A couple of years ago, I had written four books. The first was horrible, and each book got progressively better until the last one was pretty good, but they all had one thing in common: none were written in first-person point of view. I was working at my, let’s see, fifth book and had already written part of it, again in third-person POV, when one day I woke up with a conversation between the characters in my head. And I was one of the characters. Weird perspective. I was used to “floating above” my characters, reporting on their shenanigans to the reader. I quickly wrote down what I heard, and I realized I was writing “I” instead of she.
I rewrote the book in first person, and then I couldn’t seem to stop. My last three projects have been in first person. And it wasn’t as easy as you might think. It was hard to break through some kind of mental barrier at first — first person much more immediate, more personal. But I liked the connection to the main character: “I felt like my heart was ripping in half” seems more … real than “she felt.” It was hard, at first, to write in first person, but at the same time, I liked it. I felt really connected to my main character, and I could really dig into the feelings of the main character. In third-person, I usually felt like some God-like narrator describing someone else’s feelings. I could also put in observations about other characters that wouldn’t be appropriate from a narrator (read that: bitchy or snarky).
As I discovered, first person has some advantages. You can really put voice into a piece — your choice of language, dialect, pronunciation (or mispronunciation) all help create the voice of the main character, and thus the piece in general. As the narrator, you can constantly reiterate the personality of the main character, and you can create an ambiance to the entire book.
Another cool thing is irony. It’s fun to have the main character think something that the readers know isn’t true. It can be hard to set up, but if you can create a scenario in which the main character thinks one thing happened when the average reader would know otherwise, then you have some tension, some interest. Will the character discover the truth? How does her misconception affect other actions? If I could only explain it to her!
But there are problems with first person. For one thing, you can only be in the one character’s head. That means you can’t tell the reader what someone else is thinking or feeling. You have to use visual cues, telling us the other character’s expression or body language, and those observations have to be translated through the character — a kid, for example, isn’t going to be particularly perceptive. So you might have to use dialog to have the other character tell us what she’s thinking or feeling. It can be limiting in that way, and you find yourself doing a lot of writerly gymnastics to get that information to the reader.
Another limitation is, again, voice. I love what I call lyrical writing, but while a narrator can use musical, unusual language, most real people don’t talk like that. They don’t speak in poetic language. It would read fake. It would be a rare character you could do that with, maybe a musician or artist or writer. It might feel unrealistic if the character is, say, a trash collector. (No insult intended toward trash collectors. I’m sure there are some poetry-loving guys collecting trash.) So if you want to compare clouds to ribbons of light scrolling across the sunset sky, use third person.
In some ways, I think first person is a crutch. It’s so easy to just tell the reader what the character is thinking or feeling. In some ways, it’s as easy as omniscient (where the narrator can get into any character’s head and tell the reader what they think or feel).
And just as omniscient is completely passe and not done, first person is wearing out its welcome for some people. I have read agent “wish lists” that say they won’t even read first-person narrator books because it’s become so overdone.
My next project: Third person.
So — use first person when you have a reason to use it: You want to create irony or voice, or you only want the reader to really understand what the main character is thinking so you can hide a plot twist. But don’t use it all of the time. Or you might seem like you’re on the downside of a trend best forgotten.