Most Common Writing Mistakes: Overpowering First-Person Narrator

first-person narratorStories told by a first-person narrator are increasingly popular these days.

First-Person: “I went to school today.”

Third-Person: “She went to school today.”

First-person is often a narrative perspective that’s tricky to get right. The first-person narrator, more than any other type of narrator, is inclined to lapse into self-centered telling, in which the narrating character overpowers the story at the expense of other characters and even the plot itself.

3 Pitfalls to Avoid When Using a First-Person Narrator

Let’s take a look at some of the common pitfalls of the first-person narrator and how to avoid them.

1. Beginning Every Sentence With “I”

The first-person narrator tempts writers into focusing on the narrating character to the exclusion of other subjective nouns. The result is a stultifying string of sentences that all feature the same subject. Mix and match subjects to electrify some life into your syntax.

Wrong: I fled down the stairs, heart pounding. I could hear the zombified giant clomping after me. Ahead, I could see the cellar door offering me the chance to escape and hide. I reached the door, wrenched it open, and dove inside.

Right: My heart pounded as I fled down the stairs. Behind me, the zombified giant clomped after me. Five feet ahead, the cellar door offered the chance to escape and hide. I reached the door, wrenched it open, and dove inside.

2. Telling Thoughts Instead of Showing

In the first-person narrative, everything you write is straight out of the main character’s brain. You don’t need to clarify the character’s thoughts by placing them in italics or qualifying them with an “I thought” tag.

Wrong: I couldn’t believe this was happening. Zombified giants don’t really exist, do they? I thought to myself. Maybe I’m dreaming.

Right: This couldn’t be happening. Zombified giants didn’t really exist, did they? Maybe I was dreaming.

3. Inserting Lengthy Narrative at the Expense of Action and Dialogue

First-person narration offers the temptation to share with readers everything the character is thinking. Beware of lengthy narrative rabbit trails when you should be allowing action and dialogue to carry the story.

Wrong: “What’s up with you lately?” Kirsten asked.

I heaved a sigh. Kirsten had no idea how insane my life had become. She had no idea that zombified giants—huge and ugly and stinky—were after me.

[Insert lengthy description of zombified giants, narrator’s life, history of friendship with Kirsten, etc.]

Right: “What’s up with you lately?” Kirsten asked.

I heaved a sigh. “You have no idea how insane my life has become.” I threw my backpack into my locker, shot a surreptitious glance up and down the hallway, then leaned forward to whisper in her ear, “Zombies! Big ones!”

[Insert witty, conflict-ridden dialogue that conveys the important information about zombified giants, narrator’s life, history of friendship with Kirsten, etc.]

Utilizing a first-person narrator can be an exciting way to create an immediate and intimate story readers won’t be able to turn away from. Make sure you aren’t stumbling over these common mistakes, and you’ll be more than ready to knock readers (and zombified giants) off their feet with your powerful narrative.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you prefer writing in first-person or third-person? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

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. I’m trying to write a novel in first -person my issue is I’m a screenplay writer and I’m so use to writing tons of dialogue. How does dialogue between two or more people work in first -person?

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Pretty much the same as it works in any other POV. The only real difference is that the narrator refers to his own dialogue with “I” tags: “I said,” “I shouted,” etc.

  2. Hi,

    I found this post while searching for information on first person narrating. My question is how do you prevent a 1st pers narrator from sounding as if they are narrating their own story? (Yes, I’m aware of how contradictory that sounds!) I’m writing in 1st pers past tense and want the narrative to sound immediate.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      To some extent, this effect is unavoidable – because, as you’ve noted, the character *is* narrating the story. You might want to play around with present tense. But even in past tense, the basic principles in this post will help you create a more active narrative that focuses as much on the action and the character’s surroundings, as the character himself.

  3. Thanks for this wonderful information. I Googled first person limited and I didn’t find much. I’ve been writing my first novel in first person limited, present tense. I’m still on my first draft. The more I write the more questions I have. Thanks for listing a few books that are written with this POV. I want to read some books written in the same POV to see what I can do to improve.

    I sometimes find it hard to make my sentences clear and concise. I find too many little words in some sentences and when I try to rewrite them I end up in a different point of view or tense, which won’t work. I’m not sure if it’s that I’m a novice or if it’s the style.

    Do you have any tips for making sentences clearer using first person. Is it the same for all POV’s?

    I’m sure I’m using the correct POV for my story, I can’t imagine telling it any other way. The instructor in my creative writing group continues to give me positive comments. She says I need to get rid of the little “fleas” in my sentences – not sure what that really means, but I think it refers to the little words that drag down the sentence. Maybe it’s the use of weak verbs. (one of the students makes comments like this isn’t a common POV and very few people can pull it off… but keep on working at it she says – it brings down what little confidence I have)
    So now I’m rattling and not even sure if my question is clear. Thank you for sharing you knowledge.

  4. Very useful – I’m currently writing a rather large fantasy space-opera in first person.

    I’ve re-read my current work and noticed a few too many “I ” and have re-written them to be more acceptable.

    Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      First-person can a tremendously exciting POV, as long we keep it versatile in our phrasing. Have fun!

  5. When I create a First Person novel with a touch of Dystopia, it’s so confusing using Italic. What does Italic letters affect your story? And… what’s the difference between characters thoughts with characters thoughts with Italic letters. It means a lot to me but I can’t define very much. Help me @KMWeiland Thanks for sharing this.

  6. Thanks for this article!
    Can you explain how to use time lapses in present and past tense?
    I’m writing a present tense romantic novel (simultaneously writing in past tense too). So, can I skip days or months in present tense novel and directly start the story from next event?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, you can skip time whenever necessary. Just make sure to orient readers in the change.

  7. “What’s up with you lately?” Kirsten asked

    If it’s 1st person we’re discussing, shouldn’t it be:
    “What’s up with you lately?” Kirsten asks

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Actually, what you’re differentiating between here is past tense (asked) vs. present tense (asks). You can use both past and present with both third-person and first-person.

  8. Catherine H. says

    I prefer third-person when writing, but I do love the challenge of writing a first-person story. Great advice!

  9. I prefer first person present tense. I think it’s more intimate and engaging.

  10. This website claims it has 6 tips, but it only has 3. False advertising

  11. A.Alexander says

    Hello. I stumbled upon this article while searching for information about time lapses, but since I am writing my story in first person, I figured I’d respond to this. I don’t have any problem with the first and third mistakes you pointed out, but I do use the second mistake throughout my writing (though I never considered it a mistake). I am writing about my life, so my story covers from birth until five years ago ( I am almost 38 now). I use italics to separate my actual personal thoughts in that moment in time from the overall recounting of the story. As the narrator, I have knowledge about the overall scene – past, present, and future, but as the character in the story, I only know that moment and some of the past, so I feel like showing specific thoughts in italics helps the reader to understand the difference between what I know now as I look back and recount the story and what I knew then as it was happening. Have you seen this accomplished in other books without the italic thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re basically using “present you” as a distant first-person narrator who is looking back and telling the story of “past you,” who is the main character. This is a technique we don’t see a whole lot and definitely one that requires some specialized techniques. As such, I think you’ve probably made the right choice to allow “past you” to have direct thoughts separated from “present you’s” overall narrative.

      • A.Alexander says

        I wasn’t expecting so quick of a response! Though I have been writing since I was six, this will be my first published work and I worry way too much about it not being “perfect”! Yes, I am writing as a “present me” describing the events of the “past me”, and that’s why I wanted to find out if the tip about italic thoughts still applied to this type of story. Thanks for your response.

  12. Thanks for the great article, I am writing my first novel in first person because I really want the reader to feel like they are right there in the situation this has been incredibly helpful to me thank you for sharing your knowledge .

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      First person is arguably the most intimate of all the narrative voices, so it’s definitely a good choice for pulling readers deeply into the narrator’s psyche. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  13. Thank you very much for this thorough article on first person POV.
    Third person is best for most genre novels, of course.

    I have found that some exceptional writing situations work better with first person, such as, if you will, the personal battlefield experiencesa of a soldier.
    Recounting his unique experiences and insights, becomes a candid report of what really occurred.
    The battlefield account written in third person might have less “skin in the fight”.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely. Intimacy is the chief benefit of first-person. In some stories, that’s not necessarily a good thing. But in those where it is, first-person can bring a lot of power to the table.

  14. Hello,
    I have an issue..How to difference the reader and the character in my writing…I mean,directing the reader in the first paragraph as “you” because I want the reader to relate with my writing and then the character also as “you,”.the biggest part of the writing im addressing to my character ,so it would be better to change the first paragraph and the last one into first person narration or the body of the writing in third person prospective or any other suggestion.Thanks in advance!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Second-person (which uses the pronoun “you”) is a very tricky POV and one to be approached only with careful forethought. Personally, I would recommend avoiding it and sticking with first-person. There’s rarely a good reason to break the fourth wall and directly address the readers.

  15. Hello. I’ve been having a hard time with figuring out how with first person you would use dialogue. For example would it be;

    “Can I help you?” he asks moody and voice raspy from sleep.

    There was something we can both agree on. We were both not morning people, we like to have our sleep. We’re are not happy campers when we are woken or disturbed when in the middle of it.

    “Did you just fall on the floor?” I try to hold in my laugh.

    His eyes narrow, which confirms what I suspected.

    “Get ready we got to be at school soon, in case you forgot such a thing does still exist”

    He rubs his eyes, glaring at me even more and I give him a wide smile.

    Or would it be something like this;

    “Can I help you?” he asked moody and voice raspy from sleep.

    There was something we can both agree on. We were both not morning people, we liked to have our sleep. We are not happy campers when we are woken or disturbed when in the middle of it.

    “Did you just fall on the floor?” I tried to hold in my laugh.

    His eyes narrow, which confirms what I suspected.

    “Get ready we got to be at school soon, in case you forgot such a thing does still exist”

    He rubs his eyes, glaring at me even more and I give him a wide smile.

