Don’t Even Think About Using First-Person Unless…

This week’s video talks about one very important qualification that must be present in every first-person narration—and without which your story is doomed.

Video Transcript:

First-person is a popular narrative perspective, among both authors and readers, since it allows the narrating character to directly address the reader by funneling the entire story through his head, using the pronoun “I”—as in, “I went dragon slaying that fateful day”—versus the third-person pronouns “he” or “she”—as in, “she went dragon slaying that fateful day.” First-person has the ability to pull readers directly into the story and create an unprecedented amount of intimacy between them and the character. It’s a great narrative technique, but it’s not without its pitfalls. In fact, I would go so far as to say authors should never use first-person—unless they’re able to meet one very important qualification.

So what is that qualification? Simply this: first-person narrative voices have to be special. They have to be unique. They have to dazzle. First-person narration is not just someone telling the story. It’s your main character telling the story. If your main character’s voice is flat or clichéd or lacking in oomph, readers will have no reason to think your character isn’t flat, clichéd, or oomphless—and why should they want to read a book about such a boring character? Third-person narration can get away with a much more generic voice, so if you find that your main character just doesn’t have an interesting voice, third is the way to go.

Of course, the next question is: How do you make your first-person voice interesting? Aside from creating a spunky, snarky, and generally opinionated character, here are a few things you can try. #1: Make sure you’re showing and not telling. “I went to store” is nowhere near as interesting as actually showing the reader the narrator’s experiences at the store. #2: Don’t fall into the trap of beginning every sentence with “I.” Mix things up, search for varied sentence structures, and find the phrasings that are unique to your character’s personality and lifestyle. Used wrong, first-person can ruin your story. Used right, it can take it to a whole new level.

Tell me your opinion: Do you prefer writing from first- or third-person?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. My first draft of my first novel was in the first person perspective. I completely rewrote the second draft and changed it to third person.

    I really liked the first person perspective of my character, but it was so much work and I found too many reoccurring thoughts and phrases in the story.

    Third person wasn’t an easy transition, though. I found the intimacy and connection with the main character to be a shadow of its former self. It took me more drafts and edits, reworking my wording and description to build up the main characters presence and importance to the status it was in the first draft.

    I finally feel comfortable with where it is now, more than 3 years after I wrote the first draft, and am finally ready to publish it. It’ll be a long while before I try and do a first person novel again.

  2. I find that the only time that first person works better for me than third, is when I need to be in the characters head to show the mental anguish. Most of the time I can show that form the outside. However, if the Character has some demons that don’t lend themselves well to discussion with other characters then you might have to use first person to get the demons out so to speak.

    And every time I talk about a character having demons, in my head I hear Gonzo saying, “He’s got demons? Cool!” in Muppet Treasure Island. Just had to share that.

  3. Arthur – I tend to write short stories and not novel but I had to convert one from first person to third about a year ago. I have to agree with you it was a long and time consuming process, not to mention painful. Probably one of the hardest things I have had to do other than kill of a beloved character.

  4. Arthur: Radically changing POVs like that is *never* fun. I don’t envy you the transition, although I’m glad it worked out.

    @Jeff: Hah! Gonzo makes everything cooler. “Strong, silent types” can often be good candidates for first-person, for the very reason you’re mentioning – although the author has to be able to get them to loosen up enough to talk on the page, even when they’re not garrulous in dialogue.

  5. As far as writing in first person POV, I could never get a handle on it. I tried it, and those novels are hiding in shame in storage somewhere.

    First person is limiting, as the POV character must be present in order to tell the story. To solve that problem, some authors have chosen to write their novels in alternating first person. I’ve read a few of those, but I’m not a huge fan of the style. Though it’s not a lot different than alternating third person, at the beginning of a new chapter I always have to refocus and remind myself the other character is speaking now.

  6. When done well, I actually like the alternating 1st-person POVs. But, you’re right, it can get confusing – especially if the characters don’t have unique voices to help differentiate them.

