Does the title interest you? Perhaps you are wondering what there is to say on this topic, other than using “I” instead of “he”. While it is not complex, the first person is one of the most delicate and nuanced areas of writing.
Treat it with the appropriate skill and caution, and you can achieve literary greatness. Treat the first person poorly and risk sounding like a footballer’s memoir.
This is relevant to both fiction and non-fiction. Using the first person makes the narrator seem like less of an authority. A study reported in The Wall Street Journal found that people who say “I” more often are viewed as subordinate.
For your blog and non-fiction writing the relevance of this is obvious. If you want to sound knowledgeable about a subject, limit how often you refer to yourself. You might notice that my blog posts are often addressed to “you” rather than saying what “I” think.
In fiction, the effect of first person narrative is that it adds a subordinate element to the character who is narrating. These characters, even if they are strong or influential within the plot, will often have the feeling of being undermined.
I, Claudius is a novel about the most unlikely ruler of the Roman Empire. He is disabled and quite cowardly.
A number of characters can fill I’s shoes. They can be the protagonist (Claudius in I, Claudius), an intimate associate of the protagonist (Dr Watson in A Study In Scarlet), a minor character (Nick in The Great Gatsby) or someone who is relating another character’s experiences (unnamed in Heart of Darkness).
The reliability of these narrators varies wildly. While the protagonist or his close friend knows what happened, their thoughts and feelings, they may be biased to some extent. The minor or ancillary character should be more impartial, but less aware of true events and the characters’ thoughts.
Where should you use the first person and how? It often works best in novels with a psychological element to them and where the character’s vulnerabilities are a prominent issue.
What happens when you use “I” is that the reader gets a glimpse inside the character’s mind. They have full, unrestricted access to certain aspects of the narrator’s actions, thoughts and feelings. It is much like a fictional autobiography.
This approach lends itself to fiction with themes exploring the mind or emotions. You can build on the character’s mental or emotional vulnerability by manipulating the narrative. Make “I” brutally frank with how terrified, desperate or upset they were or have them hold back in a way which makes it clear to the reader exactly what they are hiding.
Let me know in the comments if this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?