The Perils of First Person

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.)

Patricia Stoltey
Patricia grew up on a farm in central Illinois so naturally had to use the old farm in her first mystery. The second Sylvia and Willie tale takes place near and in the little touristy gold mining town of Oatman, Arizona. Patricia's third novel, a standalone suspense called Dead Wrong, was released November 2014. Dead Wrong was a finalist in the thriller category for the Colorado Book Awards. Visit her blog at http://patriciastolteybooks.com

13 thoughts on “The Perils of First Person

  1. Great post! I’m an omnivorous POV reader and writer, but I certainly recognize the pitfalls of both. I remember when I used to think I couldn’t read anything written in first person present tense but changed my mind after reading a few excellent books written that way. It’s true there are readers who absolutely despise anything written in first person. I’ve seen venomous reviews of books written in first just for that reason alone. Ugh.

    I like the challenges of writing first person because it’s up to you the author to interpret the actions and emotions of the non POV characters. It forces you to really pull out the heavy ammo for making clear communication. I love it. And I often love it more than 3rd person because choosing which POV to write from in which scene can be daunting. You start having mental conversations with yourself: “Okay, so this next scene should be in Betty’s POV because she has the most at stake, but I’ve been in hers for two chapters back-to-back. I need to switch point of view now. Or maybe not. Sigh.”

    • I generally write in close third, and dealing with first person in this series has been challenging. I’ve actually written some pieces in third from non POV characters just to figure out some elements of the story. I won’t be using them in the final draft, but I had to do them to get my head sorted out.

  2. I’ve bounced around depending on what the story/character seems to need, and every novel is different. So far, I think multiple POV, all in close third person, was hardest. Your point about making each voice sound different was the challenge. Fun experiment, though.

    • I’ve found I do better with multiple POV in close third. Of course, writing romance you rarely end up with more than two PsOV, three occasionally, four on rare occasions. So that natural limitation does help. But I’d love to dig into something really long and complex with multiple PsOV. I think it’d be fun. 🙂

  3. I reconstructed an onmiscient draft into a limited-multi first person POV novel, and even with four points of view, I still could not show everything that went on in the omniscient story.

    It was still worth it to go first-person, for sure.

  4. Every one of my fifteen books is written in first person. Three of my series are written entirely in a single POV. (And they are wide in scope.) I have one four-book series in multiple first person POV. One three-book series where each book is told by a different FP POV. Needless to say, I love the immediacy of it, and I believe the challenges of it have forced me to think deeper and work harder and do some of my best writing. Yes, learn how to do it effectively, but don’t shy away from it, even for a first book.

  5. I once wrote the first chapter of a new novel in first person and third person to see which worked better. In that case, I chose third person, but kept with the same POV throughout the story. A little experimentation early on helps.

  6. Thank you for your article. I’m still working on my first novel. One of my struggles has been to decide whether to change the POV. Currently its written in close third and omni. I’ve decided to stick with the POV I originally chose for the story, because I like the the distance it gives me from the protagonist, and allows me to highlight other characters.

    I am an avid journal writer, which is always written in first POV. So when I write stories, I always go to third POV, which is my trick for getting inside the story, and not just writing about me and my experiences.

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