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Today’s post is by author Amy L. Bernstein.
Writing a novel is all about making choices—dozens on every page. Choosing the right point of view (POV) is arguably the most influential choice a writer makes. and choosing first-person POV, well, that may be the most complicated choice of all.
Because when you build an entire story around the “I” voice, you commit to installing the reader deep inside a single skull. In the hands of a skilled writer, there’s no more fun place to hang out.
“Call me Ishmael.” Like Lestat, Melville’s moody anti-hero (a self-described “simple sailor”) takes us on a vivid tour of city streets with a dose of social commentary on the side, followed, in this case, by a harrowing boat ride to track down a whale.
Lestat and Ishamel are each in their own way enormously charismatic and deeply observant of the world around them. A lot happens to them; they are also agents of their own destinies, at least in some respects. These are wonderful skulls to occupy.
No wonder some of today’s best writers gravitate toward first-person because, as Anne Tyler says, “It can reveal more of the character’s self-delusions” than, say, third person.
But to effectively execute this elevated brand of first-person narrative, writers must navigate a complex set of rules and avoid any number of pitfalls that will turn a novel into a flat, dull expanse of prose. I suggest that first-person POV is the most misunderstood and also the most difficult voice to master.
Let’s explore some ground rules (not an exhaustive list!) and common pitfalls before turning our attention to whether writing in first-person is the right choice for your story. (Spoiler alert: It’s often not the best choice.)
Rule #1: Constraint
The moment you elect first-person POV, you relinquish the option to tap into an omniscient narrator who knows all, sees all, and can travel at will through time and space, or walk through walls, when called for. (This is ironclad unless you write a fantasy main character who possesses omniscient powers, but that’s the exception that proves the rule.) The narrator can only process information the way we do in the real world: through her senses. This rule straps the writer into an exquisite straitjacket.
Rule #2: Complexity
A first-person narrator can lie to himself and everyone around him, but an attentive reader will always know, or have a good guess, about what’s really going on. That’s because the first-person voice exists on two planes simultaneously. On one plane, the main character speaks his truth (however deluded) within the context of the story’s self-contained world. (Rule 1 requires this.) Meanwhile, the reader is analyzing the narrator’s motives and circumstances—and drawing conclusions about what’s really going on. The writer needs to be true to the narrator’s voice and situation while remaining aware of the reader’s craving for moral and emotional ambiguity and conflict.
While this rule also makes sense for third-person POV, it’s worth stating explicitly that using first-person doesn’t let a writer off the hook with respect to composing a layered, nuanced protagonist. Writing “I said…” or “I believe…” doesn’t equate to simplicity.
Rule #3: Development
First-person narrators should undergo change just as their third-person counterparts do. The “I” voice in your story is, by definition, unalterably anchored to one person but that doesn’t mean its essence is fixed from first page to last. To the extent that we get to know this person intimately, to love them or hate them, or even find them unknowable, the narrator still needs to embark on a psychological journey. The self-referential “I” is a constant, but the character’s motives and degrees of self-awareness should fluctuate. Lestat, after all, proves an unreliable narrator with shifting desires—alternately bloodthirsty, smug, ambitious, and remorseful.
Adhering to such rules takes patience, persistence, and a hell of a lot of writing and revision. The author Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn) lamented that a lengthy early draft of one of his novels culminated in “psychotherapy drivel.”
Alas, writing drivel is easy to do when wrangling the first-person voice. Here are some of the POV traps writers often fall into while trying to master the form’s particular aspects of constraint, complexity, and character development.
Pitfall #1: Over-relying on the power of “I”
The easiest error is to fall back on sentences that begin with “I” because, after all, you’re in the head of an “I” person. This is a prose-killing mistake. Imagine getting through an entire book with this cadence:
I walked into the living room, where both my sisters were already seated on the couch. I asked them who called this meeting. Sally said she did, but I didn’t believe her. I looked at Toni but she didn’t say a word. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, but I couldn’t leave just yet.
This passage lacks meaningful context and subtext; the “I” here is rather airless. We may technically be locked into one skull, but that’s all the more reason to craft a narrator with the power to imaginatively describe interior and exterior landscapes (physical and psychological) as well as to surmise (or project) what others are thinking and feeling in relation to one another as well as toward themselves. Doing so will help you to de-center your narrator’s consciousness, so that the scene isn’t all about, or only about, them.
In The Fault in Our Stars, John Green accomplishes this by turning “I” into “we” in some scenes, which essentially pulls the camera back away from a perpetual close-up:
We had a big Cancer Team meeting a couple of days later. Every so often, a bunch of doctors and social workers and physical therapists and whoever else got together around a big table in a conference room and discussed my situation…
Pitfall #2: Sticking readers with a boring narrator
If you’re going to lock us into one skull, please let it be a very busy and interesting one. (If you make the first error, you’re likely to make this one, as well.) A dull narrator has banal thoughts, participates in low-stakes events or waits passively for things to happen, and doesn’t do enough to help us get to know other characters, let alone chew on the scenery a little. These narrators aren’t people, they’re weak filters for storytelling. (If they were my tour guides at an exotic locale, I’d fire them.) They lack a distinct point of view and aren’t sufficiently wrestling with their own conscience and the outside world. A boring narrator suffocates the reader and doesn’t do enough work on their behalf. We need people like Mark Watney in Andy Weir’s The Martian, whose fierce intelligence continually shines through while he’s trapped on Mars:
First, I put on an EVA suit. Then I close the inner airlock door, leaving the outer door (which the bedroom is attached to) open. Then I tell the airlock to depressurize. It thinks it’s just pumping the air out of a small area, but it’s actually deflating the whole bedroom.