  7. I tend to try writing a story from 1st person, first. Later, if the story seems too flat, or if I cannot tell enough of the story from one perspective, I will change it to 3rd person.

    Thnx for still another great article. 😀

  8. Great information.

    I’ve thought about using first-person, but think it would take much more effort to get right. It’s on my to-do list though . . . one day.

    And, thanks for providing a video transcript. I don’t like watching videos – I’m a skim reader, it’s quicker.

  9. @Gideon: First person is one of those things you have to experiment with to decide whether or not it’s going to work. But I like to make my decision about it as early as possible. Changing POV over a large section of the story is no fun.

    @Karen: I’m a skim reader myself on the Internet, so I totally get where you’re coming from!

  10. Oddly enough, I can seem to neither write short stories in third person, or novels in first person. There are a few exceptions. But almost all of my shorts sound better as 1st, and I couldn’t imagine trying to write something even near the scope of a novel in one character’s head. Maybe my novel characters are just flat ^_^

    • jessica dawn mcneil says:

      Well then you could wright it in more then one characters head (more then one pov) I have trouble wighting in anything other then first person.

  11. I’ve never written a novel in first person, although I’ve had good success with it in several short stories. It’s definitely less intimidating when you’re using it in a few thousand words versus 100 thousand.

  12. My first ms, co-written with my writing partner, is in the third person (urban fantasy/paranormal romance crossover). My individual ms I’m writing now is my first attempt at first-person narration, and it’s an urban fantasy.
    Generally, when I’m reading, I found that I prefer urban fantasy in the first-person, paranormal romance in either (if written well) and historical fiction in the 3rd person mostly (although I’ve read some that was very good in the first-person). So I guess for me it depends on the genre, but if it’s well written, both can be great.

  13. As a reader, I’ve never been too picky about whether a story is in first- or third-person except when the first-person voice is flat. I had an experience with a book like that recently, which is what inspired the post.

  14. Great advice, & I agree completely. There is one exception that I ran across recently: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novellas & short stories. They are written in first person from Dr. Watson’s perspective.

    Also, in Ken Follett’s novel The Hammer of Eden he goes back and forth between first person from the hero’s perspective & first person from the villian’s perspective. It was very strange. Probably my least favorite Follett novel.

    Thanks for all you do!

  15. First-person today and first-person back in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s day are two different animals. Nowadays, we would probably consider Watson flat, but, keep in mind his era and his purpose in the stories, I’ve always liked him. So he’s an exception in my book too!

  16. Thanks for the thought. I’m writing a novel in 3rd person, but just finished a short story in 1st person, and as a beginning writer, found the first draft full of ‘I did this…’ etc. It had a real monotony about it. To solve the problem, I reached for a number of other 1st person stories to see how it was done to avoid it, and the element I came away with, was to think of the narrator as a witness to events, and describe those events.
    Of course, the narrator acts as well, but I tried to focus on the outcomes of those actions, and describe those.
    Cheers,
    Robert.

  17. I don’t know if I can be certain on this. I’ve started stories in one POV only to have to change it a dozen pages in because it is simply not working. Once I had hundreds of pages in 1st person only to realize it was not the right voice. Very frustrating. So I don’t know if I have a preference but what I discovered is that I don’t always have a choice.

  18. @Robert: It will definitely depend on the story in regards to how deeply your character is involved in the action. But, generally, readers like to get into the head of the character who is most active in the plot. First-person is especially good for that, since the intimacy of the narrative can put the reader right at the center of the character’s motives, actions, and reactions.

    @Dixie: Very true. Sometimes a story will only work in one narrative voice. I had a similar experience in my latest historical WIP, although my switch was from past to present tense, rather narrative POV.

