Should Your Novel be First Person?

How do you know when you should be writing your novel in first person? And how much of that pesky interior monologue is too much? We’ll look at those questions today.

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

I’m currently working on my first, first draft of any novel. I’m finding that I’m using an awful lot of interior monologue for the one point of view character that I will be using for the entire book. Is that normal? Also, should I seriously consider if whether the book should be told in first person? However, I’m wondering if the plot of my story is too complex to be written in first person. Is there a good way to determine what might be the best perspective to use when telling a story?

Randy sez: Let’s take these questions in order. Is it normal for a first draft of a first novel to have a ton of interior monologue? Yes, that’s pretty common for a beginning novelist. It’s also common to use a ton of narrative summary, to throw in a boatload of backstory, and to hop heads faster than Hollywood stars hop beds.

But none of those are a particularly good idea. What’s wrong with interior monologue? Nothing’s wrong with it. It’s a good tool. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s one of the five tools you have for writing a scene. Here are all five of your tools:

  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Interior Monologue
  • Interior Emotion
  • Description

Each of those is good, in the right proportions. If you want to think of these as ingredients for your novel, Action and Dialogue are your meat and potatoes. Most of your novel should be Action and Dialogue. Description is the dessert. Interior Emotion provides the spice.

Interior Monologue is the salt. A little salt goes a long way. Yes, it’s true that some people like a lot of salt, but “a lot” is a relative concept. I don’t know anybody who could make a meal out of just salt. You need something to go with it, preferably something shaped like a chip or pretzel.

Glen, if you think you have too much Interior Monologue in your story then you do. Trim it down. Way down. Interior Monologue is great for helping your reader understand your character’s motivations. Interior Monologue is one of the massive advantages we novelists have over screenwriters. Use it well but use it with a light touch.

Now let’s talk about writing in first person. Glen, you’re worried that your novel is too complex to be told in first person. That is actually not possible. Any novel, no matter how complex, can be told in first person — if you’re willing to have enough viewpoint characters. Yes, you can write in first person from more than one point of view. If that’s what you want to do, then do so.

Usually, of course, a first-person novel has only a single viewpoint character. The hazard there is that one person can only be in one place at a time, so if you have action going on in multiple venues at the same time, you really have to use multiple first-person viewpoint characters.

Should you write in first-person? That depends on a lot of things. Do you like writing in first-person? Can you do so with a strong voice that is recognizably your character and not you? Are you not trying to conceal things from your reader that your viewpoint character knows? Do your first-person scenes work? If the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” then writing in first-person is probably a good idea.

There is no exact science to choosing a particular point of view for your novel. Of course, you do need to choose a point of view, and you have a number of choices. There isn’t an official list of a standard set of viewpoints. My own classification is as follows:

  • First person
  • Third person
  • Third person objective
  • Second person
  • Omniscient
  • Head-hopping

I discuss all of these in my book, WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES. Let’s summarize: Head-hopping is generally frowned on, but it also seems to be pretty common in the romance category because readers like knowing what both the heroine and hero are thinking. Second person is extremely rare, but it can work. Third person objective has a very cinematic feel when done well, but it’s not so easy to do well because it eliminates Interior Monologue and Interior Emotion, two of the novelist’s five tools for writing scenes. Omniscient can be done well, but it can also be done extremely badly, so you should know how to handle sharp tools before you tackle omniscient.

That leaves first person and third person as the two most common viewpoints. Each of these is easy to learn and allows you to put your reader fully inside your character’s skin. There are some readers who don’t like first person and refuse to read a book in that viewpoint. I can’t imagine why, but it’s so. Personally, I love books written in first-person.

The bottom line: Use the viewpoint that you find comfortable and that works for your story. Generally, that will be either first person or third person. If you insist on writing in second person, you are either one sick puppy or a literary genius (probably both). If you are bent on using head-hopping, at least learn to do it well and make sure you’re writing in a category where that’s accepted practice. If you must tell your story in third person objective, get a second opinion from an experienced writer to make sure you’re doing it very well. Ditto if you can’t help exercising your God-like powers as a novelist by writing in omniscient (nothing is more tedious than badly done omniscient viewpoint).

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.

Blog of the Day: One of my Loyal Blog Readers is Camille Eide, a talented writer who’s done a guest post today on agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog. Check out Camille’s article on surviving the revision letter: “What Do You Mean My Hero Isn’t Sexy Enough?” I’ve been watching Camille for a couple of years now, and I’m pretty sure she’ll sell her first novel soon.

