Writing Fiction in First Person

Nana posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

What is your no.1 rule for writing fiction in first-person POV? Thanks in advance.

Randy sez: One of the nice things about writing in first person is that it’s really hard to hop heads and it’s really obvious when you do. First person is a nice intimate point of view and it makes it easy to get the reader to identify with the POV character.

As for rules on writing in first person, I have plenty of thoughts on that, but I don’t know how to choose which is most important. Here are a few of them:

  • Once you’ve established that the scene is written in first person POV, you can often skip using the word “I” in places where it’s obvious. For example, if a tiger comes running into the room, you don’t need to say, “I saw a tiger dash into the room.” Instead, you can just say, “A tiger dashed into the room.” The reader knows that the narrator is the person who sees the tiger. (This same principle applies in third person.)
  • By the same token, if the narrator of the story can’t see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel, or know something, then don’t tell it. It makes sense to say, “Sally didn’t see the mugger coming up behind her. I tried to shout a warning, but my voice caught in my throat.” However, it doesn’t make sense to say the converse: “I didn’t see the mugger coming up behind me. Sally tried to shout a warning, but her voice caught in her throat.” If you didn’t see it, then you can’t be telling about it. And you can’t know what Sally tries to do unless she actually does it. (Again, a similar rule applies when you’re writing in third person.)
  • Let’s emphasize that point for knowledge. It usually doesn’t make sense to write a sentence like this: “I didn’t realize that on the other side of the country, my poodle was quietly investing all my savings in dog biscuit stocks.” If you don’t know it, then your reader can’t know it either. There is one exception, when you’re writing in retrospective past tense. In that case, you’re narrating the story from the vantage point of the future. So it’s possible that you learned information later than the point of narration and it might make sense to say, “I didn’t learn until six months later that my poodle was quietly investing all my savings in dog biscuit stocks.”

Some writers find the first person POV constraining because they want to show action in different locations at the same time. If you’ve only got one POV character (which is normal when writing in first person) then your character can’t be in two places at once, and you’re stuck. One solution is to use multiple first person POV characters, or else switch from first-person to third-person. These are legal, although they may disorient the reader unless you do a good job tipping her off. That’s one reason I always start a scene with a header that tells who the POV character is. I learned this from Irwin Shaw, and it’s always made a lot of sense to me.

I’m curious if my Loyal Blog Readers have any particular other issues with first person POV that I should talk about. If you do, go ahead and post a comment here with your question and I’ll answer the question right inside the comments section.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

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23 Comments

  1. Timothy Greene June 17, 2010 at 3:38 pm #

    I would say that if you want to write in first person, read a few books with first person to see how a published writer handles it. D.J. MacHale’s Pendragon series is a great way to see it. I can’t think of another series. I personally like first person since you get more in depth with your main character.

    Tim

  2. Christina Summers June 17, 2010 at 9:28 pm #

    Using real life as an example:
    I know what my husband is thinking because I can read his expressions, just like he can read mine. Is there a way that you can write that ‘thought’ – or rather my interpretation of his thought in either first or third person?

    I’ve written a short story that for a split second head-hops into the other character’s head. It’s a fast-paced emotive scene and it breaks the rhythm to add ‘She knew from her husband’s expression that he was thinking…’

    The husband’s thought is too emotive to take out and it also reveals his motivation for the climax.

    Randy sez: Yes, good writers do this all the time. They show the expression and then let the reader figure out the emotion or thought behind it (if it’s obvious) or they let the POV character interpret it (if it’s not so obvious and requires experience to parse the expression).

  3. Morten June 18, 2010 at 3:08 am #

    Christine, Do you need it? If it brakes the rhythm and the thought is too emotive to take out and it reveals something you don’t want the reader to know … do you need it there at all?

    I don’t know your story but I sometimes solve problems like this with dialog. Simply let her say it. That sometimes works better for fast paced scenes.