  19. POV is something I always figure out first, because the crafting of the story is a different with the different POVs. My first novel was written in first person (as subsequently are the sequel and third in the trilogy) because that’s how it felt right to me, though I did find myself struggling at times with it. I have another book I’m doing revision work on that is in third person POV, because that’s how it felt right.

    I’ve never changed points of view before on a story, except as a technique when I’m stalled. Usually it takes (at most) a chapter, then, to get going again on my story in the original POV.

  20. If we can figure out POV before we start writing, that definitely makes things easier. Nothing is worse than realizing, halfway through, that we’ve been writing from the wrong perspective all this time.

  21. I agree. I don’t like reading 1st person novels, and I hardly ever write 1st person myself, except in science papers, where I usually prefer the active form rather than the passive >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  22. I enjoy first-person as much as do third – but only when it’s done well. It’s much easier to mess first-person up than it is third.

  23. I like both for reading and writing. As far as what I prefer, it has to do with the story itself.

  24. I agree. The story is always the wisest master. It knows what it needs and what works best for those needs.

  25. For my current project, I chose first person for the intimacy. The story is about a human who finds himself on an alien world surrounded by things that are different, yet not really so different once he gets to know the place and her people. (He learns that things are much the same everywhere in the universe, even if at first they do not appear to be.) A significant feature of the adventure is his learning. By telling the story in first person, the human reading the story can experience what the human protagonist experienced as if he or she had made the journey themselves. I still have a lot of work to do to pull it off.

    (Actually, the story is a true memoir of an adventure I had. I accidently ended up on an alien world. In the course of my escapade, I managed to save Earth and her people from annihilation. For some reason, no one believes me. So, I now tell them the story is fiction.)

  26. Great post, KM. For the two books I’m working on right now, I am writing in first person. You’re right. It’s tricky. The voice of the character is unique enough to justify it, and it received favorable comments from the mentors at YA and Child Lit site, so I think it’s going in the right direction.

    One of my hard areas is the “I” sentence you were talking about. I spend time reading other first person books that are really good to see how they handle sentence structure, and this has helped me get past that issue if I find too much of it when I come back for revisions.

  27. @Lester: You know I always had this sneaking suspicion you were an alien fighter. 😉

    @Beth: If you’re getting good feedback about the character’s voice, then it sounds like you’re doing everything right. Readers know what they like, and if we please them, we’ve accomplished all we need to.

  28. I think the story, as well as the character’s actions, also play a role in determining whether or not first person is appropriate. I’m not sure I would have liked Pip in Great Expectations if someone else were telling his story. But by seeing his life through his own eyes, his character flaws actually make him more endearing.

    That said, I agree that first person should be used very carefully.

  29. Pip had the decided advantage of being written by the inimitable Charles Dickens. I truly believe that man could have broken all the rules and still been interesting.

  30. Excellent video. I wholeheartedly agree. Too often do characters come off as egocentric in the first person unless they can step outside of themselves and think about others for a change. 🙂

  31. Egocentrism is another good pitfall to talk about. There’s a reason first-time authors are often warned not to attempt to first-person. As many things as there are for us to be aware of in writing third, there’s even more in first!

  32. Third

  33. I totally get what you’re saying.
    I find that lately, I like to write in 1st person, but it gives more of a personal perspective on things. But you’re right; unless your narrator is someone as memorable and/or unique as Holden Caulfield or (as someone else mentioned: Dr. Watson), telling it in the 1st person is a major pitfall.
    In fact, 9 times out of 10, the 1st person narratives I’ve written don’t go on for very long. I end up despising them because when they’re female, they often reflect too many of my own flaws (mainly neuroticism)

  34. I’ve never attempted a novel-length first-person narrative. I would dearly love to try it one of these days, since experimentation and pushing my boundaries as a writer is what I’m all about, but I’m still waiting for the right story (and narrator) to show up.

  35. I very much love writing in 1st person… so far, I’ve yet to find an MC who is completely flat… some occasionally need a jolt of electricity, but they’re rarely flat. Adding internal angst for whatever reason always has managed to help me, too.

