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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

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

  2. 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!

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Chris behrens says

    I dazzle in 1st person!

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