First Person, Singular

Me that ‘ave been what I’ve been–
Me that ‘ave gone where I’ve gone —
Me that ‘ave seen what I’ve seen —

There are many reasons I prefer to read and write in first person, singular (past tense, if anyone is keeping track.)

It is not true that the first and most important of these is that by the time I came into science fiction and fantasy I was told no one — certainly no one with any professionalism — SHOULD write in first person singular.

It might count towards it that while I was in college I was told the impersonal or “camera eye” third person was the highest form of art.

Something there is in me — as mom used to say — that can’t see a well-painted wall wall without going up to scratch it and see what’s underneath.

I don’t listen well.  I don’t obey well.  And I love the shrieks of outrage at first person by people who, frankly couldn’t do it.

But the reasons I LIKE first person are cogent and rational.  Some of them are anchored to the times we live in, and some of them are universal.  There are also disadvantages of course, and some of them can be overcome with a “sufficient amount of craft.”  And I’m working on that.  I have overcome enough of them that my work is acceptable and even enjoyable (I presume, since books earn out) but I’m not perfect at it yet.  I’m working on it, okay?  Probably will be till the end of my life.

1- The main reason I like first person singular is that for a moment it tricks you into that space behind the eyes of another person, relieving the loneliness of that narrative voice that can only ever describe your own life.

This is a universal and enduring quality.  I’ve had teachers tell me — and to an extent they’re right — that first person is “less believable” because you KNOW you haven’t done those things.

To which I counter that WELL done, with the right balance of external activity and internal dialogue, with just enough of a “touch of nature makes the whole world kin” i.e. of physical sensation that the readers, too, have experienced, it can make you feel it is happening/happened to you.  What you’re doing, with less fraudulent (but, if you’re even worth half your salt, just as mercenary) intent than certain psychologists is creating false memories in your readers.  Memories that form almost instantly, of having been someone else, in QUITE different circumstances.

There is something about hearing someone tell you their up close and personal first person story that makes it more believable.  This is how we heard our first stories.  “When I was young…”  “When I was in a ship boarded by a German sub, during World War II…”

Me that ‘ave watched ‘arf a world
‘Eave up all shiny with dew,
Kopje on kop to the sun,
An’ as soon as the mist let ’em through
Our ‘elios winkin’ like fun —
Three sides of a ninety-mile square,
Over valleys as big as a shire —
“Are ye there? Are ye there? Are ye there?”
An’ then the blind drum of our fire . . .

And then we integrate it.  We are there, with that person we can’t avoid believing, because, well, it’s first person and they should know.

2- The timely function of that effect of first person, in our time and place, is that reading and writing are really the ONLY thing that can cause that effect.

When you’re watching a movie, you’re very much from the outside, looking in.  You’re seeing interesting things happen.  Sure, it still messes with your memories, but mostly your memories of “I’ve seen things happen.”  Like, you find that movies have corrupted your idea of how things work.  You find that you end up describing bars, not as they are, but as you’ve seen them in a dozen movies.  You find you end up describing Paris the way Paris has been shown to you in movies, instead of how you saw it, crossing it early morning in the dim light of autumn in a bus full of bakers and cleaning ladies heading out to their work.

But that’s “have seen” memory, not “have experienced” memory.  You don’t BECOME movie heroes, even if you want to.  Part of the reason Hollywood is obsessed with “What character can the reader identify with” is because movies NEED it.  Otherwise they’re just impersonal reality passing before your eyes.

The same applies to camera eye third person, but NOT to close in, directed third person (more on that later.)

3- Because it allows you to lie to the reader without infuriating him.  Take Athena, please (my Lord, she’s loud.)  Because she is herself and she has her own blind spots due to having grown up in her culture, she can lie to the reader without playing silly buggers.

She’s not lying, you see, and by implication neither am I, even though she is an unreliable narrator who sees her world upside down and sideways, from assuming her father was attacked, to a lot of other things.

Had the book been third person, the reader would have the feeling of being lied to, because I would have had to lie to them.  It would be my voice telling the story, and SURELY I knew I was telling lies.  (Actually I didn’t, but that’s a natural assumption.)

Again, third person close in can overcome some of that, but it’s still difficult.

There is a reason first person close in is the preferred view point for cozy mysteries and that Agatha Christie used it so much.