    As for the different perspectives, I have three variations right now. One set of stories is exclusively in the 1st person. A second set alternates between two characters–one in 1st, the other in 3rd. And, yet a third project has, I believe, 5 or 6 POV characters, 4 or 5 of which are in 3rd, and the 5th/6th is in 1st. It feels incredibly natural for me to write in 1st, and only occasionally does a story feel better to me when written in 3rd.

    I’ve seen my switching technique in a few books, most recently, the books based on the TV show “Burn Notice”. The MC Michael Westen has an incredibly strong personality (on screen and on the page) and I really feel the author did a very good job handling scenes when Michael wasn’t present in the books.

    As for me, when I switch, I have a line under the chapter heading indicating whose POV we’re going to be in–and I never switch POV’s inside of a chapter. If the POV is the same from one chapter to the next, I don’t put an indicator. It’s working for me. I guess I’ll have to see what Amazon and agents say! 🙂

  36. If the MC is flat, regardless of our narrative POV choice, it’s probably an indicator that we should keep digging! I’m a big fan of experimenting and playing around with POV. Not everything will work, but you never know until you try it.

  37. My female protagonist has kept a journal of her life since age 12 and retains all of those journals well into her adult life where the novel begins. Obviously the journals I want to incorporate will be in first person, the rest of the story in third. Can that work? How best can I incorporate the journals into story line?

  38. You will occasionally see stories that use both 1st- and 3rd-person narratives, and it’s a technique I’m a fan of when it’s done well, since it can bring a lot of depth to the presentation. The trick, of course, is to make sure the journals are not only fascinating, but that they move the plot forward. If it were me (without knowing anything about your plot, of course), I would probably include a journal entry at the beginning of every chapter.

  39. What great timing that I found this post right now (rather than when you posted it)! I am playing around with changing the POV of my novel from 3rd person to 1st. I tested out the first scene on a writer friend who liked the first person better, so I’m going to try it out on a few other people. It’s a bit of a daunting decision, since I already have the first draft written, and this would mean a lot of rewriting! I think I would still keep some scenes in 3rd, for other characters’ views. But I find that there’s a stronger emotional connection in the scene in first person. I just never write first person, so this is quite a twist for me.

    Your post brought up a consideration I never considered, so I have to think about this and make sure that my first person would fit the criteria (I think it does). It’s a great point!

  40. Oh, yikes, I don’t envy you having to switch POV for entire novel! Switching POVs in already written scenes is one my least favorite writing activities. But sometimes you just gotta do it.

  41. Anonymous says:

    Interesting thread. Thanks for your guidance on this K! I am struggling to figure out how to tell a tale that has two timelines, which are a thousand years apart, with two main characters. The characters go through personal journeys of growth and discovery, so that would suggest to me that first person is a good way to go. But then this takes away the third person perspective that can tell the tale a bit like a fairytale or in a mysterious sense, which I am going for. Any advice on how to approach this?

  42. A tight third person can be just as intimate as first-person when done right, so ultimately it’s all about the tone you want to strike. I would suggest writing a scene or two from both perspectives, so you can get a feel for which you like better. Perhaps you may even decide to tell one end of the timeline in first and the other in third.

  43. I would like more information about novels that use both first-person and third person in the same manuscript. I am writing an erotic fiction. Most of the book is in third person but I wrote the sex scenes in first person. How would this sit with you as experienced authors / readers?

  44. I don’t read erotica, but about the only time switching the same narrator’s POV from third to first (or vice versa) is if you’re presenting the first-person segments in a diary or letter format. Most books that utilize both first and third are using first for one character’s POV and third for a different character’s POV. Charles Dickens’s Bleak House is a good example.

