Point of view: Writing in first person
If I asked you to pull up a document (or sheet of paper) and start writing, would you write “I” or a name when you reached your main character? Would your character “run” or your character “ran”? What about thinking? Are we in your character’s thoughts alone, or do we switch between a few different character throughout your story, or is the narrator telling the story from some place else? Well, let’s discuss it a bit.
First person writing is not commonly found in academic journals, research papers, news articles or anything else of that regard. This is because the first person POV (point of view) is subjective, more personal and it implies bias where it isn’t always allowed. It is, however, found in memoirs, autobiographies, inspirationals and other books that are aimed toward an audience seeking information from someone in particular.
Well, what about fiction?
Hunger Games, Catcher in the Rye, Gone Girl, Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, Legend…all of these are first-person novels, most of which are also popular (although some are not exactly critically acclaimed, so don’t use the prose as a guideline).
First person includes the normal conversational style we use in everyday speech. (I, he, we, she, it, they, us, me, my, mine, etc.) In this point of view, you are the character. Your reader is reading your story, even if it’s a fake one.
The writing style
Writing in first person isn’t just about using “I” but also how you place it in context. There is a certain relationship between you (the author), the character and the narrator. “I” will always be your character; that’s known. But who is the author and the narrator in the relationship? Most of the time, your narrator is your character. Otherwise, how would it be first person? The difference is in how it is used.
In Cather in the Rye, the narrator is also the main character. The conversational tone is all internal thought, the narration nothing more than what Holden Caulfield thinks, sees, says, and does. The reader knows his simplest thoughts, as well as his complex memories. The author is simply the ink on the paper, and the character comes to life, which forces the reader to determine the truth of Holden’s surroundings for themselves, as well as Holden’s problems and purpose despite his own beliefs. The reader is his best friend, and their job is to figure out, for themselves, who he is. Otherwise, your reader is listening to him and believing everything he says. What kind of friend is your reader then?
Hunger Games is similar, but the character’s internal struggle is made visible from the beginning and you can see through the character’s eyes more than you can in Catcher in the Rye. Emotion is shown more than stated. This isn’t to say either book is better or worse than the other. It’s simply a style, of which there are many more. Hunger Games shows a lot more than Catcher in the Rye because most of the struggle is external, whereas Holden Caulfield’s entire struggle is internal, only showing on the outside as well.
So where is your main character’s struggle? What is the story that the readers need to discover?
Your thoughts vs. their thoughts
Use your thoughts. Be conversational, but look out for the style you’re trying to use. Do you want the novel to be like a diary, or do you want it to be a story your readers will get lost in? If you explain everything to your readers, you’ll likely lose their interest, if not insult them. So what’s the solution? Let the main character be the eyes and ears, and let the reader be the brain.
You will want to explain your thoughts and you shouldn’t. You can describe them, but don’t say why. Here are two examples:
I stared him down, hoping to make my point. “If you ever come near my kids again, I’ll make sure you never see the light of day.” His eyes widened and he backed away in fear.
I explained why I stared into his eyes as well as why he backed off. As the reader, you can figure out, for yourself, that I wanted to make a point when I said what I did. So why was the phrase “…hoping to make my point.” necessary? How did I know he backed away in fear and not surprise? I don’t. Since it’s first person, I can’t possibly know that for sure, so it’s best to describe what I see, as the eyes, and let the reader determine the meaning for themselves. Let them think they’re making assumptions. Let’s try this again…
I didn’t break eye contact, and neither did he. “If you ever come near my kids again, I’ll make sure you never see the light of day.” His eyes widened and he backed away, his eyes darting to the side.
Removing those two things allowed flexibility in the description. I could add more since I wasn’t simply telling the reader what happened, but showing instead. It’s easier to describe what someone else is doing than it is describing what you’re doing, but that’s okay. You don’t think about how your head tilted to one side curiously. That’s a mannerism of sorts, so it’s not something you’d notice yourself doing.
What you’re doing vs. what you ‘say’ you’re doing
It’s also hard not to say the “I saw,” “I said,” etc. in first person. When you’re talking to someone, face to face, you’ll use these subject-verb cues to identify what’s going on in the conversation, but you also avoid saying things like “His blood-red lips pursed like a wrinkled sponge seeking its victim’s spit.” That’s where there is a difference. Consider how you want to write and follow through. If it’s a diary, memoir, etc., you can have both, but in other styles of writing, you’ll want to avoid “I saw,” “I said,” etc. If you read: “His blood-red lips pursed like a wrinkled sponge seeking its victim’s spit,” you would assume I was looking at him, yes? So why write “I see his blood-red lips pursed like a wrinkled sponge.”?
What you do vs. what you did
Did I run to the store? I ran to the store? I will run to the store? You need to decide whether you want to write in past tense or present, but that’s all your choice. Keep in mind, you’re more limited with present tense than you are with past tense, but here’s an article on tenses to help you out.
Other than that, write away. My long list of suggestions isn’t the only list. I’m an advocate for breaking the rules, and I also hate some of the “rules” I typed. No, I won’t say which ones. There are certain writing styles I don’t enjoy, but others do. I’m far from your only audience, so write what fits you best. Write, revise, edit and repeat. If you don’t want to write in first person or you’re unsure it’s the right POV for you, I’ll have an article next week about third person. So keep in touch!