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Sunday, May 1, 2011

6. Writing in the First Person (Writing for Success)

Note: This is part 6 in a series of 25 articles from my upcoming 'Writing for Success' series.

6. Writing in the First Person
A lot of first time authors write their debut novel in the first person. So I’ll start by recommending straight away, don’t do it! Writing a complete and engaging novel in the first person is one of the most difficult things to undertake in writing and very few authors that do it are successful.

Why do writers do it then? Quite simply because it’s what they are most familiar with. We spend our entire lives living in the first person (I’m assuming!) and therefore when we write it’s easiest to do it in the first person (just like I’m doing here). We write everything as if we are experiencing it. After all, we see things through our eyes and we can only imagine how others experience the same things as we do.

Let’s start with a little example of some first person writing that we can use as a basis for discussion:
I pushed open the door, gritting my teeth as it creaked a little, and peeked inside the room. Steve was sitting in the armchair, just as I had expected him to be. “How’s it going?” I asked. 
He turned his head to face me. “Alright. Just a little tired, you know.” 
“Tired?” I asked, a little unsure as to why he would say that. 
“Well, you know, after the last couple of days. The police and everything.” 
I nodded and walked over to sit down in the chair next to him. “So, what are your plans now?” 
“Don’t know truthfully. I’m really not thinking straight.” 
I felt sorry for Steve and I reached out a hand to take his. “Yeah, I guess it’s all a little worrying.” 
I had never been arrested in my life and to think that Steve was now a suspect in the murder of his wife certainly evoked many different kinds of emotions for my best friend.
What’s wrong with this passage? Nothing really; it’s self-explanatory and the reader understands how the writer feels towards Steve and the situation he is in. The problem is that you don’t really get a chance to understand how Steve feels about it all. Is he really coping okay? Is he sad, or is he angry inside? It’s all assumption; the writer’s assumption. Is that alright? Maybe it is for some parts of the book, but if the book was written completely from this viewpoint you would never understand Steve and his motives. So what if instead we wrote the passage from Steve’s point of view? Let’s make him the focus of the book instead:
It really had been a shitty day. I put the glass of whiskey down on the table and turned my head as I heard the door to the living room open. 
“How’s it going?” Tom asked from the far side of the room. 
I shook my head a little and fought back a tear. “Alright. Just a little tired, you know.” 
“Well, you know, after the last couple of days.” Did I have to go over this with everyone? Is this what it was going to be like now? “The police and everything.” 
Tom wandered across the room and sat in the chair opposite me. “So, what are your plans now?” he asked. 
Yeah. It was going to be a couple of rough days ahead for sure. “Don’t know truthfully. I’m really not thinking straight.” 
“Yeah, I guess it is a little worrying.” 
I pulled my hand away from his and reached out for my whiskey glass again. Just what did Tom know about it? Worrying? It was frickin’ frightening. I had basically been accused of murdering my own wife by the police. I drained the whiskey and slammed the empty glass back down on the table.
The emotions in this piece of writing are very different from the first. In this fragment you get to see just how worried and messed up Steve is, but his best friend Tom comes across as pretty unemotional.

Don’t be fooled by reading the samples I have given here that it’s easy to write in the first person. Sure it is straightforward for some sections, but for 80,000 words? How will you explain the evidence the police are sifting through at the station? How will you explain the affair that Tom was having with Steve’s wife? It’s tough to add plot complexity to a novel written in the first person. As a result, debut novels that are written in the first person tend to fall apart and get boring and repetitive after a little while.

Writing a complete novel from the perspective of the first person means you will always have to make compromises. Are those compromises worth it? Only you can answer that, but generally first person novels are a hard sell for the reader. A reader wants to experience a full set of emotions when they read a book and get inside the heads of everyone to a certain extent. First person perspective books don’t give the reader that opportunity. In the next essay we will look at writing in the third person, an alternative approach to writing your bestselling novel!


  1. Very good article. Thank you.

    In my first book (Shoy)I had a mix of both first and third person, but then I was writing about events in my life (not that it was easy), but I totally understand and relate to what you have written.

  2. Nice article. I have a hard time getting into First Person as a reader...the proof is in your first sample. I this, I that, I blah! It takes unbelievable skill or a lot of hard work to get beyond the "I did something" phenomenon. Drives me crazy. :D