Should I Write My Book in First Person?

FIRST PERSON point of viewMy advice for most writers; if First Person doesn’t suit your writing style, your story and your genre, don’t use it.

If you want a good rundown on positive reasons, look at Ingrid Sundberg’s five-point analysis; all five are valid. Her next post is “Six Limitations of the First Person POV.” Read that one, too.

 But It’s Easy

Yes, deceptively easy. As in, easy to do, hard to do well. In fact, First Person is one of the hardest styles of writing to do properly. Note that I use the term “style,” because First Person is more than just putting “I” in as the main character’s pronoun. It’s how you write it that makes the difference.

You read all those articles that talk about how First Person connects the reader closely to the main character, and how it makes the emotions of the character more believable, and how it focuses the reader’s attention on one character. If done properly, it does all those things.

But What if It Doesn’t ?

The caveat for all of these positives is that it’s just not that easy to pull it off, especially for some writers for some stories.

For example:

Type of Writer

If you like readers to see things from different points of view, don’t choose First Person. No matter how you try, you’ll always be slipping in information that you really want the reader to know, but the first-person MC has no way of knowing. If you’re the type of writer that likes to give your own interpretation, don’t do First Person. You’re intruding into a private conversation between character and reader.

Type of Story

First Person is limited because you can’t tell the reader anything the MC doesn’t experience for him or herself. If your tale is action-oriented, with a whole lot of things happening in different settings, don’t put it in First. Only use this method if all of the real conflict happens in the MC’s head. Otherwise you will be tempted to really step over the line and write a multi-POV action story in Third Person with one character in First.

I have rarely seen a writer brave (or naïve) enough to try this trick, and never seen one that carried it off. The problem is that if you’re doing your First Person thing correctly, the reader is closely involved, comes to the end of a chapter, and is then expected to jump into some complete stranger’s head. It doesn’t work.

And do I need to mention the worst of the worst? A two-POV book with both MCs in First Person. Scary. Especially if they’re on opposite sides of the conflict. Seeing both sides of a conflict is a great tension-reducing technique. Is that what you want?

Genre (and Audience)

As with other techniques, this style works better in some genres than others. Chick Lit and Romance work great in First, but you better hit the right note for those readers. Action Adventure? Not so much, and the readers won’t appreciate it even if you nail it.

Gender of Writer

I know I’m treading on hallowed ground here, but female writers are usually better at First Person than male writers. I have noticed this especially when I’m teaching storytelling, which is often spoken in the First Person. Women tend to reveal events where emotion is important, and perform that emotion strongly. They do not find it difficult to express their feelings. Men tend to talk about actions, and the characters being themselves, they cannot get away from the self-image that wants to play, “It was tough, but no sweat for me.” Many male storytellers I have coached have a great deal of trouble portraying a situation in which they were frightened. And it’s the same with all the other emotions in a first-person story. Whatever your gender, you have to be willing to spill your feelings out where everyone can see them. If you’re not that sort of person, use Third Person Limited.

Just in Case You’re Confused

And don’t forget, the gamut of Third Person styles runs all the way from very objective to as subjective as you want. You can make Third Person Limited as touchy-feely inside-the-head as First Person, but with a slight filter to give the author some objectivity. In Third Person Limited, you are recognizing your limitation; you cannot be that other person. In First Person you have no safety net. If you don’t get it right, you look pretty silly standing out there in front of everyone pretending to be someone you’re not.

I’m not saying a 70-year-old man can’t write a First Person 20-something woman character. I’m suggesting he shouldn’t. Most twenty-something readers won’t connect.

The Bottom Line

In any writing, the writer’s purpose is to get the reader to forget that there is an author interfering with the reality of the story. Using the First Person is just another tool to achieve that end and, unless it suits your writing style, your genre, and your story, it is not guaranteed to work.

Author: Gordon Long

Gordon A. Long is a writer, editor, publisher, playwright, director and teacher. 
Learn more about Gordon and his writing from his blog and his Author Central page.

4 thoughts on “Should I Write My Book in First Person?”

  1. Great analysis, Gordon. First Person pov is hideously hard to do well, for all the reasons you stated, and also for one that you didn’t – it’s often boring. Familiarity really can breed contempt. As a reader I want to know what makes the MC tick, but I don’t want, or need to know, about their emotional warts. I’d rather a little mystery so I can fill in the gaps myself. And as you say, Third Person can be as close or as distant as you wish.

    1. The repetition is the problem. I don’t mind a few warts, but when you keep seeing (or feeling) the same ones over and over, the character starts to take on the qualities of an annoying younger sibling: completely predictable in a negative sense. I don’t think we want our readers to wish the main character would go away and leave them alone 🙂

  2. My second book was written in first person but I used the gimmick, (rarely) of the character seeing beyond her physical ability by using the eyes of a kestrel she had as a companion. First person is a challenging approach for sure. I don’t think I’ll do it again.

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