Now the disadvantages of first person, singular:

1- You’re locked in a one-person viewpoint.  This means if your character is not in the center of the action, you can’t be.

I experienced this in writing a book from the perspective of Zen, Kit’s sister, (Through Fire) who is a stranger on Earth.  She can’t lead a revolution.  She can’t even — really — live everyday life on Earth, unattended.  Because she doesn’t KNOW much about Earth or its systems.  The best she can do is fight for herself and those she loves.

2- First person lacks perspective.  Particularly in an historical, you can’t show the macro movements of history through one, first person character.  If your character gets stuck in traffic on the way to overthrowing the government, that’s what you have.  And it’s frustrating and might be explody, but it’s not the macro movements of history.  (Even though it’s more accurate to how most people experience revolutions.

3- If you’re a novice at plotting, you might have trouble showing the danger or the tic-toc of the plotting clock winding down, or the urgency of finding the girl/dog/bomb RIGHT now.

Note in the above I don’t include “you Mary Sue the main character.”  That is a vice of all novice writers, and I haven’t found that writing first person makes you more or less prone to it.

There are ways to get around some of these, including for first, little insertions in third person.  You find this in some Women In Peril work. for second and third, you can have quotes, newspapers, and friends who arrive bearing bad tidings.  Not perfect, but there it is.  Also, you can always have your main character caught in traffic IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ACTION.

Note that third person close in — i.e. when each section you are in the mind of a character to such an extent you ARE that character (see, for instance, what I did in Witchfinder which, weirdly, many of the reviewers thought was first person), can overcome the issues of third-person-camera-eye and the issues of first person singular.  One of the great freedoms is the ability to “jump heads.”  (Though if you’re in SF/F you shouldn’t jump heads except at the end of a chapter or section, and you should indicate the jump with asterisks or ash marks separating the sections.  In Romance, head jumping is expected and almost demanded by the fans.)

Third person close in is inferior to first person in ONLY one thing. It’s not as immediate and convincing.  The head jumping allows for stronger plotting, but you didn’t endure the emotional arc of events with ONE person, so it’s not as much a part of you.

Writing is all about trades.  And yes, there are right and wrong ways to do both first person singular and third person close in, and… — and I’ll be glad to let you partake the meager knowledge and experience I’ve accumulated so far.

But you shouldn’t write third person camera eye, unless what you’re writing is supposed to be experienced as a script.  And not as lived, experienced reality.

Me that saw Barberton took
When we dropped through the clouds on their ‘ead,
An’ they ‘ove the guns over and fled —
Me that was through Di’mond ‘Ill,
An’ Pieters an’ Springs an’ Belfast —
From Dundee to Vereeniging all —
Me that stuck out to the last
(An’ five bloomin’ bars on my chest) —

Unless, of course, you are an AI camera.

43 Comments

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43 responses to “First Person, Singular

  1. Draven

    A funny thing happened on the way to overthrowing the government…

  2. Gah! Clear as mud. No fault of yours, I don’t know enough.
    I’ve been bouncing back and forth in separate attempts..

  3. Ah, “Chant – Pagan”. 🙂

    I wonder if first person is easier for plotters, at least in the beginning, because of sketching out how things are going to go and what happens when and where, so the author can see potential pacing and tension problems in advance. I speculate only because I’ve tried first person singular once, and it was to tell a story readers already knew, but from a different POV. Knowing the plot in advance made it relatively easy.

    • I don’t know. It’s easier for me, and I was no plotter.

    • Reality Observer

      Sounds familiar… When thinking out a scene, I’m living in the head of each character – that lets me see the conflicts (from stupid misunderstanding to “good/evil” differences).

      But I typically write in “third/close” mode once I know what is going on in everyone’s head (to some degree, a character has sometimes given me the look of “What do you think you’re writing there, that’s not me…”).

  4. Martin L. Shoemaker

    I’ve heard the advice: Don’t write in first person.

    I’ve also heard: Unless you have a reason to do otherwise, write in third person past. This is less dogmatic, and I think it’s a good rule of thumb but with plenty of exceptions. (Oddly, when I hear this advice with its huge caveat, other people hear: Don’t write in first person.)

    But it appears I don’t listen very well. Of my original sales, almost half have been first person. Of everything I’ve written, 40% are first person.