  4. Saira June 18, 2010 at 4:16 am #

    Question. How do you ‘show’ what is going on rather than ‘tell’ it in first person POV?
    In first person I find myself always saying “I sat up out of bed, I walked to the closet, I couldn’t decide what to wear” how do I get away from the choppiness and ‘I, I, I’ feeling I seem to get in first person? I’d rather show it such as, “his knuckles were white against the steering wheel” that ‘shows’ that he’s gripping it tightly rather than ‘telling’ “he gripped the wheel tightly.” So how can I do that in first person? Because, in first person wouldn’t it be odd if my character was thinking “my fingers were white against the steering wheel” I mean… who thinks like that, then again you don’t think that you’re gripping something tightly you just know… so yes, I’m quite lost on this matter… any tips?

    Randy sez: This is a BIG topic — showing versus telling. The short answer is that you have five basic tools for showing: action, dialogue, interior monologue, interior emotion, and description. Each of these would require pages and pages to really explain. So I’ll take the coward’s way out and refer you to my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES for the many details on how it’s done in practice. See especially chapter 2 (“What Makes a Great Story”) and Chapter 10 (“Action, Dialogue, and More”).

  5. Sakhi June 18, 2010 at 5:38 am #

    I’m always confused about which tense to use while writing in first person – it is awkward to use both past tense and present tense. In my latest work, I decided to use first-person but I keep writing in both past and present tense – would summon please give me an example of which tense to write in? How, for example, would you write a difficult action scene in first person? Or a scene where a character is confused out of their mind?

  6. Jeremy June 18, 2010 at 6:01 am #

    Great stuff Randy, and explained perfectly. I’d be careful writing from the vantage point of the future, as it may tip the reader that everything is fine and dandy six months later, thereby dousing some of the tension.

    That said, if the story has already established the present state of the narrator — recovering, dead, committed — no worries!

  7. Angie F June 18, 2010 at 6:52 am #

    That’s great advice, Randy. I’ve been writing in first person present for a number of years now, and it really works best with my voice and pacing. I agree that it is a bit tough to master at first, but it’s a lot of fun to get that deep into a character’s head.

    I did have an interesting issue come up with one of my most recent projects, though. I really wanted to add a second POV to this one, but after writing a few scenes, I realized I was writing my main POV character in first person present tense (as I always do), and the other character in third person past. It didn’t feel right, so I’ve pretty much dumped the second POV.

    Can you think of any examples in which this was handled well? I write suspense, but my second POV character was not the bad guy.

  8. Richard W June 18, 2010 at 7:17 am #

    To Christina:
    Is it possible to voice the emotive in dialogue from the husband? Could you imply the motivation, rather than say it directly, and still get the point across to the reader?

    Randy:
    You state, “That’s one reason I always start a scene with a header that tells who the POV character is.” Could you give examples? I have often wondered if 1st person might be a better way to tell my character driven story, but I also have 2 primary and several secondary POVs — so for the moment, I’m using 3rd person limited and zooming in and out of the character’s thoughts to give the illusion of 1st person intimacy without the necessary constraints or confusion.

    Randy sez: Here’s how I do it. At the very beginning of each scene, I type the POV character’s name, italicized and center on one line all by itself. Then I start the scene on the next line. That’s all there is to it. I’ve had some editors ask if I’m sure I want to do that, and I just tell them yes, I stole it from Irwin Shaw. Most editors just accept it as written.

  9. jess June 18, 2010 at 7:56 am #

    Popped in when I saw you were discussing first person. Thanks!

    I think writing first person is incredibly difficult. It’s hard to keep from being boring. It’s hard to keep from using I-I-I until it drives the reader mad. While I’m not a fan of reading it or writing it, it seems some stories must be told from first person. My main problem is tense. Crit partners constantly catch where I’ve switched from past tense to present. It’s as if my character insists on letting the reader know she’s allive in the NOW and what she’s doing. I’m embarrassed to say, I never catch it when I pull this switcheroo. Any tips or advice?

