The Pros And Cons Of Writing In First Person

The Pros And Cons Of Writing In First Person


Last week I wrote about the different viewpoints, this week I want to discuss first person in more detail.

The more I study viewpoint the more apparent it becomes that there is no right or wrong. But there are pros and cons and whether or not they are pros or cons depends on you, the writer. I know, right? Can’t somebody just give me a solid rule that will solve all my issues?

Here is an example of first person:

She walked like beauty in the night, but in the harsh light of day, she was a bitch. She also happened to be my wife. You’d think I’d have figured this out before committing to a lifetime of misery, but she was a clever one. So subtle. So sly.

Looking back, I don’t know how I missed the signs. The well-meaning advice. The misunderstandings. The way she whittled away at my friends. Alienated my family, one honest comment at a time. It was the little things. The things you wouldn’t notice until it was too late. But, I am saving myself. Just in time.

Here are the pros and cons of using first person:

  1. It allows you to dive into a character’s mind. It gives you unlimited access to their thoughts and feelings. Good, yes? But it can also become all-consuming and exhausting.
  2. It limits your access to other characters’ thoughts and feelings. You can write in multiple first persons, but you have to make sure that the characters don’t sound the same. I’d love to hear what his wife has to say… You can’t rely only on using the character’s name as the heading of the chapter to do it for you. I don’t even read that and then I have to page back to figure out who is talking.
  3. Your character can’t be everywhere and he can’t hear everything. Multiple viewpoints will also help you here, but with a bit of a brainstorm you can think of other ways to show the story without having to resort to that. Eavesdropping on conversations can help him or her learn secrets. Snooping is great. Use cell phones and computers for your character to find out about things when he or she hasn’t been present.
  4. Your character shouldn’t be alone for too long. I’d say this for all viewpoints, but especially for first person. You’ll lapse into pages of interior monologue, angst, and explanations that can…yawn…put your reader to sleep. It makes you tell. Show me, please.
  5. Always with the ‘I’!  Besides making your character sound like an egotistical maniac, your sentence structure can become repetitive. Be careful of starting every sentence with I. Use fragments, play with your word order. Be creative.
  6. Your story is told through one person’s perspective. This can limit your story, because your character might not have the vocabulary or skill set or experience to tell the story. Think of children, people with learning difficulties or very naïve people. All of these have been used brilliantly, so I go back to the introduction. You can do anything, as long as you do it well.
  7. Are you able to distance yourself from your character? Does it sound like you when you write? I am not talking about your style. I am talking about author intrusion. No preaching please. Or should you be reading the memoir posts?

I love first person. It is also the viewpoint most people write in when I put them on the spot. (I am evil like that, but it tells me so much about their writing.)

Always make sure you know whose story it is you want to tell and work from there. Happy writing.

Look out for the posts on second person and third person.

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 by Mia Botha

This article has 0 comments

  1. Kristy

    Thank you. This has given me some ideas.

  2. Linda Maye Adams

    First person is also harder to write than third, though a lot of writers gravitate to it because they think it looks easier. I remember my first introduction to it was Phyllis Whitney, who was, at that the time, the only writer I saw writing in it. Now it’s become a lot more trendy, and it some cases a default. There are definitely some books where I thought first was not the appropriate viewpoint choice for the story.

  3. Mia Botha

    Good luck, Kirsty. Thank you for your comment.

  4. Mia Botha

    It is true, Linda. Viewpoint is fascinating and the options are endless. Good luck with your writing.

  5. Chikawrites

    Excellent pieces of advice. Thank you.

  6. Rina Tim

    As every other element of fiction writing, the choice of the story’s narrator must be reasoned. The one who tells the story shows the reader his/her world in a unique, individual way.

    When an author finds a bright individual who can see the world in a very attractive (unusual way), there is an event which caused a change in the person’s life, then the author has every reason to tell the story in first person (remember Holden Caulfield from The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger?). in such case, the whole book aims to show development of one personality; all the world around this person exists to make these changes possible. Every scene takes place in this person’s mind, and the author must see with this character’s eyes as if they were his own. This is a very hard task, unless the author is telling a story from his own life.

    If a story has many solutions and it looks like it makes full sense to show how different people (creatures) see the same chain of events, then the author sets a different goal: to show the world in its development, where people are just observers of the events. Their visions are different, their lives change, but the world remains unchanged. In such stories, the protagonist is still in focus of attention; his vision seems the most important, but the author would rather write in third person, because other characters’ opinions matter, too. The protagonist cannot be opposed to them, because he is not more than one of them, and all are struggling against the antagonist’s power (take Neil Gaiman’s The American Gods, for example). This is the way I see it. The plint is, there must be a reason for everything. Once you have decided to write in the first of I the third person, this is dictated by the core idea of your book, by the book’s mission.

  7. Mia Botha

    Thanks, Rina.

  8. lorelei fierro

    this is a great piece i think a writing machine will like it

  9. Tami Arens

    Due to the nature of my story (speculative fiction) I had to write in first-person because it’s about an alien living on his world. On occasion I switch to third person when the main character is absent or unconscious. I am careful with this transition and at one point I tried to write the whole story in third person. Didn’t flow as well. What I love is the learning process. Every story I write is a whole new learning process.

  10. Mia Botha

    I agree, Tami. It’s fascinating to see how it changes. Good luck.

  11. Chloe

    I don’t think perspectives is a matter of ‘one thing is simply easier than the other’. I believe it is about personal writing and strengths. It’s like when some people excel in dialogue, and others in descriptive writing. My writing preference happens to be first person, because I nearly always write as a person I would like to be, doing things I would like to do, but there is simply not enough time (or it’s not possible) to accomplish all of those things, therefore I accomplish them through my characters. I also find writing in first person very helpful when you’re focusing on somebody’s life, because it is very easy to build suspense. As you mentioned, when writing in first person, your character may not hear or see everything that’s happening- this can be used to an advantage (you portrayed it as a disadvantage) as using this technique may engage the reader into your character more, because the reader has the same information as the character, and asks the same questions, and that makes the character relatable to them. And to add to that, again, suspense. Suspense is something I adore writing in, as I love the thrill of curiosity it gives me when I read, so I include it often enough in my writing.

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