by Katriena Knights
Many beginning authors start their writing adventures with first person. To many beginners, it feels more natural, more immediate, and even easier. But writing in first person carries a number of stumbling blocks and dangers that aren’t as obvious in third person.
So what’s the big deal? Write in first person, and your reader will feel like they’re right in the middle of the action, right? In fact, this leads to the first peril of first person writing—keeping your protagonist in the middle of the action. Which isn’t always as easy as it might seem.
If you decide to write your story in first person, you can’t recount any events that happen while your protagonist is absent. This can cause all kinds of problems, especially with a more complex story. You should take this into account when you’re plotting your story, and be sure your main character participates fully in any major plot twists. In Twilight, Stephenie Meyer commits a major faux pas in this regard by having Bella fall unconscious during a critical moment of the story’s climax. It’s a really good way to lose your reader. Apparently this didn’t bother her jillions of readers, but it bugged the heck out of me.
Another question to ask is particularly important if you plan to write a series. Can you sustain a first-person narrative over the course of your series? This approach is common in the YA and Urban Fantasy genre, but keep it in mind as you’re constructing your initial plans and proposals.
In the Outlander series, Diana Gabaldon manages to make it through nearly two massive tomes without deviating from the POV of her main character, Claire Beauchamp-Randall-Fraser. But it’s not long before her story outgrows this POV, and Gabaldon starts dealing with the shortcomings of first person by using third person in various scenes. At first, she frames this as Jamie relating stories to Claire. But then she also needs to tell Bree and Roger’s story, and that’s when the first-person train goes completely off the rails. The bulk of Gabaldon’s epic series is told in alternating first and third person, with the only first-person sections being those told from Claire’s POV. I’m not saying it doesn’t work—it works very well in these books. But it’s a tricky thing to balance, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that approach.
Another fairly common approach to first-person narrative is to alternate the POV characters, telling each section from a first-person perspective. This can be an effective way to explore more than one character, but there are some pitfalls here, as well. Don’t try to use too many characters—your reader is likely to get confused about whose POV she’s in. Also, it’s very important to vary the narrative voice. I’ve read some alternating first-person POV stories where the voices of the characters were virtually identical, even though one was female and one was male. This made it very difficult for me to orient myself, since there were few proper names to let me know whose head I was in.
I’m not one of those readers who’ll flat-out refuse to read a book if it’s in first person—although they do exist—but like any reader I can be pulled out of a story if the technique falls short. So when you’re considering the structure and plot for your first-person story, think about addressing some of these possible problems so you can head them off at the pass.
(By the way, this post is brought to you by my laboring over my recent WIP, the sequel to Necromancing Nim, which is written in—you guessed it—first person.)