Writing in the First Person

Writing in the first person voice is one of those areas of novel writing that seems simple at first glance, but is a little more complicated if you want to write like a professional.

I'll begin by explaining why writing first person prose isn't altogether a straightforward thing. Then I'll go on to give a detailed worked example to hopefully make everything clear.

The Problem With Writing in the First Person

So what's complicated about writing first person prose? Well, it all comes down to the difference between the narrator and the viewpoint character.

So if I write a story about something that happened to me last year...

The narrator will be the part of me writing the words. And the viewpoint character will be the part of me actually experiencing the events of the story at the time they happened.

Now for the complicated bit...

As explained in the article on First Person Narrative Theory, the narrator and the viewpoint character in a first person point of view novel might essentially be one and the same person, but there are two important differences between them...

  1. The narrator will be older (and probably wiser) than the viewpoint character. The time difference might be slight - perhaps as little as a day or a week - in which case the age-gap won't make any discernible difference. But if the narrator is 80, say, looking back on an incident that happened to them when they were 18, they will hardly be the same person at all.
  2. The narrator will have been changed by the events of the novel, whereas the viewpoint character has yet to experience this change. And so if this change is profound - which it frequently is in a novel - they might share the same body, but they will be completely different people inside.

And so the key to writing in the first person like a master is simply this: you must reflect the difference between the narrator and the viewpoint character in the prose.

A Worked Example of Writing In the First Person

Begin by reading this simple example I've written, then afterwards I will analyze it in detail...

(Incidentally, the narrator here is a 40-year-old man looking back on an experience he had as a 13-year-old boy.)

I first met Melanie on the day I turned thirteen. She was the new girl in school and, as luck or fate would have it, the only spare desk in the maths class that morning was the desk next to mine. Of course, I couldn't bring myself speak to her, couldn't look at her, even, except for a secret glance or two when she was preoccupied with the tedious quadratic equations the teacher was trying to explain on the board, but by the end of that first lesson I had already fallen in love with her.
   It took another three weeks of silence and secret glances before I found out Melanie felt the same way about me. Her older sister's best friend - a big girl, in every dimension, and certainly not a girl to argue with - pulled me into the bike sheds one afternoon by my tie and told me Melanie thought I was cute and if I didn't do something about it soon I was dead. Within an hour, I had asked Melanie to the cinema next Saturday.
   We were both too shy to sit in the back row, but with the cinema almost empty it didn't much matter. It took me an hour to work up the nerve to slip my arm around the back of her seat and rest it on her shoulders, and although she didn't respond, at least she didn't shrug me off. I wondered if she could hear my heart thumping. Another twenty minutes went by before I risked the big kiss: a quick smack on the cheek then eyes back on the screen. This time she did turn to look at me. I pretended not to notice, but I could tell she wasn't mad.
   "Was that it?" she whispered.
   I kept looking straight ahead.
   "Don't you want to kiss me properly?" she asked.
   Was it me or was it roasting in here?
   "Dare you!"
   And so I did. And even though both our mouths were kind of skuzzy with popcorn pieces, the kiss was still wonderful to me. And when it was finally over and we snuggled down to watch the rest of the dumb movie, I couldn't keep from grinning like a fool. It had taken all this time, but I finally had me a woman!

I make no claims for it to be great literature, but it is fine for the purposes of explaining writing in the first person.

As I explained in the companion article to this - Writing in the Third Person - a typical scene in a third person novel begins with the narrator "setting the scene" before slipping into the viewpoint character's skin and showing the remainder of the action through their eyes.

Can you achieve a similar effect in the first person?

Yes, but in a slightly different way...

  • The narrator in a third person novel is like a camera or a godlike being hovering over the events as they happen. The "establishing shot" in the third person extract was the narrator describing the rain falling onto the roof tops. This helped to give the scene a sweeping cinematic feel, but it wouldn't have worked in a first person narrative.
  • A first person narrator is looking back on events that happened in the past - in this case, a 40-year-old man looking back on something that happened when he was a 13-year-old boy. A first person narrator can only use geographical description to set the scene if they actually saw what they describe.

The "establishing shot" in the third person example involved the narrator describing the rain falling onto the roof tops. This helped to give the scene a sweeping cinematic feel, but it wouldn't have worked in a first person narrative. A first person narrator can use geographical description to set the scene only if they actually saw what they describe.

So if the first person example had been about a trip to the seaside, say, the narrator could have described his first glimpse of the ocean, then homed-in on the seagulls feeding in the wash at low water as he ran across the tide-hardened sand - that would have worked fine.

But he couldn't have described rain falling on roof tops from above in a godlike fashion, because when writing in the first person the only "camera" you have is the viewpoint character's eyes.

The way the narrator sets the scene in the first-person example above is to give a speeded-up, two-paragraph account of his falling for the girl, from the day he first met her to the day he asked her out on a date. The scene itself then focuses on the actual date in the cinema, and in particular their first kiss.

In the first two paragraphs, then, it is the 40-year-old narrator's voice we are hearing, not the teenage viewpoint character's voice.

The narrator, remember, is looking back on events that happened in the past, whereas the viewpoint character is a boy experiencing the events as they happen.

In practical terms, what is the difference between the older narrator's voice and the younger viewpoint character's?

Well, for one, thing, the man uses words and phrases that you wouldn't expect a boy to use...

"as luck or fate would have it"

"tedious

"a big girl, in every dimension"

These words and phrases are just too "adult" to come from a young teen's mouth. It isn't until later, in the cinema, that we get to hear the boy's voice...

"a quick smack on the cheek"

"dumb movie"

"I finally had me a woman"

Also note that we don't penetrate the boy's consciousness totally at first, but that it takes a while for the prose to "warm up"...

  • Near the start of the scene, he says, "I wondered if she could hear my heart thumping."
  • But later we get the more direct, "Was it me or was it roasting in here?"

The difference between the two is subtle, but the second line is definitely a little more boyish and informal than the first.

For most of the cinema scene, in fact, the language is relatively formal - more the language you would expect from a man and not a young teen. But by the final paragraph, virtually every line is boyish...

   And so I did. And even though both our mouths were kind of skuzzy with popcorn pieces, the kiss was still wonderful to me. And when it was finally over and we snuggled down to watch the rest of the dumb movie, I couldn't keep from grinning like a fool. It had taken all this time, but I finally had me a woman!

If the extract had been several pages long (as it would have been if it were a real scene in a real novel, and not just an example), I would have kept this boyish language going all the way through the extended cinema scene.

Why? Because it's the boy that the story is about, not the man.

Just as a reader isn't interested in a third person narrator (who isn't an actual character in the story), so they aren't interested in a first person narrator, either - at least not as much as they are interested in the viewpoint character, or the narrator's younger and more naive self.

Now, there is obviously a huge difference between a 40-year-old man and a young teenage boy. If the narrator in your first person novel is a 40-year-old man looking back on events that took place just a month ago, the difference between the narrator and the viewpoint character won't be nearly so marked.

But the difference will still be there - not least because the narrator has already experienced the events and been changed by them, whereas for the viewpoint character that moment of change is still in the future.

Having read lots of first person prose from beginners, I know that most of them don't take account of this subtle but important difference between a first person narrator and a first person viewpoint character. They might not even know that the difference exists.

But you do. And that immediately puts you one step ahead of the competition.