As a narrative mode, first person is simple and flexible, making it a great place to start when setting out to write a novel. But the simplicity of the first person also means it has pitfalls and limitations that you’ll need to carefully consider as you write. The best way to learn how to write first person? Follow these strategies.
Develop an eye for good and bad narration
When it comes to first person narration, the biggest temptation is to include all the details you can about all the possible situations your character finds himself in. Instead, you want to focus deliberately on the details you include, and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination. Each bit of observation the reader brings to the story contributes to the plot — if you only include two details about your character’s situation, readers will use their imagination to fill in the narrative in between. This gives your reader a sense that he is part of this unfolding drama, and grounds him in his immersion. Like a mosaic, the story starts as just a few pieces, and then comes into view slowly — without sacrificing conflict.
While good writing is engaging, writing that’s simply “good” is often not. Sometimes, it’s hard to spot the seeds for narrative growth, be it in a sentence, a paragraph, or a section. One way to catch those is to look at the structure of sentences. Good writing has a sense of how it moves forward, and the placement of key actions is the easiest way to see that. For example, someone running down a stairs, only to slip, and to pull himself up just before he falls — that was a key action, punctuating an important sentence. This is what you’re looking for, not just in any other action, but in the transitions between actions. By observing the structure of key sentences, you can decide which are your key actions to eliminate fluff and unimportant details.
Find and define who the viewpoint character is
You need to develop not only the narrator of the story, but the plot and themes that give that character a reason to exist in the story. This is where you reveal the qualities of your narrator. What they see, how they respond, how their perception drives the plot. Figure out which of those qualities best leads to your larger themes and make what they notice about their world a reflection of it.
But how do you go up from there? Well, next you need to look at who your narrator is. Who will narrate the events of the story? How do they respond to those events? What happened to them to cause them to narrate your story? Are they limited in any way in the validity of their perceptions? Make sure you flesh out your narrator as much as possible, giving them a tangible problem or struggle as the story’s premise.
Think like your protagonist
If you know your character inside and out, though, you’ll know what they’ll do in any given situation, without having to stop to think about it in chapter-by-chapter detail. Moreover, you’ll be able to enthusiastically draw out character arcs and subplots and identify – and eliminate – inconsistencies. A good way to think about how to write a first person narrative is to picture every first-person narrative as kind of like a screenplay.
Become your protagonist and jump out of your perspective – everything you know, you’re narrating to the reader. Now start brainstorming story and character ideas. Really get a feel for who your protagonist is and what their life is like. Spend time observing other people, paying close attention to their personalities, mannerisms, and behaviors. Remember to keep a list of things that your character would notice if you were watching them. Continuing with the movie frame of mind, start to think about who can be cast as the principal players in your story. Casting the right characters in first person narrative takes planning and can make or break how people react to it.
Build a unique voice
Getting into the head of a character isn’t particularly hard to do — after all, writers spend as much time inside their characters’ heads as outside. But from the head-in-chair perspective, your self may start to sound a lot like yourself, so creating a unique voice for your character can be tricky. Begin by considering how your character’s voice will develop. How will your character think, believe, or react from the beginning of the story — and how will that change by the end? Once you know the full arc of your character’s voice, focus on what forms that will take. How will they talk, think, and react? What kinds of tics or phrases will they repeat? Take extra care that the voice you end up with is authentic to your character — her features, values, skills, and flaws all need to play into how they speak and think.
An effective way to accomplish this is to consider where and how your character is speaking. Are they speaking in a reflective, logical, detail-oriented way while they’re telling an expository story at the dinner table? Or do they narrate their life casually, with as much reflection as is typical? Are your scene set up descriptions kinetic, or do you focus on setting scenes rather than moving the plot forward? What is your character feeling — and how do they express this? And in what situations will your character exclaim or describe things in an overly positive or negative way? For extra credit, write down everything your character says during a day, and then, using this list as a resource, write a short scene that includes quotes but no dialogue tags.
Use sound to help you get into your character
Recognizing that the experience of your protagonist goes beyond the echo chamber of their own thoughts and language will provide the best foundation to writing in first person. How do noises — ambient sounds, music, conversations, etc. differ between your character’s two ears? Can you paint a picture of the atmosphere of their inner voice with words alone?
