Writing in the First Person

So far I have seven novels either published or on their way to publication. Four of them were written (mostly) using the first person point of view.

My last glimpse through avian eyes appalled me: I saw birds turn into people and fall out of the sky. And then Morthred’s death swept over me, changing every particle of my body into something else.

For a moment I truly died.
There was darkness, a blackness so blanketing it contained only emptiness. Silence, an external muteness so intense I could hear the internal sounds of my body being ripped apart, particle by particle. Numbness, a lack of stimulation so pervading I felt I had no body. I thought: so this is what it is like to die.
I plunged into the darkness, into the silence, into the numbness, into that total deprivation. When I emerged, I was on the other side of death, in a life about which I understood nothing.
Everything had changed. Everything. All my senses had been altered so much I couldn’t…well, I couldn’t make sense of them.
I was Ruarth Windrider and I was human.

From The Tainted

I think I make a good job of writing in the first person. I even know of one writer who was inspired after reading my work to try the first person narrative, and as a result she has her first historical novel coming out next year, written from a first person point of view.

It’s not easy, and few writers bother to master it, believing the advantages (immediacy and intimacy with the chance for gut-wrenching action or heat-wrenching tragedy at a very personal level) are not worth the pitfalls (a possibly linnear story with a difficulty of developing sub-plots, over-emphasis on one character, only seeing the story from one side, only knowing what the “I” character knows at the time, etc).

Some of these problems can be circumvented with a little thought and ingenuity. A good writer can even have the narrator tell the reader things that they, the narrator, don’t know – in The Aware, the sharp reader could work out the profession of main male protagonist from what the narrator says long before the narrator realises exactly what the man does for a living. And she’s in love with the guy! And yet her lack of realisation comes across as a believable failure of her acumen, rather than sheer stupidity. It can be done.

Also in The Isles of Glory, the tale was framed by letters of other characters commenting on the main story teller; in adition, it was done as an oral history recorded by an ethnographer, and the “I” could therefore be changed to another character, at different times. (Think of the Wilkie Collins classic, “The Moonstone”).

In her Assassin trilogy, Robin Hobb had her main character, Fitz, able to see through the eyes of his pet wolf (dog?); at the same time, he had access to the spy network of the castle with its peepholes and listening posts – thus he could observe scenes as a non-participating unseen spy. A handy device when telling a first person story.

I chose first person for Heart of the Mirage because I thought it suited the circumstances of the main character. She is set down in an alien society, and sees everything with the eye of a stranger, just as the reader does. Because part of the time she is in disguise, she can’t ask too many questions. As such, the reader rides the adventure inside her head, wondering what is going on, striving to understand along with her.

I have, however, switched to third person point of view for Books 2, The Shadow of Tyr and Book 3, Song of the Shiver Barrens, because the circumstances change and the story widens.

And I don’t think I shall ever write a book using the first person narrative again. Why not? I’ll tell you tomorrow.


Writing in the First Person — 13 Comments

  1. wow, I’ve actually read all those books you mentioned.. and from choice, lol.

    anyways, yeah, you do write first person very well. Your Isles of Glory trilogy is very cleverly written, although to be honest I found the framing letters rather unnecessary for the first two books, but you tied it in nicely in the third.

    one of my favourite first person stories (one of my favourite stories of all time, lol) is Tanith Lee’s Claidi books. They’re written from Claidi’s POV in her journal as she battles against societly. I think rather than find a way around having the story focusing largely on the main character, she uses this to her advantage, giving a more realistic flavour.

    I have to go to a lecture in 7mins! *flees*

    PS looking forwards to your reason for not wanting to write it again…

  2. Have to agree with Ink Paw Prints. I’m very interested in why you won’t be returning to first person POV.

    Also have to admit to being a bit… hmm… unsure about switching from first to third person POVs in a trilogy. (oops, almost typed ‘series’ instead of ‘trilogy’ then!) I always thought the same format should be kept for all books in a trilogy/series.

    I tend to write short stories in first person and novels in third. Recently, I made the decision to change a trilogy from third to first. It was already a very linear story told entirely from the main character’s POV. The switch from third to first increased the dynamic tension of the story ten fold. It gave me the access to the character that third person hadn’t.

    I’ll be sure to check in tomorrow!

    Cheers, Lisa.

  3. I haven’t read those paticular ones of Tanith Lee’s. will keep a lookout for them.

    Ah, Lisa – you have just said something (the bit about being…unsure) which touches on what I will say in tomorrow’s blog!

  4. I’ve had a couple of short stories published in 1st person, and I do enjoy writing it. I like to hop around in a novel though, writing several plot threads from different viewpoint characters and then entwining them. A tight 3rd person POV is ideal for that.

  5. I’m one of those people who don’t really enjoy reading books written from a 1st person POV. I like to remain detached from the character, and not have to read about “I did this” I did that” all the time. But that’s just me. 🙂

    I DO however, like it when books are written from the POV of different chracters instead of just focusing on one main character. For example, Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is written such that every single chapter is wrriten from the POV of different individual characters, whether they are the good or evil characters. And it makes for a pretty cool ‘all-round’ perspective…

  6. Oh, and if I recall correctly, so was your Isles of Glory trilogy, which, despite being in the first perspective, also saw things from the POVs of different chracters. That’s what made me enjoy them that much more, to tell the truth – reading about the character from a 1st person, then seeing how other characters perceive that same character from THEIR POV. if that makes any sense. 😀

  7. I think the resistance is very dependent on genre. In crime, 1st person is often the pov of choice, and as an avid crime reader I have no problem with it.

    However, when it comes to other genres, eg romance and sf/fantasy, I really dislike 1st person. I consider it a testament to your writing that I’ve read and enjoyed your 1st person pov fantasy work, because generally I put it straight down again.

    And I honestly don’t think you can call a reader wrong for doing it. There is no such thing as ‘wrong’ when it comes to reader taste, or opinion. What works for me works for me. I’m not saying other people shouldn’t write or enjoy reading 1st person pov. I’m just saying that, for me, it’s usually a turn off.

    As to *why* the issue is genre-related, I couldn’t say. I think it’s just one of those things.

  8. To your list of first person must-reads add Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief (hilarious) and C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces (not strictcly fantasy, I suppose, but wonderfully wise in his observations of human folly and self-deception).

  9. Anonymous: In fact, I have a very good excuse. If I spent my time polishing up my blog posts – which I make pretty much every day, including weekends – I wouldn't have time to polish up my professional writing.

    You don't pay money to read this site; I'm not cheating you if what I write here is a below publication standard. Don't act as if I am. I assume you came here for help on writing in the first person. Accept what you find with good grace.

    And now perhaps you would like to give your excuse for hiding behind the word "Anonymous"?

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