Writing in First Person
David Niall Wilson
Terry asked about writing in First Person, and I thought I’d tackle this question, since we have this open day for answers. I’ve written at least one novel and a small mountain of stories in first person, some that worked, others that didn’t.
The most important thing about first person narrative is that the prose has to have the right voice. First person immediately puts you on the show, don’t tell side of the fence if not handled well, and can lead to what reads more like a story about some things that would have made a good story. First person is very limiting. To answer Terry’s question in utter truthfulness, there is no way to handle things outside the character’s perspective. If you can’t tell the entire tale from what that character could know, see, or at least intuit, then you should not be telling the tale in first person.
This is a very personal style. There are editors who have seen it handled badly so many times they won’t even read a story written in first person. They are missing out on a lot of wonderful prose, I’m afraid, but I understand their pain. Stephen King handles first person POV better than almost any author I’ve encountered. He has a natural storytelling voice that puts the reader into the action and shows every angle. He shows no angles that the POV character is not aware of. Is this more difficult? Of course it is, and that’s why it’s not the recommended POV, particularly for beginning writers. It’s like a form of poetry with strict meter and rhythms. You can’t deviate just to make something fit; you have to find a way to make the story work from the POV you have chosen.
A common mistake in first person POV is the insertion of flawed dialogue. Rather than having characters speak as they normally would, long information-bytes appear. People say things like, “Well, as you know, I’m an alchemist, studying the process of converting base metals to gold. It’s a very old art…blah blah blah.” The person they are speaking with, the reader will note, is their best friend, who knows and has heard more about alchemy at this point than any sane person should have to. It’s not a conversation that would happen. Long explanations of things that are “off-screen” for the purpose of letting the reader know they are there almost never work.
The bottom line is that it must be kept real. The voice has to be one that readers will love to “hear” in their mind; the action and plot have to unravel in a fashion that is plausible when seen through the eyes of a single character. It’s a difficult challenge. When it works, it produces some of the finest prose available, but when it’s off, even a little bit, it can leave a sour taste in the mouth that never goes away.
Hope that helps…