    Randy sez: Sounds like this is just one of those things you’re blind to. We all have our blind spots. So find a good critique partner who can flag these for you. That’s the easiest way to deal with it. It’s just smart to outsource your weaknesses to someone who’s strong in that area. I do. All good writers do.

  10. Barbara June 18, 2010 at 8:02 am #

    Hey Richard: I ran into a similar problem and chose one of my POV characters to be primary and told her story in first person. The other POV characters I left in third person. Unfortunately, I’d written over half the book when I made this decision, and now am in rewrite mode.
    Randy: Is there a good (or reasonable) way to keep something secret from the reader when using a first person POV? Is writing something like: I stared at the object in my hand and couldn’t believe the solution had been that simple. Still clutching the object, I raced from the room.
    And not telling the reader what the solution is? Hoping she’ll either figure it out or have to wait several chapters to be told? Or is this a no-no?

    Randy sez: That’s a danger signal. You have to have a good reason to conceal something from the reader that the POV character knows. I always hate it when an author does this to me. It breaks the illusion that I’m the POV character. So be very, very careful if you hide info this way and try not to cheat your reader. If there’s an interruption from the outside just in the middle of the thought, then that’s OK. And do remember that most people in their thought life don’t rehearse their past in detail. Instead, they allude to it. They’ll think about “my horrible Uncle Reginald” rather than remembering in vivid detail about how Uncle Reginald burned my fingers with an iron when I was five because I was smiling too loudly. Nobody ever explains things to themselves. However, when a POV character has a key insight on how to solve a problem, it’s probably cheating not to let the reader in on it. This is why the Sherlock Holmes stories used Watson as the POV character–to let Holmes keep his secrets to the end.

  11. s.e.p. June 18, 2010 at 8:47 am #

    Hey Cristina,
    You could write what that other character is thinking/feeling using your character’s POV instead of the writer’s (your) POV. The character is describing her husband’s thoughts and feelings from the observations she makes of him.

    Since it’s coming from the POV of a character and not the writer, it would be an unreliable narrative to the reader since the character can’t head hop (unless she’s psychic), but she can imagine what another is thinking/feeling and since she knows him very well — it might not be all that unreliable. The unreliability could be what creates a little tension in the story because perhaps that’s what she wants him to think, but he’s not really thinking that at all. This would later show up in his actions or in his dialog with her.

    So it’s really her motivation for the climax that she projects onto him about how she knows he’s upset with her — because she dyed her hair which came out all wrong and since she was upset about this, she put on a few pounds from eating a piece of that cake that was whispering to her all week (which the reader would believe), but all he was really upset about was that his favorite team lost and his boss was rubbing it in his face all day making it all that much worse.

    The reader wouldn’t know any of this until he said something to her and she obviously wouldn’t know because she wasn’t at the pub with him and his boss to watch the game that past night and didn’t go to work with him that day.

  12. Sheila Deeth June 18, 2010 at 9:33 am #

    I’ve read a couple of books recently that used a mixture of 1st and 3rd person – one section 1st person, the next 3rd, etc. It felt annoying and artificial, but then I found myself writing one of my characters in 1st person while all the others were 3rd. I felt like I had a good reason (had too many secrets to keep about how the character looked). But is it safe to assume my novel would be likewise annoying to read?

    Randy sez: Diana Gabaldon’s book DRAGONFLY IN AMBER had mixed first and third person POV and it was definitely not annoying. It worked. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t do it. If it does work, then do.

  13. Sean June 18, 2010 at 9:44 am #

    Interesting thought on the headers for character changes. I’ve seen those from time to time, and I find them useful, but also a bit distracting–they tend to remind me of the artificiality of the story. My personal preference when swapping POVs is to cue the reader by having the POV character’s name be one of the first few words in the first sentence–ideally the very first word.

    Christina- how about letting the reader know what she sees? Something like “Her husband raised an eyebrow. He must be thinking X.” “His forehead wrinkled–he was clearly Y.” Or, you know. Whatever makes sense to you!