  45. Thanks for this post! I’ve been quite indecisive for a long while now about what point of view to use for my new WIP and have written the first chapter twice- in first person present and third person past POVs.
    Found the link to this post through Google and now I know for sure I’m going to tread the third person POV because I don’t have a snarky protagonist. She’s cool and her voice would be better off written in the third person.
    Thanks for the help!!

  46. Glad you were able to drop by! Experimenting with difference voices is always valuable in the early stages of the draft. Sometimes we never know what’s going to work until we try it.

  47. Nick Messer says:

    hi there Mis Weiland my name is Nick Messer. I my self am a wanabe Novelist and well was looking for some help I stumbled across your page about first person and well i had a few questions and i would love to hear back from you asap. I have had the chance to chat with a few other authors like one of my personal hero’s Pierce Antony, and have gotten a lot of good advice but it never hurts to seek out different points of view to try to narrow an answer to a finer point. so i do hope that i hear back from you and have the chance to talk to another wrighter

    ps. I do apologize for my spelling and grammar. I have something called Disgraphia and it kinda messes things up when it comes to those two categories, but I do my best. Go figure i wanna be a author right XD

    pps. I know i sent this to your face book moments ago. i have jsut learned its some times good to be Protestant and i really would love your advice on something

  48. Have you seen books that have been written in alternate first/third person? For example, one chapter in first person by one of the MCs, and the next chapter in third person following the second MC. I have seen this done once or twice, and it seemed to work within the book it was used, and I was toying with the idea of doing it for my next book … but I’m afraid it may end up being more complicated than I yet realize. What’s your opinion?

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      You do see this technique now and then (Charles Dickens used it with an omniscient third-person in Bleak House), and I actually tend to like it – if there’s a good reason for it. Usually, that reason is going to be that you want readers to feel closer to one character (the first-person narrator) than another.

  49. Thanks for the response! Your opinion means a lot to me, Katie! 🙂

  50. I love this. Right now I´m dealing with a short story in first person and I will check on this to see if it can really work or I should change it.

    Thanks!

  51. I personally prefer first person and find third more difficult because I have trouble conveying characters’ thoughts. I feel like I can actually do a better job with a story using 1st person instead of third.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Really, deep third-person isn’t that different from first, as far as writing techniques. Switch the pronouns out on either narrative, and you’ll be pretty close to where you want to be.

    • Samantha T Jones says:

      I’m the same way. I spend waaaay to much time wondering if Im telling the story I want to tell. I like writing in the first person because it feels better, its easier. I see the advantages of third, but I find i get a little more discouraged with it because it involves putting on too many “hats”. Its like have to be in multiple people’s head at the same time

  52. Tara Rosenbaum says:

    I love to write, i’m actaully working on a variety of both novels and fanfictions.

    I have always written in third person because i tend to need to show all of my characters thoughts, but when i started my first Danaganronpa fanfiction, i realized that i can’t because i would give away the entire mystery if every character had his or her thoughts show.

    That was the first time i used first person, and it was hard!

    This character is very dynamic and contradictory and honestly is not that good a person, so finding a way to make him likable, without losing the snark of his original character (if you’ve seen the game/Anime i’m talking about Togami) .

    I’m not used to not being able to show what other characters thought and felt and having to show a play by play of a persons thoughts.

    It was actually terrifying to me at first, but as i went with it more i began to have fun with it, since i was able to add so much more character depth this way.

    I actually came to love it so much, my next story which is not a fanfiction but one i am going to actually publish (called in the cards) is probably going to be told first person.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      First-person is definitely a shift, but it’s actually not that different from deep third-person. Both are immersive in the POV character’s mind and perspective. And, I agree, it’s super fun to write that way.

  53. Gerald Rivinius says:

    James Paterson writes using first person in one chapter and 3rd person in another. Some of the chapters use both first and third blended together. I thought this was a no-no in novel writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Not at all. It remains a little unconventional, but it has solid precedents all the way back to Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.

  54. Chris behrens says:

    I dazzle in 1st person!

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