On Writing in the First Person

At least four of my fourteen novels were written (mostly) using the first person point of view.

Here’s an extract from The Tainted as an example:

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.

I think I make a good job of writing in the first person. 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 linear 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 the main male protagonist from what the narrator says long before the narrator herself realises exactly what the man does for a living. 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 addition, it was written as an oral history recorded by an ethnographer, and the “I” could therefore be changed to another character, at different times. 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 himself 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.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to using the first person narrative that is not obvious. There are a stack of people out there who simply won’t pick up a book written that way, on the apparent assumption that they won’t like it. Not just a few, but a surprisingly large percentage. Now I can understand someone saying, “I don’t read chick-lit” or, “I don’t read Westerns”. We all have our preferences. But the books within each of these genres have a lot in common within one another, and it is probably this commonality that is the source of their dislike.

To say you won’t read something written in the first person kinda sounds to me like saying, “I don’t read books with red covers”. First person stories have only ONE thing in common – the first person viewpoint. To say you won’t like it is to banish a slew of stories on every conceivable subject matter and theme, set anywhere on, or off, earth, many of them brilliantly written, and certainly not necessarily particularly simplistic or even linear. They can still have sub plots!

Think of your conversations with friends or family: what happened when Bob broke a leg mountain climbing, or Steve had a flaming row with his dad only to be arrested for disturbing the peace, or how your cousin Mavis, who is a nurse, survived Covid? All first person stories. We listen to first person stories all the time. And mostly, we love them in real life!

Nonetheless, writers should be aware that many readers will be put off your book simply on the grounds of your choice of narrator.


On Writing in the First Person — 4 Comments

  1. First: i love your books Glenda with the 1rst person or not !

    Then: i love books with a 1rst person writting, it is a direct point if view matching so much within reality tv world, with action. Everyone seems to like the point of view of everyone saying “me”. This is so strange that people might not read a book because of a 1rst person way ^^

  2. Thanks, Vivi!
    I think it’s strange too.
    In my new book coming out soon (I don’t have an actual date yet), there is a long section of first person point of view — I sneakily hid it deeper into the story. I hope you enjoy it.

  3. If it’s done well, I don’t even NOTICE what POV it’s in. Or rather, it’s not the thing I am paying attention to. I always think (rightly or wrongly) that when someone says they “don’t like” first person or whatever, that probably there was a particular book/voice/character they read that didn’t work for them, rather than it being that specific kind of POV always being a problem for them. A good story with well developed characters will sweep you away and you don’t pay particular attention to the storyTELLER.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.