    I’m having a hard time figuring out if it should be proper to use “Ask or Asked” or things like “She said or She says” while in first person. Or would they both be correct if used in the right context? Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The difference you’re presenting here is between past tense (asked) and present tense (asks). This actually has nothing to do with first-person. You can use either past or present with either first-person or third-person. It really just depends on how much immediacy you’re trying to create. With first-person, present tense usually creates *more* immediacy; with third-person, present tense actually creates more distance. Neither choice is wrong. Just make sure you’re consistent with it.

  16. I love writing stories, I too also normally write third-person but have now started writing first-person. It was going really well until I wanted to add my other male main character having a conversation to a few other characters after my main female had left the room. but I have no idea how to do that as the story is meant to be in the eyes of my main female character.
    Any advice on how I could achieve this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Unless you’re going to be using the male main character’s POV *throughout* the story, I would recommend sticking solely to the female’s perspective. Inserting a one-time POV just for the sake of one scene usually isn’t worth the drawbacks of a scattered narrative. You can find other ways to share the same information, including having the female character learn about it later. Remember: readers very rarely *need* to know information the main character herself doesn’t know. It’s usually best to allow the readers’ progression of understanding to evolve at the same rate as your protagonist’s.

      • Thank you for the advice 🙂 I have been writing this story since High school and just want to finally have it finished. I was able to at the age of 11 have a poem published through winning a competition so it gave me the confidence to write more 🙂

        How would I go about getting someone to prof read what I have already wrote and give pointers on what could be changed?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          You can find beta readers online–through writing forums or social media. If you can find others who are writing in your genre, just offer to trade critiques. Most writers are just as eager to find a beta reader as you are!

  17. I had a couple of questions:
    1) How do I show actions that the first person POV character does? Example I want to say that the first person POV walks from his bathroom to the bed. Now a normal person doesn’t think about it consciously while doing so. Let the position of the person is important to the scene.
    2) How do I introduce characters and conversations with other characters?
    3) Is it a huge red flag if I switch POV between chapters?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Think of the narrative as if the 1st-person narrator were *telling* the story to the readers. As such, it makes perfect sense for the narrator to describe her own necessary movements.

      Same with conversations. Let the narrator introduce them, just as you would in a third-person narrative.

      As long as you’re consistent with your POVs (i.e., you introduce them all early and use them at regular intervals throughout the story), it’s fine to switch between first-person POVs or between a first-person and a third-person POV. Just make sure the narrative voices are differentiated and readers are always clear whose POV they’re in.

  18. Help is this First person okay? Please reply ASAP!

    Everything is so bare, not that it should surprise me I’ve moved 8 times in the 15 years I’ve been alive. I shamble along the downstairs looking through the kitchen for forgotten items, found none. I go on to the soon to be living room, which was like the rest of the house grey, old with cracking walls. I then peaked in the bathroom, just glanced at the dining area, and checked the closet under the stairs out finding empty boxes in it. I move towards the stairs. Down or up? UP. There is no question to be answered I hate basements. No matter if they are cool they scare me. Not to mention they make me feel more claustrophobic then I usually do in a regular room. I wander aimlessly through the second floor. I look in all the rooms, but seeing none I really want. I find another set of stairs going up. I wonder what’s up there. I climb the stairs slowly clasping my hands so tightly I think I am losing circulation. Opening the door is hard. It finally jostle open. It is my dream room with windows on all sides, a bathroom, and a walk in closet. It is a little smaller than the master bedroom which no doubt my parents would take. Its wall are old grey and crack also like the rest of the rooms, but I knew it has to be mine.

  19. Rick Alvarado says

    First person gives me the chance to become someone else. Writing becomes a performance, like an actor using words. You see actors like Meryl Streep, and they seem like they can transform into anyone. That’s first person to me, as you develop a voice for the character, you discover who he is, in a much more personal way. I find that fascinating. As a reader, I really don’t mind. But as a writer, my preference is obvious.

  20. Joe Long says

    This is an old post, but you sent me the link and people are still leaving comments so here goes –

    When reading, I don’t think I have a preference between first or third, but when I started writing I was much more comfortable with first person past. Recently I read the first chapter in a preview of “The Hunger Games” and the present tense really threw me off, making it hard for me to follow along.

    My story is heavily based on my own experiences, so it seemed natural to use first person. I really was I, allowing me to step into the part as the main character and narrator. Recently I’ve come up with another story idea that has nothing to do with my personal experiences, and I reckon it will be much easier for me to do that in third person.

  21. Thank you for sharing this. I’ve always been fond of writing in 1st person POV. Eventually, I’d like to try my hand at writing in 3rd person, but it’s a beast I won’t take on until my current WIP is complete. I love reading your posts. Keep them coming!

  22. K.M., I am a ya writer. I use third person when writing and first person when the character speaks in POV. My co-author has merfolk or mer-people, elves, humans, shape shifters, gods-human or mer, and also dwarfs. I have no vampire or werewolves. I am getting tired of those books like in the twilights series. Enough all ready. The characters live on a fictional planet. Yes, it edit, revise, and edit again so the book becomes published. What writing program do you use and is it hard to use?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.