Most novels are written in third-person past tense: “He raced through the dark alley, the footsteps getting louder behind him.” First-person is another option: “As I slammed down the phone in disgust, I heard the doorbell ring.”
While first-person viewpoint can be ideal for a short story, writing a novel-length story in first-person is riskier. New fiction writers sometimes opt to write their novel in first-person, as they think this will be easier. But writing a novel effectively and compellingly in first-person is a lot more difficult than it appears, for a number of reasons. As novelist David Morrell points out, “If the first person were as easy as it seems, all stories would be written from that viewpoint.”
Some of the advantages to writing your novel in first-person are:
- It mirrors real life – we experience life around us only from our own point of view – we don’t know what other people are thinking.
- There’s a direct connection from the narrator to the reader, so this POV can create an immediate sense of intimacy and believability.
- The narrator-character’s voice comes through more clearly, as it is expressed directly.
- It’s easier to portray the POV character’s personality and world-view, as they’re doing all the talking.
Some of the disadvantages of using first-person point of view and narration are:
- It’s difficult to dramatize scenes where the viewpoint character is not present. Your POV character won’t know what’s going on in other locations.
- Too many sentences begin with “I” or have “I” in them. Can quickly become repetitious, tedious, and even annoying to the reader.
- In the opening, the reader is often left wondering who “I” is. Be sure to mention your first-person narrator’s name in the first paragraph or two, or certainly on the first page. A dialogue with someone else helps the reader figure out who this “I” is.
- Working in a physical description of your protagonist can be a bit tricky, when we’re in her point of view, and the looking in the mirror thing has been a bit overdone.
- The reader may tire of the same voice and point of view predominating throughout the novel. Not enough variation in style and personality.
- We may also get too much of the first-person narrator-character’s opinions on people and events around him, and long for a little variety. How do the other characters see things?
- There’s a danger of too much introspection, interior monologue, and explaining things – in other words, “telling.” Be sure to balance this with plenty of action and dialogue –“showing”– which will help the pacing and move the story forward more easily.
- The viewpoint character has to be really interesting, with a distinctive, compelling voice, as we’re “in his head” for the whole novel.
- With all those “I”s and “me”s, there’s a danger of the writer putting too much of himself into the novel.
First-person narration is ideal for a short story, and can work really well in the hands of a skilled novelist (for example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James are three notable examples), but is difficult for aspiring authors to pull off successfully, especially for a whole novel. As Morrell points out, “the first person is only as interesting as the character telling the story.”
To work, your narrator-character needs to have a unique voice and personality, with lots of attitude. As James Scott Bell says, “There must be something about the voice of the narrator that makes her worth listening to—a worldview, a slant, something more than just a plain vanilla rendition of the facts.” On the other hand, don’t make your narrator-character too weird, as that could get grating or annoying after a while, too.
Even then, as David Morrell states: At its worst, when using first-person narration or POV, “The sentences can become a litany of I did this and I did that and I did something else, until the reader is overwhelmed with egotism and closes the pages.” So it’s important to vary the sentence structure to avoid a lot of sentences starting with “I”, “the egotistical I-I-I that makes many first-person stories wearying.” (Morrell)
Many successful novelists also feel that first-person narration encourages too much telling and introspection and analysis, rather than showing and action. As Morrell says, “One of the several liabilities of the first person is its tendency to encourage a writer to jabber away….”
In The Successful Novelist, Morrell discusses how he personally found first-person narration very suitable for short stories, “but I tried at least six of my novels in the first person, each time giving up in frustration once I got deeply into the story.” He found it hard to overcome “the obvious liability of the first person, the nagging, narcissistic I-I-I of it.”
Morrell concludes, “Having been through this turmoil, I think I’ll stick to using the first person only in short stories, while reserving the third person for my novels.”
As an alternative to using one first-person narrator for a whole novel, one could choose to use first-person viewpoint for different characters, giving each character their own chapters, told directly by them, from their viewpoint. In this case, it’s important to make sure that each character speaks with a unique, distinctive voice, with plenty of attitude of their own. Or you could even have your protagonist’s viewpoint in the first-person, then portray other characters in the third-person, in their own chapters.
If you’ve written or started a book in first-person, try rewriting a chapter or two in third-person. Leave it for a few days, then reread the third-person attempt and see if you like the added freedom and variety of voice and viewpoint a little better. Or give both versions to a trusted friend or critique group and see which approach they prefer.
Resources: How to Write a Damn Good Thriller, by James N. Frey; The Successful Novelist, by David Morrell; Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell.
Copyright © Jodie Renner, June 2011
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, and mysteries. Her services range from developmental editing to light final copyediting, as well as manuscript critiques. Check out Jodie’s website at www.JodieRennerEditing.com and her blog at http://JodieRennerEditing.blogspot.com.
Jodie is a member of International Thriller Writers (associate), Sisters in Crime (SinC), Backspace: The Writers Place, The Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), and The Editors Association of Canada (EAC).Jodie has traveled extensively throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East. In fact, Jodie loves traveling so much, she’s thinking of changing her tagline from “Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing” to “Have laptop, will travel.”