The allure of first person is strong"”it's edgy, intimate, and goes down as easy as gossip. In the era of Facebook, we are writing more than ever"”and almost all of it in first person. It's a small step from detailing reality to detailing dreams"”and from there, to detailing the events of a story. And with the success of many such ventures, why not? There is something powerfully emotional and immediate about first person, especially when we are so used to connecting with people via their online lives. And all the practice we receive from our own journaling makes first person both an approachable and natural form of narration.
But, while writing a journal"”online or otherwise"”provides excellent writing practice, when it comes to your actual story, there are a few important differences. For one, your online journal has context: you! For another, the reader has no expectations of an entertaining, immersive, world-shaking story from an online journal.
We care about online journals because they belong to real people"”it gives it a sense of importance lacking in fiction. But once you know it's "merely" another work of fiction, the bar raises"”as do your expectations. In order to keep the magic, it's important to understand the tricks"”and traps--of first person narration, as well as how to control the context and expectations of the story.
Voice Is Everything
Voice is always important"”but never more so than in a first person story. First person stories force an intimacy between reader and narrator unlike any other story. And, speaking as a reader, if that intimacy is abused by a narrator voice I don't fancy, it doesn't matter how compelling the story is--I will put that book down. It's a knee-jerk reaction, the same as if that unlikeable voice were whispering in your ear. Just as a particularly good voice can get me excited about just about anything--from the history of the sea cucumber to the secret lives of washcloths.
So, take a little time. Think about those voices you've heard that can still a buzzing room without raising their volume. The voices that could say anything and make it music to your ears. The voices that silence the voice inside your head and fill the cavity of your skull with their own resonant tones. And then try to craft an engaging first person voice with those same qualities. Remember: many of the tricks that work for you as a person will read incredibly differently coming from an unknown character on paper. Being unduly negative can easily unite readers against you, rather than inciting empathy as it would were you to use it with people who know you for a good, relatable person.
Don't Be a Camera
In first person, if your narrator doesn't see it, smell it, feel it, hear it, or taste it, it didn't happen. There is no room for the reader to learn of things that the narrator doesn't also know. Unless, of course, your character is a psychic. Or a total assumptive ass. But then we go back to unlikeable narrators again"¦
Of course, it's not just about limiting the events to those the narrating character has observed. It's also thinking about what that character would have observed"”and what they would have missed or deemed unimportant. Your narrator isn't a movie camera of +5 to incredible accuracy. Your narrator is a person, with interests, likes, dislikes, and all-too-human foibles. They won't notice every detail, and their observations will be colored with their personal tastes and beliefs. It means something if King Arthur, when riding to confront Mordred, notices the red poppies sprinkling the field"”or sees only his wayward son. We will learn as much about your hero by what they notice in a scene"”and, more importantly, how they describe and react to it"”as by what they don't. Which means that the reader, like your character, won't have all the answers.
Choose Your Distance
First person is in many ways defined by its audience and its distance. First person can be used to create incredible distance between the events of the story and the reader by way of a chatty, conversational narration that emphasizes the fact that the narrator is telling a story and reduces the perception of risk to the narrator. It's the difference between telling us the old lady screamed and just showing her screaming. It can also be used to pull the reader into a tight, intimate, immediate narration that seek to eliminate even the small distance of tight third person narration, making the reader feel as though they could just slip into the narrator's skin"”as though there is no narration, only a story that they are experiencing.
I love a strong, distant first person"”but this style, even more than close first person narration, lives and dies with the quality of the voice. Such narrators are inherently and delightfully unreliable, as they are often very aware of their audience and actively telling their story. Clever authors (like Nabokov, in Lolita) often leave us narrative "tells," cluing us in to when the narrator is telling"”or stretching"”the truth. This leaves it up to the reader to figure out the metastory behind the narrator's true goals in sharing their adventures in such a fashion. This style also lends itself well to stories presented as "real" diaries, or letters, or journals.
Tight first person narrations are ambitious. Recounting the emotions, sensations, and reactions directly in a first person narration, this voyeuristic style is more action-oriented and less conversational, making it seem as though the narrator is unaware of the reader's observation. The voice is less important, which shifts the emphasis to what is detailed--or left undetailed. Tight first person stories do not mimic a journal, but instead mimic immediate experience, inviting the reader to inhabit the narrator's skin, at least for the expanse of the story. To identify, and to accept the main characters' thoughts, feelings, and actions as their own. I love this style particularly when used to try to help us identify with someone with whom we otherwise would never risk empathy.
Death Is Not an Option
Just as it's hard to seriously worry for the survival of a friend who chats with you over coffee about past misadventures, it's equally hard to worry about the survival or success of a character when you get the impression they've already survived and succeeded in at least most of their ventures, by the mere fact that they're telling you the story. Imposing a measure of distance through a framing device, setting up the narration as something that could end with the story or the narrator's death, as in The Handmaid's Tale"”can help alleviate this. As can the use of multiple first person narrators, though that necessitates truly strong and differentiated voices for each of the narrators.
Of course, it's not necessary to fear for the character's life to be invested in a story. There are many terrible or wonderful things that can happen to the narrator"”like love, betrayal, and other soap opera dynamics"”while leaving the narrator intact enough to tell a story.
Ground Your Story
Of course, you don't have to write the entire book in first person for it to be an effective tool. R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt effectively shows the use of first person narration, in the form of diary entries every so often, as a means of grounding the reader in an otherwise third-person story. This works particularly well for Drizzt because Drizzt is a mysterious character of some restraint, and we feel privileged to be able to get a peek inside such a character's mind and emotions where no one else does. The same technique can also be used to bridge larger expanses of time, or to tell a greater story by way of several smaller stories.
First person is a delicate but rich point of view to write from. While tricky, it offers a breadth of ways to connect with a reader simply not possible in third person. And even if you choose not to write in first person, it makes for a wonderful exercise for getting inside your third person characters' heads.