It’s been a while since I’ve talked about viewpoint, and first-person has been on my mind lately.
First person seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it viewpoint. I’ve heard folks say that it’s the easiest viewpoint for a beginner to use, that no one should ever use it, that it allows for more believability, that it’s always autobiographical (and therefore, in some obscure fashion I’ve never really understood, suspect in fiction…as if first-person should only be used in actual autobiography or memoir). I’ve heard readers say that they like first-person because it’s so immediate, or because the reader always knows the main character survives, or because “all first person stories sound like they’re written by writers.” (What?)
Let’s start with a definition: first-person is any story in which the narrator or viewpoint character uses “I” outside of dialog. The most common variety is as-it-happens narration, as if the main character is telling the story to the reader nanoseconds after the events happen, but epistolary fiction (a story told in letters, like Sorcery and Cecelia, or in emails) and journal excerpts are also common. Stream-of-consciousness writing – the sort that tries to mimic the chaos and distraction of the narrator’s thoughts, second to second – is usually used in short fiction (probably because it’s very difficult to sustain at length).
I think that a lot of the mistrust of first person comes from the fact that it’s something all of us do regularly in real life. Everyone has written letters or emails; lots of people have kept a diary or a journal at some point in their lives. This makes it seem easy and predictable, something everyone already knows how to do…except that when you’re writing fiction, it’s never easy or predictable. Since experienced writers and editors know this, they get suspicious of anything that looks too easy.
At the other end of the spectrum are the new writers who think first-person is the trick to making writing easy and predictable. They’ve written emails, they’ve kept a diary; how different can this be? So they plunge ahead and make all sorts of mistakes, which lead the experienced writers, critics, editors, etc. to shake their heads and blame it on trying to write first-person. And next thing you know, how-to books and writing teachers and advice blogs are forbidding anyone to use it.
The truth is that, like every other viewpoint, first-person has both strengths and weaknesses. There are some beginner mistakes that are nearly impossible to make in first person; there are others that are an order of magnitude easier. The trick is in knowing what they are and in knowing whether your particular writing strengths and weaknesses are complimented or reinforced by the natural strengths and weaknesses of the viewpoint.
The first and most obvious characteristic of first-person is that the writer is stuck in the narrator’s head for the length of the story (or at least the length of the scene, if it’s one of the rare multiple-viewpoint-first-person novels). It is glaringly obvious whenever the writer strays outside what the narrator can see, hear, know, or reason out for him/herself. If head-hopping is something you have trouble with, first-person will keep you from doing it if you are paying any attention at all. Of course, you’ll probably find it incredibly difficult and frustrating when you can’t just jump to some other character and show how he/she feels or thinks, and you’ll be driven half mad figuring out how to let the reader in on important events or information that the narrator didn’t happen to be present for, but I did say that it wasn’t going to be as easy as it looked, didn’t I?
The second and only slightly less obvious characteristic of first-person is that whether it’s letters, diaries, stream-of-consciousness, or standard narrative, every line has to be in the voice of the narrator-character…not that of the author. This can be a lot trickier than it sounds, precisely because everyone uses first-person a lot in real life. When you’re used to speaking in your own voice, it can be hard to imitate someone else’s consistently, especially if the differences are subtle. It’s much easier if the narrator-character has a strong voice, including but not limited to vocabulary, syntax, and idioms.
A subset of this is that what the character notices also has to be in-character. This means, for instance, if your character is a farmer, she will likely notice and comment on every garden and the health of every plant (or at least, the useful plants, i.e., food), but may or may not have any interest in describing hairstyles or the interiors of other people’s homes. And what she does say about them will be from her own perspective and in her own words, not yours.
Logically, then, if you are good at “getting into” the mind of your narrator, but bad at sticking to what he/she sees and/or terrible at conveying information that the narrator isn’t around for, using a first-person viewpoint would force you to work on those areas you have trouble with, while giving your ability to get into the character’s head a chance to shine. On the other hand, if you are rock-solid on the what-the-narrator-sees stuff, but shaky on voice, doing a good strong-voiced first-person who does not sound like you will give you a novel’s worth of practice at using a character’s voice when your natural inclination is to use your own. It may be a bit of a trial by fire, but it’s likely to be effective.
If you have trouble doing a viewpoint character’s internal dialog, first person will likewise give you lots of chance to practice, though whether you make use of the chance or not is up to you. If, however, you are predisposed to writing internal monologue even in third-person, you may find that first-person encourages this tendency to an unfortunate extreme, and you may not want to try it until you’ve brought your description and narration skills up to the same level. As always, if you’re going to work on your skills, the first thing you have to do is figure out where you’re weak.