    I don’t set out to write first person by design (except for my Carver and Aames series: those started out first person, so I stick with that for consistency). It’s all a matter of what I hear in my head as I start writing. If I hear a character talking to me, I write first person. If I hear an action scene or characters arguing or something else with multiple points of view, I usually write third person, unless one of those characters dominates my opening.

    I don’t have enough data to know if it’s helping or hurting my sales, so I’m not going to fret about it. I’ll just keep writing what and how the voices in my head tell me to write.

  5. Good thing no one told Raymond Chandler, Robert B. Parker, John D. McDonald and Robert Heinlein never to write in first person. We’d have lost some fine reading.

  6. Larry’s Monster Hunter books wouldn’t be the same without Owen’s first-person whinging.

  7. There are a number of tricks you can deploy to get the benefits of first person singular without the downside — for example, there’s no rule that says you can’t have other characters in separate chapters from their own first-person PoVs, which can be very handy when your main PoV character is forced to stay behind on the ship while the landing party encounters aliens.

    You can also pull the document trick — naive main character stumbles on a briefing in the form of a dossier, newspaper story, broadcast, etc., that quickly sketches out the background facts, avoiding the pages of dialog required to convey the same information. Especially handy if no one in the tale knows that information — the lost library terminal in a post-nuclear wasteland, the alien recordings, etc.

    • I love doing this — creating a document, letter, diary entry for the purposes of advancing the story, especially since I can do a completely different style/voice. There was a lovely adventure story I read as a teenager, Robert Lewis Taylor’s The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, which alternated the first person voice of the juvenile narrator with the diary entries of his father – completely different voice and perspective.

      • Yep. There are tricks you can use.

        • Reality Observer

          As with all tricks, though, very carefully. I’ve seen some (and by well-known authors) that didn’t take sufficient care with the viewpoint switching; made me wish for a knife to cut the strings I somehow got all tangled up in…

          Nowhere near the level to try that one myself.

  8. adventuresfantastic

    I’m not sure what it says about me, but I have a tendency to prefer both reading and writing stories that are in first person. Must be all those detective stories I grew up reading (for biological definitions of “grew up”; other definitions may not apply.)

  9. I’ve had teachers tell me — and to an extent they’re right — that first person is “less believable” because you KNOW you haven’t done those things.

    Isn’t this more an argument against second person narrative? (“You are walking down the street. You meet a large, green dragon.”) Most of the folks I’ve had contact with seldom confuse i-the-narrator with I-the-reader. I have similar issues with stories narrated in present tense. i KNOW that these events are not happening as I read them and pause (like a DVD video) whenever I close the book.

      • Martin L. Shoemaker

        My theory is someone did it once, as a challenge, to prove it could be done. And then it became trendy.

        As a reader, I prefer third past, closely followed by first past. I hate any form of present, but I can accept it in first present (not so much, third present, unless I really like the story otherwise).

        Second? I’m done. The only excuse I’ve seen where it makes sense is choose your own adventure fiction.

        • Quibble. I’ve seen it work in narrator asides ala “Long ago when your grandfather was a child.” . But outside of that, yes. Second person *shudders*

          • Yes. For a short bit it can work. The best “common” example I can think of is the introduction to Dragnet (radio version): “You’re a homicide detective…” and then it switches to third person for the story.

            • Well, if we’re drawing examples from radio, in all but the earliest episodes, the titular narrator, The Whistler, always told his “strange story” as though he were telling it to the protagonist: “Yes, Arnold, you were so clever, luring the old man to the abandoned farmhouse with your talk of buried treasure…”

              (Disclaimer: not an actual quote — at least as far as I know!)

            • CS Lewis used several 2nd person asides in his Narnia Chronicles. But it tended to be along the lines of “You have never seen such clothes and I can only just remember them.” and “And now, you’re probably wondering what happened to Edmund.” But yes, they tend to be very brief as the narrator addresses the reader and adds context or something stylistic rather than the story being set in them.

        • Holly

          What I don’t like about first, as a reader, is I lose the character. So someone says “Hey Joe,” or “Hi, Blue-eyes,” and I don’t know if they’re addressing the POV or if the POV’s overhearing someone else’s conversation.
          Present is just irritating, like a stone in your shoe: if it’s a riveting enough story I can ignore it for a while.

      • There’s a very effective Fredric Brown short-short (whose title escapes me at the moment) that could not have been written except in second person. But that’s about it.