    Barbara- oh goodness. I’ve seen that done plenty of times, and it always always always feels like a huge cheat. It happens a lot in mysteries, where the detective lets us know he/she’s solved it, but doesn’t tell us the solution. That stuff drives me nuts.

    It’s still a wee bit of a cheat, but less of a punch to the reader’s face, if you simply end the scene just before the sentence/paragraph where you would have revealed everything, if you were playing fair. “I stared at the object in my hand.” End of scene. That way, rather than actively hiding the revelation of the solution, you’re just pushing it off-stage.

  14. Felicia Fredlund June 18, 2010 at 10:15 am #

    Barbara – I’ve seen that in fiction several times. Though not in mysteries as Sean has. When I’ve read it has worked very well, because when it happens it stays true to the character. Hmm…let me explain better…

    Well, a person doesn’t really think coherently, yes? Like when you listen in on a conversation between friends, there’s a lot between the lines and just dropped parts of sentences that they understand, but not the eavesdropper. It’s the same with thoughts. When you realize something it’s so instant, that sometimes it’s not even fully thought through.

    Alas, it is hard to do it well. And you should never do it to censure, because it doesn’t work. If you can do it, while remaining true to how the character thinks, I believe it works very well.

  15. Levi Montgomery June 18, 2010 at 10:21 am #

    As I habitual present-tense writer, I’d just like to say that I think first person can be done very nicely indeed, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a first-person, present-tense story that really “works.” To have some narrator tell me, in first person, what happened last week is fine as long as it stays in past tense (even though in real life such stories usually get told in present tense (and even in second person)), but something about present-tense first-person requires too much suspension of disbelief from me. Unless you are an invisible narrator, you have to tell me the story after it’s over, not while it’s happening.

  16. Jacob June 19, 2010 at 3:29 am #

    Jeremy says.

    I’d be careful writing from the vantage point of the future,

    I’m doing this. Giving away the end is not my problem but the fact that the MC is changed is a problem.
    At the end of the story she has made a development. She reacts more “mature”. Still I want to show her “immature” thoughts without her saying alle the time: Thats was how I thought there and then.
    She expresses “black and white” opinions in the story, while knowing with hindsight that there are scales of grey.
    I have chosen to let her express these radical thoughts anyway (even when they have become more mellow) because the reader is with her in the past.
    Still not sure if this works.

  17. Sam R June 19, 2010 at 3:42 am #

    Another comment on Saira’s “I,I,I” problem: by using public and private clips, described in Chapter 10 of Randy’s book and known as MRUs before being rebranded, a goodly percentage of your text (the public clips) will take place the third person and the “I” pieces (the private clips) should follow naturally and unobtrusively. With a bit of luck you can minimise the use of “I” because it will be clear who is reacting.

  18. Evan June 19, 2010 at 7:06 pm #

    I always found it most useful to write sci-fi in the 3rd person omniscient…that way you can really get creative with the setting and what goes on in the world without being constrained by one character. :)

  19. Rebecca June 22, 2010 at 9:50 am #

    First Person Present Tense

    The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

    Two words: It works.

  20. Barb July 1, 2010 at 6:36 am #

    I think writers tend to over-analyze the POV. The goal is to tell your story in whichever way works best for you and your character(s). Seriously, I don’t get why 1st person is such a no-no among the writing circles. I can vouch for many of my avid-reader friends that no one pays attention to the POV. It’s the story that matters. It was only after I started writing and learning more about the craft and scoping out writing forums when I learned that 1st person was such a taboo among everyone. There are writers who say they won’t go any further than the first page if they open up a book and see 1st person present. To which I say: Really? It’s obviously a personal bias some people have, and that’s a shame because again–if the story is good, most readers DON’T care. JMHO….

  21. Neha May 29, 2012 at 5:34 am #

    while writing a story, if we are writing about our self is it better to use “I” or he/ she is good?

  22. WWLL September 23, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    Christine- how about a quick flash of recognition –
    “Christ, he gets it! All of it.”

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