Writing in the First Person

I recently read a post by a Twitter user who bemoaned the fact that it was hard work to change the narration of her novel from first person to third person. Hard work? It must have been pure hell. Imagine the agony of laboriously amending thousands of personal pronouns and verb endings.

She didn’t say why she had made this huge decision. Maybe she had been advised to use the third person by an editor or a well-meaning friend. If so, I wonder why. I know there is sometimes debate in literary circles about whether novel X should have been written in the first or third person but it’s a debate that goes over my head.

I’ve written my first novel, The Girl with the Haunting Smile, in the first person because, frankly, it didn’t occur to me to do anything else. My main character, Greg, has a problem which affects how others view him and how he relates to them. My aim in using the first person is to portray this poignant situation through Greg’s eyes so that the reader can empathise with him more directly.

In my second (nearly completed) novel, Spring Chicken, I’ve employed the same technique. It’s about an over-70 guy who, on his wife’s death, is urged to put his feet up until the grim reaper calls. He refuses, injects new buzz into his life (including a search for a second wife) and sets out to enrol the stagnating older folk in his community in his get-a-life campaign. I would like readers to feel close to this guy and to understand what makes him tick, so a first person narration seems a no-brainer to me.

Is I versus he/she ever an issue for you?

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About Richard Louden

Maybe it was because languages were my thing but I loved writing at school and I've loved it ever since. Obviously, I hope others will enjoy reading what I write but, now that I am turning my hand to novels, what matters most to me is to write what, as a reader, I would like to read. As a journalist with UK papers, I've written widely on education, business, sport and law. In the creative writing field, I've written the scripts of two TV dramas (BBC and ITV), contributed sketches to TV and radio comedy shows and had short stories published in national anthologies. That doesn’t make me a novelist but I hope it gives me a push in the right direction.

Posted on September 26, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Actually, it’s even harder than what you describe, if the change is done right. The viewpoint has be embraced. I was in a viewpoint workshop, and we could tell the ones who just change he to I. The viewpoint really changes the dynamic of the story. There are, in fact, some stories that I think would have been quite different if the author hadn’t used first person.

    I’ve changed the viewpoint of a book myself — not once but twice on the same book! I started out in my default third, but something felt really wrong with it. So I began revising it to first. I got about 50 pages in, and it was so awful! First brought out the worst traits of the main character. So I switched to omniscient viewpoint on the next scene I was to write, and the story sang in a way it hadn’t for the other viewpoints. I still needed to revise extensively to get it out of third (and first) and get it into omni.

    Linda Adams – Soldier, Storyteller http://garridon.wordpress.com/

    • Hi Linda Thanks for your very perceptive comments. I’m not sure I fully understand what “omniscient” is in this context but I get your general gist viz. that the choice of person really depends on the viewpoint you want to portray. Your point about first person bringing out the worst traits of the main character made me look again at my two MCs. They don’t appear to me to have much in the way of bad traits, so I reckon I’ll stick with first person.

  2. I tend to like first person so my novels – recently – are in that view. But on the other hand, there have been a couple of novels that just seemed to write themselves as third person. I tend to think there isn’t much of any difference in how well the various points of view work. I really don’t make a conscious decision, but I feel more comfortable in first. And, in my lastest mammoth work, I’ve probably crossed a number of boundaries. It starts in first and the first person narrator continues to be the main viewpoint character. But, I’ve written the viewpoint of the second main character – some would say the most important character in third person, almost in counterpoint to the first person passages. Third person allows me to make ovservations about the character that I couldn’t if I was just alternating first person chapters. But, again, that’s very subjective. It just ‘feels’ right to me.

    • Hi Daniel It’s very interesting that you’ve worked with first and third person in the same novel. I imagine that, once you’ve made the decision to offer a second viewpoint, it’s quite natural to do so in third person if your MC is first person. As you say, it also enables you to make observations about the character from an external perspective. I agree with you about the need for it to feel right for you. If it doen’t, you may as well go back to square one.

  3. I usually write in the 3rd person; I think you should just do what feels right for you with that particular character. I always write from about 3 alternating view points in my novels – in the 2nd one, Nobody’s Fault, I did one of the characters, Adrienne, in the 1st person – it just felt right, and I was also able to make a bigger impact by changing her parts to the 3rd person after she had a nervous breakdown (I guess you’d have to read it!).

    When I write in the 3rd person I still write as that person, if you see what I mean – I write it from their point of view and as they would see the events unfolding. I don’t make observations from an external perspective as, to me, that’s all a bit like ‘telling, not showing’ – eg, I don’t say “John had never liked to go to work”. I’d rather express by what he thinks and does that he didn’t like going to work.

