chance Lawyer