Tips for Writing in First Person

The first class I attended at the Storymakers conference was on 1st Person POV by Regina Sirois. I highlighted her as the keynote speaker in my IWSG post last week, but a quick reminder is in order. Regina was the 2012 ABNA winner for her book On Little Wings. The following post will be a mixture of her class tips and my thoughts.

My current wip is a YA fantasy written in 1st person POV of two characters. Although I’ve been happy with it for the most part, there are spots that it is just FLAT. Some of those spots require higher stakes and better tension. I’ll talk about that with the suspense post coming up next week. However, some of it is simply because I struggle with 1st person. Regina did an excellent job explaining the real purpose of 1st person so that I can fix it.

Strengths

1st person is meant to be intimate, confessional. The reader can put themselves inside the character’s shoes and discover the story along with the MC. It’s often easier to connect emotionally with a character is you are in their head.

Limitations

1st person is restrictive. There are things that the reader will not know because the character can’t know them. (I find this frustrating when I write.) You also can’t hide things from the reader, and you always have to ask, “Is this narrator reliable?”

Which brings us to the question, “Who is your narrator, really?”
Even when writing in 1st person you can have problems figuring out who the narrator really is. If you are writing in 1st person present tense (everything is happening to your character right now, you see it the first time they see it kind of thing), then your narrator is your character.

But what if your character is telling the story about what happened to them last week, or twenty years ago? If the events happened that far in the past, the character has grown, had new experiences that affect how they view those previous events. They are a different person than when it happened. You must consider who the real narrator is because that will affect the language and internal reflections.

Common Mistakes When Writing 1st Person

  • Telling what the character already knows–“That was so mean. I’m upset.”
  • Asking too many questions to show confusion, often in a list of unanswered questions–Why did that happen? What am I going to do now?
  • Too many sentences that start with I–When you are thinking in your head do you start every sentence with I?
  • Not trusting your readers (this is an entire post by itself!)–you can still make jumps in time
  • Forgetting to have varied sentence length and incorporating incomplete sentences. If the moment is incomplete (meaning the character was interrupted) then the sentence will be too. 
  • Minutia–listing or telling everything. Trust your reader. They know how to put their pants on. 

Sound Bites from the Class 

  • If you are standing beside your character asking what happens next, you ARE NOT writing 1st person. The only way 1st person works is if you are inside their head looking out.
  • Senses that matter in 1st person–sounds, smells, things that can be felt (touch) and seen. 
  • Let things swerve your characters from their one track mind.
Writing Activity
Pick one of your characters. Put them somewhere in your story. Close your eyes and sit down inside their head. Take a minute to look out from their eyes. What do they see, hear, smell? What can they feel through touch? Now write that down as if you were them.
Take a moment to do this and share with us in the comments.
This is what I wrote for one of my characters:
“Rough carpet scraped my cheek as I slid across the van floor. The door slammed shut sending me into complete darkness. A thick smell of dirt and oil permeated the air. The van creaked and shook with my captor’s movements. Another door clicked shut. 
Slivers of light leaked around the blacked out window from the door. I reached for the handle as the engine turned over, grinding in protest for a moment before roaring to life. The floor vibrated beneath me, increasing the frantic rhythm of my heart. My fingers only brushed cold metal. There was no handle in the door.” 
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About charitybradford

Science fiction and fantasy writer and blogger. My first novel is now available--The Magic Wakes (WiDo Publishing, 2013)

Posted on October 7, 2013, in LDStorymakers, POV, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. These are some great tips. It is so easy to lose track when doing first person and the restrictions can become a pain. But the closeness is still a big advantage.

  2. Unless our readers don't wear pants…I've never written anything in first person because it does sound very challenging. I certainly didn't want to write from Byron's point of view exclusively. I did NOT want to be in that dude's head all the time!

  3. Great tips!My ADHD won't allow me to think as anyone else.

  4. He would have kicked you out or blocked you anyway. I think certain genres can't be written in 1st person. Scifi and fantasy being two of them. There is usually too much going on that the MC doesn't know about but the reader needs to be aware of. Plus, complicated plot lines with lots of characters really needs to stay in 3rd person.

  5. LOL, I bet you can spin some complicated plots though.

  6. So true! I'm hoping to pull off a successful 1st person by the end of this year. We'll see.

  7. My current WIP is a first person POV. When I first started writing it, one of the things I struggled with most is getting here to there. In other words, not trusting the reader to know things like how your character puts on their pants. So, I started reading books written in the first person POV to see how good writers did it. Yep. They utilized all of these tips. However, this list is great. I am sure that when I go back and edit I will spend most of my time correcting these problems!

  8. The thing that I love about reading first person is that, when done well, it's so incredibly intimate.

  9. I'm experimenting with first person and the restrictiveness bugs me. Oh well, it's teaching me how to grow as a writer.

  10. That's why I always loved to read 1st person as a teen–I felt more connected to the main character. 3rd person puts a distance in the story that I never liked.

  11. I like this writing activity.

  12. Wow! I think you heard that I did an internet search for awhile yesterday, researching out tips on writing in first person.This was fabulous. Thanks Charity! Much appreciated. I

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