The Perils of the First Person

by Kate

It’s hard to pinpoint the origins of this particular species, but it’s becoming very clear that romance novels written in the first person (particularly in the YA/NA space) is definitely a thing.

There are a lot of benefits to writing in the first person: an immediacy to the text, an automatic entrée to a character’s innermost feelings, intimacy with the character, obvious signposts re: narrative style (and who the narrator is/what their biases are).

However, there are a lot of pitfalls as well, and these can be quite tricky to navigate. There are reasons that third person is generally preferred within the publishing industry. So if you’re into using ‘I’, I might suggest making sure that the following are addressed.

  1. Wanting to have your cake and eat it too: in first person, you’re stuck with just one point of view, but it’s hard, when you’re the writer, to not slip into omniscient, to share things that your character just can’t know, or share things from a certain perspective that your character wouldn’t hold. When you’re writing in the first person, you’re limited, and you have to make sure that a limited POV is the absolute best way to tell your story.
  2. A one-note narrator: when writing in only one POV, the writer really has to nail the voice. In romance, first person tends to err on one of two sides: the nice character or the bitch character. Writers of the nice character are so busy trying to make sure that their character is loveable, kind to everyone, helps old ladies across the street, rescue stray kittens, that they never actually develop their characters into anything interesting and write about someone very bland. Writers of the bitch character swing too far in the other direction, sharing every mean thought that their character has, revelling in the euphoric freedom of really being in someone else’s head and letting everyone around her have a taste of vitriol. Either way, you get a character with no nuance, no depth, and no real interest to the reader. We all have rich inner lives, and it is crucial, when writing in first person, that the narration use that to full advantage.
  3. Telling, not showing: first person narrative can often run into ‘this happened, then this happened, then this happened’, a recital of events, rather than in-the-moment sharing. It’s tempting to narrate feelings, rather than show a character feeling it. You have to be able to show enough internal workings, dialogue, and external action to balance those paragraphs of emotional exposition. Also, make darned sure to not use constructions like ‘I felt like’ or ‘I thought that’. You’re in that POV – of course those are your narrator’s thoughts and feelings.
  4. Voice: as noted above, voice is absolutely crucial in first person. You have to make sure that the narrator voice is not your voice, that the voice is age, sex, nationality, culture, and time appropriate. You also have to make sure – above all else – that the voice is consistent.

A special note about multiple first person narrations: the swapping of first person. When employing this style, all of the above mentioned problems grow exponentially. Each narrator has to be unique, with unique thoughts, unique inner lives, and a unique, consistent, appropriate voice. Each narrator should be immediately recognisable through the voice alone, not just chapter or scene labels. If you’re going with multiple points of view, I would strongly suggest that third person is the most effective (and certainly the least mired in pitfalls) choice.

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2 thoughts on “The Perils of the First Person

  1. After years of roleplaying, first person is what I am best at, but I do get this. I find it so much harder to write in third and feel personally that people like being inside the character’s mind when they are reading. I know I did whenever I read first person texts, just my own opinion though.

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