First Person — Continued

MP900411783When you’re writing in first person, there are some things you definitely need to avoid. Like what?

Well, that’s just silly, I thought to myself.

Duh. Who else are you going to think to? Unless your character can communicate telepathically with others, this construction is a waste of time. Get rid of the ‘to myself.’ Same with wondered and any other word that describes what may be going on inside your character’s noggin. If your character is telling the story, it goes without saying that s/he’s doing the thinking.

My thoughts drifted back to that fateful day.

OR

I remembered the first time he kissed me.

Don’t do this. This is announcing what your character is thinking. Just have them talk about it. It’s much better for Sally to just begin the memory than announce it first.

An expression of horror crossed my face as I looked at the mess.

Don’t do this, either. The character can’t see their own face unless they’re looking in a mirror. Just say “I smiled. I looked in horror at the mess. I … you get the picture. Related to this is the ever popular “My cheeks grew red.” Again, unless they are looking in a mirror… just don’t do it. I blushed is more acceptable because the character could feel their cheeks growing warmer. Describing the sensation of warmth is even better. The trick is to think like the character and use the sensations they’re feeling rather than visual cues. First person, remember? :)

Dialogue

Now let’s talk about dialogue. Dialogue can’t help but be artificial in first person, but we include it anyway because it’s usually what people want to read most. If you have the opportunity for dialogue, go for it. Don’t recount a conversation as one-sided if you can help it (one exception that springs to mind is if your character is testifying in court). Readers want to witness all those lovers’ spats, conspiracies, and making up first hand.

Voice

Finally… the best part of first person. This is why we choose it in the first place. We want to write in the character’s voice. We get to act the part as we write. we get to choose their attitude, diction, thoughts, complexity, subtext… the whole nine yards. A character who is well-educated and likes to show that off uses big words and complex sentences. One who is simple may use short sentences and simple phrases. Your character can be sarcastic, both in word and tone. Whatever you choose, first person lets you revel in it. It reflects whatever you choose. A suggestion, however, for characters heavy in dialect… give it a flavor, rather than go heavy in phonetic spelling. A whole book spelled out in Cockney or Deep Southern could be rather difficult to read, not to mention condescending and probably inaccurate.

Distance

Usually distance is created by using third person, but it can be created inadvertently in first person by the phrasing you use.

I wondered if Billy would call.

This creates distance by subtly asking the reader to look at the narrator as she wonders. To get inside her head, you might try one of the following:

Would Billy call?

Maybe Billy would call.

Billy won’t call. He never calls when I want him to. Damn him!

Butterflies played in my stomach. Maybe Billy would call and ask me out.

I swore I’d never sit at home by the phone waiting for a boy to call. C’mon, Billy! Call already! God, I’m pathetic.

All of these not only eliminate distance, but they characterize what’s going on. Now we not only know she wants Billy to call, but each version adds more to the story.

Multiple First Person

I see a lot of manuscripts that make use of multiple first person. A recent mainstream example of this is Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles. The chapters alternate narrators. As the author, you get the fun of being inside the head of more than one character, with all the work that entails. On the plus side, you get more points of view from which to learn things, but on the minus side, you have to do all the work for each character, remembering who knows what and who doesn’t know what. This option works best when there’s a big difference between the characters.

 

First Person Point of View

first person point of view

Ah, first person point of view. Many of the books that cross my desk are written in first person. The reader gets to experience the story inside a character’s head. I find that many first-time authors choose first person as their chosen point of view, at least in the books I edit.

I peered into the bassinet. There was a tiny person, wrapped in a fluffy pink blanket. She squirmed, threatening to wake. I squirmed. What would I do if she cried? I was afraid to touch her. I heaved a sigh of relief when she seemed to settle. How could they send her home with me? I had no clue what to do with her. How could I take care of her? What if I dropped her? What if I failed? It wasn’t like I could just find another home for her, like a puppy. She was supposed to be mine. I swallowed hard. My daughter. It didn’t seem real. It couldn’t be real. 

One of the great things about first person point of view  is you really get into that person’s character. The narration is in that character’s speech pattern, we get the immediacy of their experience, and the reader feels as if they are feeling what the character feels. First person offers range that can be awkward in third person. You can wander through impressions, feelings, memory, opinion as they pass through the character’s head. This is one of the great strengths of this point of view. There are, however, equally strong weaknesses that you need to keep in mind if you choose to write in first person.

  • You can’t include a scene in which your character is not present. Likewise, you can’t include any information your character wouldn’t have access to. If you must include crucial information your character doesn’t have direct access to, you must be creative in finding ways to make it accessible, like letters, overheard conversations, and so on.
  • You must include any information you character does have. This is especially important if you’re writing a mystery. Suddenly springing a clue upon your readers that your character already knew about is bad form.
  • As the author, you’re limited to your character’s view of the world. If your character is a Pollyanna, then s/he must see the good in everyone, no matter how evil they are. Their evilness must be shown in other ways.
  • Don’t confuse yourself with your character. It is so easy to do. If you feel a certain way about something, make sure your character doesn’t feel that way just because you do. You need to remain objective. If your character has a strong political pull to the right or left, for example, and you’re the opposite, you can’t let your own leanings color your character in any way. You need to be able to become the reader enough to judge what you put on the page. This is why many authors consider first person to be extremely difficult. It is the also what many beginning authors forget when they choose to write in first person.