When Should We Write in First Person?
By Linda Yezak
Writing in first person is tricky, but done well, it’s both fun and entertaining. How to write in first person is an entirely different post. Finding the publisher that released The Cat Lady’s Secret, with its first-person, present-tense scenes could also fill a post.
But for this post, I’d like to show some reasons why an author would write in first person to begin with.
I’ve read a few books
in first person where there doesn’t seem to be a reason for the POV choice
other than, perhaps, the author thought it would be fun. But having a reason
can enhance the
Use a First-Person Narrator to Present the Story From the “Horse’s Mouth”
Try as you might, you’ll never get as deep in third person as you can in first because you can’t get past the idea the author is telling the story. But when you use first person, you are creating the illusion it’s the character telling the story. “She raced to the car” is an author’s description of the action. “I raced to the car”—that’s the character speaking. And even though you can create a terrific voice for your third-person character, you can get away with tons more with a first-person narrator because you’re always in her voice—you can’t afford to shift into your own authorial voice.
Let me show you this, from my novel, The Cat Lady’s Secret. Millie, my first-person POV character, is eavesdropping on a phone conversation:
I don’t want to be too obvious about how far my ear is stretched in Annie’s direction, so I keep my eye on a yellow tabby …
Try that in third-person, present tense:
She doesn’t want to appear too obvious about how far her ear is stretched in Annie’s direction, so she keeps her eye on a yellow tabby …
Or in third-person, past tense:
She didn’t want to appear too obvious about how far her ear was stretched in Annie’s direction, so she kept her eye on a yellow tabby …
Using “she doesn’t want” and “she kept her eye” is telling. Out of necessity, the author stepped in to describe the action. Can’t get around it.
It’s telling in first person too, but it’s done in the character’s voice—which means I got away with “telling” instead of “showing,” but the telling reveals Millie’s personality. Telling the same in third person reveals the author’s personality.
First person allows the author to dive deeper under the character’s skin.
Use a First-Person Narrator to Tell the Reader the Story of Another Character
In this case, the POV character is an observer/reporter of another character’s life or an event in that life. This gives the illusion of credibility—“I know this to be true because I watched it happen with my own eyes.” The emphasis is on the other character, someone who, for some reason, can’t tell the story herself. This is a built-in blessing, because it automatically raises the question, “Why can’t she tell the story herself?” Play your cards right, and readers will hang out to discover the reason.
The POV character probably isn’t as flamboyant as the one he’s describing—who is actually the main character of the story being told. We don’t need to know as much about the first-person speaker as we do about the subject of his discussion, so we’re likely to be more interested in his credibility than anything about him. How does he know the character he’s presenting? What is his stake in the outcome? Why is he telling the story?
Use a First-Person Narrator to Tell a Character About Another Character
Perhaps it’s a letter or perhaps it’s from a journal. Whatever it’s from, its point is to tell someone what happened to someone else. Why your mother gave you up for adoption. Why your lover never came back from Iraq. Why I left your father. Why you have one green ear and one red one mixed in with your other two purple ones.
This type of first-person story creates the illusion of listening in to someone’s confession, hearing her heart, seeing his tears. But it isn’t always a sad tale. It can start with “Dear Alia, here’s what happened” and end with “just so you know” or “please believe/forgive me” or “the ball’s in your court” or “tag! You’re it!” The bookends frame the story and set the tone. The story itself can be anything.
Did you notice that inherent in all these reasons to write in first-person is the question, “Who is your character talking to?” When you’re telling your reader a story from the horse’s mouth, your character is talking to the reader. When the narrator is telling a story about another character, he’s addressing either the reader or another character. These narrators can have the advantage of knowing what’s going to happen before the character of his story does. Whether the narrator is talking to the reader or to another character, he can be as omniscient as you need him to be for your plot’s purpose—especially in past tense. A “horse’s mouth” narrator doesn’t always have that freedom because verb tense dictates otherwise. If this narrator is talking in present tense, then she certainly can’t know what’s going on outside her own realm. On the other hand, past tense is the choice for most novelists. It is the “story present” or “in real time” in most novels, which puts us in the same boat for this narrator. So verb tense matters when you’re deciding whether or not to write in first person.
Have you had a good or bad experience writing in first person? We would love to hear from you.
(Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net and stockimages.)
Linda W. Yezak lives with her husband and their funky feline, PB, in a forest in deep East Texas, where tall tales abound and exaggeration is an art form. She has a deep and abiding love for her Lord, her family, and salted caramel. And coffee—with a caramel creamer. Author of award-winning books and short stories, she didn't begin writing professionally until she turned fifty. Taking on a new career every half century is a good thing.
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