Pitfall #3: Over-limiting what the narrator can know or do
This is so damn tricky. One head, one heart. Everyone else is unknowable and your narrator can’t, in fact, see through walls, so how is she to know a murder’s taking place in the next room? In fiction, we can draw on the heightened capacities of all five senses to generate hunches, incite a narrator to action, and create every shade of emotion. We can also deploy time, through flashbacks and other devices, to give our narrator scope to think, feel, and act. A narrator may, for instance, dream that a murder is underway in the next room, and awaken to the sound of muffled screams. Life offers endless possibilities for the “I” character to venture far afield, literally and figuratively. Even interior thought can be made as lively as a high-speed car chase, as in this passage from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre:
What a consternation of soul was mine that dreary afternoon! How all my brain was in tumult, and all my heart in insurrection! Yet in what darkness, what dense ignorance, was the mental battle fought! I could not answer the ceaseless inward question—why I thus suffered…
Pitfall #4: Confusing the narrator with you, the author
We’re discussing fiction here, not memoir. Every author brings aspects of their own personality into their writing, but don’t reduce your first-person narrator to you. As Doris Lessing observed, “It’s amazing what you find out about yourself when you write in the first person about someone very different from you.” Lessing may be right, but you want to avoid slipping into an intimate “I” voice that turns out to be you—the way you speak, your likes and dislikes, your foibles, unless you’re crafting a roman à clef. Remember that your goal is to create a multifaceted fictional character who lives in, and is shaped by, the world of the book. That’s not you, or your world—or not exactly.
By now, you may feel yourself cautiously backing away from using first-person POV. and to be honest, you’re right to be skeptical. It should not be a default choice, but rather a highly examined one.
Imagine how different the Harry Potter series would seem if J.K. Rowling had elected to let Harry narrate his own hero’s journey. Her choice of omniscient voice defines the books’ collective DNA.
How do you know if first-person POV is right for your story?
Begin by asking three key questions. If the answer to any of the questions is a resounding yes (you are as sure as you can be), then first-person POV might be the best choice. If you’re unsure or the answer to all three is no, you’re probably better off avoiding first-person altogether.
- Is the main character undergoing an experience, journey, crisis, or series of events that is truly unique? That is, whatever is happening to this character isn’t happening to anyone else, even if others are around to bear witness in some fashion. (The Martian’s stranded astronaut is a case in point.)
- Have you invented a protagonist with especially sharp powers of observation? Someone who is perhaps very “voicey” or, as Rachel Kushner says, the narrator is “very knowing, so that the reader is with somebody who has a take on everything they observe.” (think of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. He’s too obnoxious to be spoken for in third person.)
- Do you want the reader to over-identify with the protagonist? Some genre fiction (notably, but not exclusively, romance and detective fiction) deliberately erase almost all distance between reader and protagonist as a way to maximize the reader’s entertainment and enjoyment. Crime writer Patricia Cornwell openly confesses, “In the first person, the readers feel smart, like it’s them solving the case.”
Writing a compelling first-person novel requires creative ingenuity, extraordinary empathy, and, I believe, a boatload of courage. Never assume that the “I” voice is the easy way to go, because it never is. But if your heart’s set on charting this course, then please write the most compelling, infuriating, conflicted character you possibly can. Confuse us, infuriate us, and make us fall in love with the skull where you’ve stuck us for the next several hours.
Examples of First-Person Character Traits
Explore some of your choices for the protagonist’s voice
Distinctive/Obtrusive. Opinionated, loud, obnoxious, ditzy, immature, etc. The protagonist’s voice cannot be confused with anyone else’s and the reader is often forced to pay attention to the protagonist’s wants and needs. Comes in handy for unreliable narrators.
Reliable. A truth-teller trusted by the reader. Likely an admirable hero, a character who inspires respect and masters adversity in an ethical way. But we still want complexity and conflict (not Dudley Do-Right). Often shows up as the worthy love interest in a romance.
Reticent/Recessive. Protagonist focuses on others rather than self. The words “I” and “me” are used sparingly and the reader’s attention is not constantly on the protagonist. Female heroines in historical fiction are sometimes deployed in this way. So are neuro-divergent characters, such as Eleanor Olyphant.
Observant. Sharply notices the world around them and reports out with detailed or evocative language. May be a good choice for a novel with many personalities and a lot of action or adventure. Good for complex world-building as well.
Unobservant. Scenery and environs seem to go unnoticed, usually because the protagonist is fixated on other things (interior or exterior). A neurotic (but hopefully entertaining and redeemable) protagonist might fit this bill.
Amy L. Bernstein writes stories that let readers feel while making them think. Her novels include The Potrero Complex, finalist for the 2020 Petrichor Prize; the award-winning The Nighthawkers; Dreams of Song Times; and Fran, The Second Time Around. Amy’s poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies and she is a regular contributor on Medium. She is an award-winning journalist, speechwriter, playwright, and certified nonfiction book coach. Amy also teaches workshops on various aspects of the craft of writing. She is a frequent guest on podcasts to discuss writing, publishing, and creativity. She lives and writes in Baltimore, Maryland, which often inspires her poetry and fiction.
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