Once you have a better sense of the feeling of your character’s thoughts, you can figure out how to help your reader get an even deeper experience of them. What’s the sensory expression of your character’s innermost thoughts and feelings? First person narration offers you and your audience the opportunity to step into the body of a compelling protagonist, but it is just that — a chance. As the writer, you need to make the most of the opportunity to pull us into your protagonist’s world and provide us with as strong a sensory connection to your main character as possible.
Paint a picture of your character over time
Take a look at your character’s life and the dramatic situations she’s dealt with and think about her point of view. How would she see this? What did it look, sound, and feel like? Feel free to use any sensory manipulation your character employs — but more important than any of that, is for you to follow the path of her thought process. What’s her day-to-day life like? What was her favorite season or weather when she was younger? What books or movies has she seen that represent the way she perceives the world? The answer to each of these questions is somewhere near her heart, and touching on those places will do wonders for your overall characterization of the character.
Once you have a feel for what your character is like, try moving around inside her head. What would she say about herself before getting into the story? When things spin out of control, does she consider giving up? Does she have a savior voice in her head frequently arguing to end the streak of bad luck. Has she considered giving up or starting over? Write down everything that pops into her head. Let her thoughts flow until they’re tied directly back to her entry point. You can choose to tell or not tell a lot of background details but remember that just because you don’t include it doesn’t mean that it’s not present in your mind. This layer of detail will be helpful when you write your story.
Find the right balance between telling and showing
With a first person point of view comes the intricate work of keeping your narrator from telling the reader what to feel. You want to make sure your narrator’s voice never goes beyond your character’s own voice, no matter how much you may want to show how you think the story should unfold. If the narrator jumps into exposition about whatever happened in the future, or tells us things got better when we see them disheartened in the present, then it feels like they’re jumping the gun, and it throws the reader out of the story. Let the reader feel for themself. That doesn’t mean you can never ever tell in first person narration, only that you should save your info dumps for dialogue and soundbites.
As with every other point of view, it’s also important for first person narrators to avoid telling the reader their own thoughts and feelings. Thoughts and feelings are things that happen inside the character’s head, and you, as author, shouldn’t try to expose them directly. Instead, you should provide the first person narrator with “verbs of thinking” — like wonder, or remember, or hope — that intensify or supplement their dialogue and actions in the story without letting on what they’re actually thinking.
Description is sequential but dialog should jump
Think about your favorite books and movies. There are a lot of “film stories” in there which require huge amounts of description, but the dialog is all flying quickly from one thought to the other. One person will make a quick quip or reveal some valuable information, while the other responds. In a first person account, jump when your character does. You can’t be expected to describe every little detail, so move swiftly from one thought or action to the next. That said, descriptions should still be solidly placed within the context of the story. If a random character visited town, he may likely feature in conversation at some point.
Likewise, you’ll want to use transition paragraphs if you suddenly introduce a new thought or character. This isn’t Jane Austen — your characters don’t each have time to check their snuff boxes and insult each other’s manners in the span of a paragraph before they’re off to the races again with their personalities. If you want to catch the reader up on something they’ve missed, you can use an action to do it, with a bit of description. Otherwise, if you’ve ever watched a movie and felt that something about a character seemed like it happened “off-screen,” it’s time to submit.
Tone, voice, and narrative device are all part of style, and as you learn the basics of how to write in first person, it’s essential that you study and incorporate all three. Consistency matters especially when it comes to the “I”’ character — who he is and how his views clash with the changing nature of the world around him are the heart of a first-person narrative. You can get excess personality into the narrative by using colorful expressions to paint some scenes, and then fading into obscurity in others. Tag lines, descriptions, side remarks and accompanying thoughts should all be “in character”.
If you switch perspectives within a novel, make sure your readers understand at once which “I” is relaying the information. Put a subtle, on-screen signal, like a different colored name, icon, or symbol in the upper right-hand corner. You can also vary the tone of the novel slightly to signal the change, though this only works with bigger style/opinion shifts in perspective. If you set out to write a first-person novel and later find your writing style or voice fading in and out for some section, consider revising your work into another narrative.
Remember, your reader wants to be the inside person — – not to just hear about some other person’s life, but to live it. So if you’re going to do this, do it well and really push yourself. With a few exceptions that hone it to perfection, a novel is way, way too long for a first-person perspective. And, as with every other thing you write, your story should be portrayed in a direct, vivid and interesting way that doesn’t strain the reader’s credulity or worse, bore them to death. So ditch the books that aren’t working and rewrite until you’ve got it.
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