14 Comments

  1. Bruce H. Johnson August 12, 2010 at 10:12 am #

    I’ve done 4 novels in first person with (way-too) many POVs. Did it diary format, which helped.

    I had one feedback that said seeing the same scene from different viewpoints was interesting.

    However, I ended up using a quick summary of the shared scene with the second character’s POV, which showed the different interpretation of the second viewpoint without beating it to death. Mainly showed the response to the events which had just happened.

  2. Richard Albert August 12, 2010 at 11:10 am #

    I’m a third person kind of guy. That’s just my thing. I don’t like writing long prose in first person and don’t particularly care to read most first person novel length work. For me, I can only handle being that intimate with a character for a short period of time.

    Even so, there are some people who pull of that unique voice of the POV character – and do it very well. I personally think that’s the real key to making first person more viable than third. This seems doubly true when you have multiple POV characters all in first person.

    Either way, pick one and stick with it. If unsure, maybe consider writing one chapter in first person and then writing the same chapter in third. See which one has the right amount of spice to make it work.

  3. Glen August 12, 2010 at 11:53 am #

    Thanks for the feedback, and thanks for answering my question, Randy!

    I think I’ve settled on third person, but more out of personal preference. Although I think I’ll try writing snippets in first person for several of my characters because it seems like a good exercise to use in getting into the heads of my characters. It is a Young Adult piece, and the trend seems to show more first persons lately in that age group. Right now I should probably just focus in on my writing and think about this more down the road.

    It’s also good to know that the complexity of the story shouldn’t dictate which perspective to use. I was told by someone that if the story is complex, then it should be written in third person. Maybe this person was trying to make the point that third person would give the writer more tools to use in a complex story world.

  4. Tim August 12, 2010 at 2:04 pm #

    Glen, I would suggest the person who told you that if the story is complex is should be written in third person is their personal view. I don’t know who this person is, but if they are telling other people something should be a certain way in writing they may not be the person you want to be listening to. As Randy has said so many times the only rule in writing is their are no rules. Just because a story is complex, doesn’t mean it has to be told in third person.

    One of my favorite authors is D.J. MacHale author of Pendragon and Morpheus Road. Morpheus Road is written in first person, while Pendragon is written in a combination of first and third. It is very unique way D.J. MacHale did that. It was a very complicated story and had two many point of view characters that using them both in first person wouldn’t have made sense for the story. You will have to read them to find out why.

    I mostly write in third person, though I do have a project I am going to be writing in first person because to me first person better fits the story. Other projects I am writing in third person because I have so much going on in the story it is better to do that. I think you need to ask yourself as a writer what point of view you like and which point of view is the best way to tell your story because it is your story so you get to tell how you want to tell it no matter ho complex it is and what anyone else might say or believe.

    Tim

  5. Barbara August 13, 2010 at 8:12 am #

    My current WIP, a UF novel, has three POV characters. One is told in first person — the female protagonist. The two other POVs, the male protagonist and the villain are both told in third person. As I’ve read other published authors who’ve used this technique, I thought I’d try it. So far, it’s working.

  6. Ann August 15, 2010 at 8:55 am #

    Unfortunately, I feel that I’m stuck with writing my SF novel in first person because the main character has dual personalities. I think it would be confusing to read in third person, whereas in first, it’s more consistent and clear. It’s not my choice of POV, but… working alright so far.

  7. Chaim Nissim October 10, 2013 at 7:57 pm #

    I’ve enjoyed that article.

    Could you write an article that explains that fiction written in first person is not the same as autobiography? I know, it might sound dumb but there’re thousands people out there who don’t understand the difference.

    For example, the famous case of Nabokov’s Lolita, written in the first person. The protagonist is a paedophile ditto so is the writer. It’s amazing what Nabokov had been driven to just to show that he wasn’t Humbert Humbert.

    In one of the (serious) writing course I once attended, a woman read out a romance written in the first person. During the coffee break I heard people commenting ‘She (that author) has a very difficult relationship with her husband because he did such and such (all based on the novel, which she had stated several times was not autobiographical).

    The most difficult part in writing from the first person is when, say, you’re a male and your first person protagonist is a male or when you’re a female and so is the protagonist (it’s made worse if you of the same race, religion, nationality, etc). People will see the author and a protagonist as one. When Murakami wrote ‘Ice Man’ from the POV of a woman, in the first person, with descriptive sexual scenes, nobody accused him of fantasizing about changing his sex (there is a certain limit to people’s imagination).

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