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Tips on writing in first-person

Years ago, I made a significant change in my fiction writing. I switched from writing in third-person to first-person. My first two novels were written in third-person and were heavily plot-driven. By switching to first-person, I focused on character, which also helped me write better plots. I used this approach with Amiga and The Remainders. These are the first novels that have been selected by a publisher, and both got excellent reviews.

First-person isn’t for all novels. Some stories work better in third-person. Here are some tips to help you decide which point of view to use, how to use first-person effectively, and how to combine different points of view in the same book. (You can even combine first-person with third-person!)

Which point-of-view do I use?

You probably learned about first- and third-person in beginning literature class, but here’s a brief explanation: First-person is when a character tells the story. It doesn’t have to be the main character (think Ishmail in Moby Dick), but someone in the story describes what is happening. Third-person is when an outside narrator describes the story.

First-person works best for character-driven stories where you want readers to experience a person’s life first-hand. Readers get to see the world from that character’s point-of-view, which is limited to what the character sees and feels. Readers can become emotionally invested in a character. The character’s goals become the readers’ goals, and their setbacks become the readers’ setbacks.

Third-person gives readers a more cinematic experience where they can look over the action and see what happens to a larger number of characters. With third-person, you can control how much information you present to the readers. You can provide an omniscient narrator that shows everything, including characters’ thoughts. Or you can limit the readers’ knowledge to a set of characters. For example, you can focus on a band of heroes who may be wandering into a trap, but you don’t show the villains hiding over the ridge.

Because first-person is limited to a single character’s perspective, it helps to combine multiple first-person narrations. You can include another main character who is telling their own story, which may contradict the first narrator or fill in gaps in that character’s understanding. (I recommend that you limit to two first-person narrators in a book—three at most. Beyond that, it will be hard for a reader to keep track.) More on this later.

Getting into character

When writing in first-person, it’s important to get into character. You want to feel what it is like living inside that person and identify how they would instinctively react to the circumstances of the story. As a result, the character’s actions, emotions, and dialogue will flow naturally through you.

Writing backstory helps, but don’t plan on using everything on the page. You just need to know enough to get into character. You also don’t have to write everything out before you start your story. You will discover things about your character as you write.

It’s important to see your character as they would see themselves. This avoids the cringeworthy (and often offensive) mistakes people make while writing characters of different communities. Throw away any stereotypes and preconceived notions you have about your characters. You’re not writing a generic type of person. You are writing your specific character with a childhood, career ambitions, favorite foods, hobbies, and many other attributes. Bring that person to life.

Combining multiple narrations (including first- and third-person)

As noted earlier, you can combine multiple first-person narrations to introduce conflict, suspense, and theme. Here’s how I did this in my recent novels:

  • The Remainders is told from the points-of-view of Dylan and his father Oliver. As they tell their stories, we see gaps about what one doesn’t know about the other. While each character has their own goals, the reader wants them to resolve the misunderstandings they have about each other.
  • Amiga has the same character telling her story at different points of her life. Laura describes getting her first programming job out of college in 1985. The other narrative thread shows Laura dealing with family and career problems as a middle-age woman in 2016. As she tells her story in 2016, we get hints that things will happen to her in 1985 that she hadn’t experienced yet. The suspense comes when the two threads come together.
You can also combine first- and third-person narrations. Trey Everett’s novel Beneath The Surface tells the story of husband and wife scientists, Micah and Sarah. Micah’s story is told in first-person. We see his motivations and the secrets he has to hide from his wife and the rest of their team. Sarah’s story is told in third-person. We can see how Micah’s actions play out with his wife and their team while getting the sense he is hiding something. (And without spoiling anything, I can say it fits well with how the story ends.)

When combining multiple narrations, you need to make the shifts obvious. Put each narration in its own chapter and identify it in the chapter title with a character’s name, place, or time. If you need to combine narrations within a chapter, separate them with a scene break and make it clear in the first sentence who is speaking.

Importance of beta readers

A beta reader helped me tremendously when writing The Remainders, and I recommend them when writing in first-person. They can let you know if your characters are natural and consistent, and you’ve made clear shifts in narrations. If you write characters from different communities, beta readers can warn you if you slip into offensive stereotypes. Use their feedback to improve your writing.

Tell the character’s story (and yours)

First-person narration is one of the tools available to you as a writer. You can use it to create character-driven stories and give readers the experience of living the life of another person (or two). Remember to get into character by developing enough backstory and seeing things from the character’s point-of-view. You can combine multiple narrations, but make the shifts clear. Use beta readers to make sure your characters are engaging and truthful, and shifts in narration make sense. Regardless of what form of narration you select, use it to create compelling stories.