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Using the first person POV to its fullest potential
Dr Wilson
Posted: Thursday, March 22, 2012 1:57 AM
Joined: 9/3/2011
Posts: 4


I have recently put a challenge on myself, write a novel completely in the first person. I have been accustomed to writing in the third person, and I thought this would be a nifty challenge for me.

It's also apparently torture! I'm self conscious of my "I"s and I believe I'm worrying too much about trying to use first person a lot differently than I do third.

What are some of the tips to use first person to the fullest potential? I know it's a direct link so that the protagonist can talk directly to the reader, but it seems almost that I'm droning on too much with thoughts instead of focusing on the moment. Tips?
Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 4:57 AM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 88

Hey Doctor,

Well, first of all, I need to say not every story is gonna be appropriate for first person.  Don't just employ it as an experiment.  It won't work.  You need to be really committed to it to survive the innevitable torture, blind alleys and painting yourself into more corners than any room ever had that will ensue. 

Also, your MC has to have a fascinating mind.  Not all MC's have fascinating minds.  It's not necessary in third person.  But in first, it's crucial.  The principal landscape in 3rd person is the world "you," your MC and, by extention, your reader, share.  The environment.  In first person, the principal landscape, the one that constantly gets in the way and upstaged the external environment is your MC's inner life.  So, if your MC's mind isn't all that exciting/fascinating/thematically on point, then 1st person is never quite gonna work.

Also, if your MC isn't absolutely fascinating in his or her own right, the reader will tire of them long before the final chapter. 

Your MC has to be unusually observant, fascinated by people and the world around him or her.  This is technical, because if your MC isn't interested in these things, your novel won't be including them--unless you cheat and force your MC to talk about stuff they don't care about, in which case the writing will, naturally, suffer tremendously.

The "I's" are gonna come pretty naturally as your write.  Don't stress too much about it.  They can all be done away with when you revise.  Well, not all, of course, but most.  A lot of "I's" give the impression of the MC being out of touch with himself, "beside himself," experiencing himself as an object in space.  "I did this, I did that, I walked out, I turned the corner"--like he's watching himself, not willing any of it.  So, of course, when that frame of mind is appropriate, by all means, use "I." 

There's books to write on the subject, but that's a few of my most immediate thoughts.  My own WIP is in 1st person and present tense, so I'm pretty obsessed with the subject and, obviously, a glutton for punishment. 

Good luck,


Jay Greenstein
Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2012 9:09 PM

• I know it's a direct link so that the protagonist can talk directly to the reader,

No more then you can in third. Telling is telling, and the protagonist on the scene lives at a different time and place from the one telling the story, so they cannot appear on stage together. And every time the narrator addresses the reader directly, by stopping the action to explain, the scene clock stops ticking and all sense of reality flees—just as it does in third or second person.

First person allows more editorial capability in the exposition that sews scenes together, and in the support exposition during the scene. It does not make the narrator an active character in the story.

• but it seems almost that I'm droning on too much with thoughts instead of focusing on the moment. Tips?

That’s easy. Cut it out. If it seems that way to you, who can actually "see" the scene and know the characters, it certainly does to someone who knows only what those words have said.

Try this: Change a section from first to third and read it back. If you find the author explaining things that’s how it reads to the reader in first.

Look at the prose. Does the reader always know what the character is reacting to, and why? Or are you simply playing the story in your head and providing a list of what you see happening. If you are, it matters not at all if it’s in third or first. The reader, unable to see the actual scene, doesn’t care what you see happening because they’re sitting in the dark—and they can’t even hear your tone of voice.

Herb Mallette
Posted: Thursday, March 29, 2012 6:53 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

I'm in total agreement with Kevin. Jay makes some good points too.

Right now I'm trying to work my way back into third person after three years of writing a first-person trilogy, so I'm finding myself very cognizant of the differences.

To expand on one of Kevin's points: not only does your narrator need to have a fascinating mind, but you need to know him/her from top to bottom before you start writing (or else you need to be prepared for a lot of false starts or rewrites). In a third-person book, your protagonist can grow and change a lot as you write, and then you can go back and smooth out the inconsistencies in your subsequent drafts. You may even find that some of the growth and change naturally fits into the protagonist's personal dramatic arc. But in first person, you're speaking with the protagonist's voice, so you absolutely must know where that protagonist is coming from, right at the start. Why is he sharing this story? What subconscious attitudes does she have about each and every person, object, or phenomenon that she (and we) encounter?

In third person, if the sky is "darkened by sinister clouds" it's because the author wants to establish a dark and sinister mood. But in first person, the use of the same phrase means that the protagonist is experiencing those clouds as sinister, which tells us something about him or her. So you have to know your character's mind much more closely, or else simple descriptions of the environment can lead the reader to feel that the protagonist is being portrayed in a scattered and incoherent fashion. As the protagonist experiences personal growth, it has to be within the context of the voice you've established right from the start.

As far as having the protagonist talk directly to the reader, that needs to be built into your character's motivation for sharing this story. When events of the story lend themselves to themes that are important to the narrator, it will feel natural to have him or her comment directly to the reader. Conversely, it will come across as extremely unnatural if your narrator expresses direct opinions about anything and everything, because most people have their hot-button issues that they care a lot about and will be relatively matter-of-fact about everything else.