    • Keep in mind most teachers haven’t actually DONE anything, so that could be correct from their POV…

  10. I can write short stories in first person, but not novels. Maybe because I like multiple POVs. The short novel I’m currently beating into shape has a single third person POV. It was an interestingly different experience to write it, staying in one head they whole way.

    I’m trying a first person novel, but it stalled out when I needed to stop for world building and figuring out rules for time travel.

    I may make that a personal side-challenge, so-to-speak, for NaNoWriMo this year. Because I like reading first person.

  11. Good points on the pros and cons of the different styles.

    To me, it’s all about the kind of story I’m trying to tell. If the novel in question is big on world building, lots of POVs are likely to be important to develop different aspects of the setting, so third person is usually my choice (although in a pedantic “artistic” fit, my first novel was mostly written in the third person except for one character’s scenes, which were written in the first person. I got some complaints about that, but the book’s done well enough that I have no regrets). For more personal stories, a single POV, first person narrative usually feels right, pretty much for the reasons you state.

    And I truly don’t give a rat’s (pick a rodent’s worst body part here) how I’m ‘supposed’ to be writing, be it POV, genre, etc. If it’s something I would like to read (and I have rather eclectic tastes), I’ll write it. So far I’ve done vanilla 3rd-person past tense, mixed 1st-3rd, 3rd-person present tense and first person past tense (my current WIP is a first-person story). Don’t think I’ll do second person; I can’t say I’ve enjoyed reading anything in written that way.
    .

  12. But that’s “have seen” memory, not “have experienced” memory.

    Not quite the same, but I’ve noticed that my memory for names & faces is.. shall we say, tending toward long latencies. I wonder how much is simply me not caring who most people are. (“Do you know who I am?” “Why, did you forget?” Thank you Animaniacs) And how much is that my media intake was largely television for some time, and if a character appeared one saw the character and no introduction was needed. But listening to, say, a Bob Hope radio performance, one hears the audience react and then Bob (or someone) greets the person who just appeared on stage by name (“Why, Betty Hutton!”) so the listening audience knows.

    I know this is not the ultimate explanation, as I am often greeted by name by those much younger than myself (who likely never heard a radio show, or precious few at least). And I reply with a generic greeting, even if I do know them – there is still a sort of name-lag that I have.

  13. Margaret Ball

    Another advantage of first person: your character can laugh at himself. Try this in third person and it may come across as author sneering at character. Look at Lois Bujold’s Vorkosigan books: they’re mostly written in tight third person, but when Miles realizes he’s screwed up, she jumps into his head for a moment, usually indicating the shift by italicizing his thoughts.

    • Oh, yeah, italicizing thoughts and NOT saying “he thought” is one of the tricks to make “third person close in” feel like first. Coff. Do you know how many years it took me to figure this out? YEARS.

    • I learned slowly despite having examples of best-practices in front of my face every waking hour. For a while there, I was the Writer of No Future. Then I got a clue.

  14. I hate writing in third person and really do prefer to write in first. But with all of the people who scream about how you should never write in first, I have forced myself to write the books in one of my ‘worlds’ in third.

    And at times it’s like pulling teeth.

    (Which is funny, cause the PNR I write under a pen name is all third person and I don’t have a problem with that. Then agian, maybe because I’m pretending to be someone else? But I digress.)

    The thing with first person that I’m having the most trouble with currently is that I’m looking at a story which will have 3 different characters in the same book, all of whom have been told in 1st person prior to this. So I’m wondering, do I just pick one of them? OR, do this thing I’ve seen done before, where instead of chapter numbers, each chapter gets the Name of the character whose head you’ll be inside? I really don’t want to third person it, because no other books in that world have been third personed.

    And the thing is, I really do believe that readers prefer first to third in the majority of cases. Because like you said, it really does put you IN the action.

    • Then I must be a very odd reader, because a large chunk of first person narratives irritate the fire out of me. I much prefer third reading and writing.

  15. TRX

    The “never write in first person” and “it’s totally okay to make up your own tenses” people can babble all they want.

    The majority of books I’ve liked to *read* have been in first person.

  16. Apparently the mainstream book biz is rebounding so well, B&N is going to start selling alcohol to make up for the lost revenue. https://pjmedia.com/instapundit/237583/#respond

    This could be trouble. I might get sloshed and read a Nebula or Hugo Award winner by mistake. Just think of the DT’s! Talk about your dangerous visions!