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In Defense of First Person

Recently I heard a well-known author state that (paraphrasing) writing a story in first person is a terrible idea, shouldn’t be done, and that writing it in present tense is even worse. Respectfully, I disagree. I’m addressing the “present tense” part over on From the Write Angle, so here I’ll focus on first person.

One criticism of first-person narrative was that it’s what newbie, amateur writers default to, and they don’t have the skills to do it well.

On the first count, well, that’s kind of a big generalization. I started my very first manuscript in third person, got 5-10 pages in, and knew something wasn’t working. I went back, changed it to first person, and it flowed from there. My friend Charlee Vale tells me her first two manuscripts were entirely in third person.

But maybe the majority of new writers automatically go with first person? Sure, I can buy that.

On the second count, let’s face it. Our very first attempts with any writing technique or tool usually suck. This author posited that everyone should master third-person limited before even considering first person. You know, that’s probably not a bad idea in general. At the least, we should learn the strengths and limitations of all our options and practice to maximize their potential.

Another criticism was that there’s a “falseness” to first person. Your main character has to narrate things they would never say about themselves, engage in an unrealistic level of self-consciousness, etc. Plus in first person past tense, supposedly any suspense the character experiences is false, because they’ve already survived the tale in order to “tell” it to us. They know exactly what happens.

Here’s where people divide into two camps according to how they experience reading. Some people read a first-person narrative and process it as an artifact, a memoir written by the main character, or a record of that character verbally telling the story.

I’m not in that camp. I don’t view stories in that kind of framework unless they’re explicitly placed in it—”Now, let me tell you about the time my grandpa gave me a birthday present that changed the world.” I view the story as simply happening. I don’t think about someone telling it or writing it—it just unfolds before me, and the book with written words is just the delivery vehicle.

Just like when I watch a movie, I don’t think about “Who’s following these people around with a camera everywhere?”

I don’t know if that puts me in the majority or minority, but there it is.

At any rate, why should we or shouldn’t we use first person? Some people find the constant “I, I, I, me, me, me” obnoxious. Fair enough. Third-person limited lets us get into our protagonist’s head just as much as first person, so why don’t we stick to that?

To me, there’s still just a little more separation between reader and protagonist in third person. A character in third can get away with withholding a little information from the reader that would feel forced and fake in first person. First person, on the other hand, delivers the protagonist’s experience a little more exactly. In that case, it’s easier to withhold information from the character.

First person is notably more prevalent in some types of fiction than others, particularly young adult (YA). Some have said this is because teenagers are so self-centered, so they gravitate toward that focus on the “me.”

That may have some merit, but it doesn’t feel quite right. I know a lot of selfless, generous, thoughtful teens. Rather than self-centered, I think of them as “self-centric.” (That may be a distinction with no difference, but it makes sense to me.) The world doesn’t revolve around them—they are simply their own anchor point in a world that’s expanded tremendously since their pre-teen years.

It still sounds like I’m saying the same thing two ways, I guess. If it makes sense to any of you, and you can explain it better, please let me know.

I think for me, when choosing between first and third person, part of the decision is based on the answer to a question. Is this a story in World X focusing on Character Y? Or is it Character X’s story, occurring in World Y? Essentially, it’s a matter of story ownership, and how tightly that ownership is tied to that specific character.

First person can be very limited and restrictive, it’s true. But sometimes that’s exactly what a story needs, and I refuse to believe it’s a bad thing in and of itself. Like all tools and techniques, it has its place, its function, its value.

What do you think about first-person narratives? Love ’em? Hate ’em? Share your opinions and experiences (respectfully, please) in the comments.

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5 Responses to “In Defense of First Person”

  1. Kristin Rae says:

    It’s funny how some people feel first/present is limiting, when I feel that way about third/past. Generally speaking, when I read a book written in third person, I’m not as attached to the main character because I don’t feel in their head with their emotions. A story that already happened is being recounted to me and I’m not experiencing it with them as it happens. I love the immediacy of first person/present tense.
    It also comes more naturally for me to write in first/present, because I felt like I couldn’t get across everything I wanted in third/past. That’s not to say I won’t try to tackle and master it one day. Because I just might. 🙂
    Nice discussion!

  2. I wonder why people even have these discussions. Personally, I ignore the 1st / 3rd – past / present convention. Does a story need to be one or the other? Or are they merely tools to improve the dynamics of exposition and enhance the author’s voice?

    Let me manufacture a demonstration . . .

    Our Rachel was always destined for something special; even if her mom didn’t know it, I knew it. She had a little blip in 2008 when she took on the tenth grader’s.
    Billy Smith’s a problem to all the teachers and he’s giving our Rachel attitude. Rachel warns him. “Don’t let me get all hip-hop on your ass,” she says.
    But Billy’s not listening. He’s running his mouth, talkin’ bout her womanly parts and stuff like that, boasting to the class how he’s a man and how he’s going teach the teacher some sex ed.
    Rachel’s favourite film is ‘A league of their own’. As a girl, in little league, Rachel was a local star, but Billy wasn’t to know any of this.
    Billy gets brave. He pulls down his zipper.
    Rachel goes for the pump. She doesn’t want to see that thing, not her classroom. She outdraws Billy the Kid.
    Next thing, Billy’s concussed, and the paramedics are on their way.
    One of the other kids says, “Miss, you got a wicked fastball.”
    Our Rachel grins. “It was just a slider,” she says.

    Rachel hadn’t shown the kids any fear or weakness on that day. But when she got home she cried. When she was done crying she called her daddy. She was always a daddy’s girl. We talked.

    – Can you really categorise that?

    It is probably very effective for the narrator to use first-person past-tense during transitions and third-person present for the scenes.

  3. Derrick says:

    I started with 3rd person past. It only after writing my 3rd MS that I turn to 1st person. But I don’t pick any of that based on difficulty. I pick it based on what will fit the novel the best.

    For instance, for my current WIP, I wanted a comic book feel, which is almost always written in 1st/present (in modern days). However, given the content, I wanted the power of hindsight, so 1st/past is what I went with.

    As a straight up planner, I always give careful consideration to POV and tense.

  4. E.C.W. says:

    As a teen and aspiring author myself, I can say that I’m not particularly drawn to either first or third person in what I read. Storyline and writing triumph over those trivial details. But when it comes to the YA genre, I think that the over-abundance of first-person narratives may be attributed in part to books such as Twilight and The Hunger Games, whose incredible successes with first-person POV have encouraged other authors to jump on the bandwagon.

    Another thought: In the YA genre, first-person books are easier to read. They are immediate, intimate, and generally require less deciphering and balancing of multiple characters’ motivations. In my opinion, this fact should explain why first-person appeals to teens, rather than the assumption that most teens are self-absorbed.

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