    To sum up – it depends on the character, and what you feel is right for the story. And yes, to change from 1st to 3rd sounds like a nightmare!

    • Hi Terry My thanks again for your perceptive comments. I used to write short stories in the 3rd person and, to be honest, never stopped to ask myself if 1st would have been better. With The Girl with the Haunting Smile, I chose 1st because Greg, the main character, is obsessed with the girl and his constant reflections on her, and the impact she has on him, seem to me to come over more powerfully in the 1st person.

      By the way, I hope to read and review You Wish soon. I look forward to reading it!

  4. I too, wrote a novel in the first person, and tried to switch it to third person. Coincidentally, I got fifty pages into it, and hated it as well. I was a lot more work than just changing pronouns. It changed the whole tone. Once I switched it back, I found multiple problems from switching tenses and changing who the action was aimed at, etc. Thankfully I found an old unedited version of my book and used it as a guideline. My second novel is in the third person, and I enjoy what that frees me to do as an author. Instead of focusing all the action through the main character (I), I’m able to explore other characters without my main character being involved.

    • Hi Chris Thanks for your comments. Yes, I can see there’s more to a change of person than pronouns and verbs. It must be a nightmare to make the change! I also take your point about the 3rd person allowing you to explore other characters. I suppose it depends on whether you want a single or multiple focus. In my case, I’m happy with a single focus, as it still enables me to portray how other people feel about, and react to, my main character.

  5. You Wish is my first one, if you want to read one of mine maybe one of the others might be more up your rue, I am not sure. However, maybe you have You Wish because you downloaded it when it was free!! 🙂

    • Hi Terry Yes, I did download it for free and will read it but I’ve enjoyed our exchange of tweets, so I’m happy to buy another one and read/review it. Is there one in particular that you think might be more up my rue?

  6. I wrote my first book of fiction last year and I agree with you. It never occurred to me to do otherwise. My book is a Sci-Fi Fantasy adult series. My narrator and main character is a clinical hypnotherapist who, just widowed, decides to reopen her hypnotherapy practice. Sounds a bit boring right? Now the fun begins, her clients start disappearing and a vampire called Nakin tells her he is taking them to his world and she is next. Why would I want to write in third person when my main character is the one who has all of the adventures, fun, and romance. Thanks, I enjoyed your post.

    • Thanks, Dee. I take your point that the first person makes the whole narrative seem more direct and immediate. I’ve read many novels which, in my opinion, would have had more impact on the reader if they had been written in the first person. But many writers don’t want that, they write in the third person because they want to stand back and take a more detached, clinical view. There are no rights or wrongs, I suppose.

  7. I wrote my first novel in the third person and after working with a copyeditor for a while she suggested that I change to first person. When I did she told me that the charecter was coming off “like a prick”. As a result o this flipping back and forth I gave up on this novel and it still sits unfinished three years later. In fact I gave up trying to write a novel for three years. I am now deeply submersed in my second novel, which is the first person and while there are idiosincracies in the charecter I like to think that I am using those traits to further develop the charecter. I fulyl intend to publish this one and plan to work on the first one ater this one will be completed, which will make my first noovel actuallly my second novel. Trying to switch rom one voice to the other was a nightmare!

    • Hi Oz Yes, I can imagine how much of a nightmare it must have been! You don’t seem to have had much luck with your copy editor. To look on the bright side, you’ve maybe lost three years but you’re back and this time you’re in charge. Go for it and the best of luck!

      • Thanks Richard, and you arre so right, this time I have more ocnfidence and am not going to let an editor sideline me! looking forward to following your experience and reading your novel. Good luck to you as well!

  8. I started my transatlantic comedy drama, Scars & Stripes in first-person and found, by the end, that it was too constrained. So I rewrote a major section in third-person and that enabled me to see it from a different perspective and to change the tone entirely. However, once I had a better understanding of what the book was really about (drawing on some personal events as source material), I felt freed up to go back to first-person. Lots of work, yes, but a useful process for me. Each POV has its merits and its consequences. I find that first-person is more intimate and a better way of rationing out the reader’s understanding. They know what the central character knows, in the main, although you can drop hints based on the character’s awareness – and what they don;t say.

    • Thanks for that useful comment. I have to hand it to you for your third-person experiment, especially as you knew it would entail a lot of extra graft. I doubt if I would have the stamina or perseverance for that.

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