Tip #38: How To Write In The First Person

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.

Not a footballer's memoir
Not a footballer’s memoir

Authority

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.

I, Algobog, have no flaws
“I, Algobog, am never subordinate!”

Perspective

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.

A literary game of Chinese whispers
A literary game of Chinese whispers

Style

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.

Have a poke around inside
Have a poke around inside

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?

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10 thoughts on “Tip #38: How To Write In The First Person

  1. I read a couple of books recently in first person and the difference between the two was startling. One was effortless and flowed so much you hardly noticed it, whereas the other sounded awkward and the word ‘I’ was all you could see. It’s definitely an art trying to get a balance! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I cannot write in the first person and nor can I read something written in the first person. It just feels off to me. I suppose with enough exposure such dislike would fade, but I’m stubborn!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Mostly I read sci-fi in the first person, though I should say I tried. I just could never enjoy it. Aside from that, I have had little exposure outside of non-fiction, but we’re not talking about non-fiction!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. First person is the current YA rage and I must confess my first novel, Panda Girl, is first person present. There is a reason for the choice, but I promised myself after that- never again! It’s a limiting voice/ pov and difficult to pull off effectively. It also can lead to more telling than showing. And, for some reason, many new writers chose first person. We tell them to count the I’s on the page and remove 50%. They quickly discover how difficult a task this is!

    Liked by 2 people

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