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Writing in First Person

January 4th, 2006

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…


  1. Bev Vincent
    January 4th, 2006 at 14:47 | #1

    David: can you think of a published novel in first person that you think is an example of a bad choice for POV. I keep hearing people talk about the down side of first person but I can’t come up with many examples where a book would have been better served not having been written in first person.

    The only one that springs to mind is a James Patterson book where both the detective and the villain tell their stories in first person. It’s okay up until the point where the two people are on stage together, at which point it quickly goes to hell.

  2. David Niall Wilson
    January 4th, 2006 at 14:52 | #2

    I can’t think of anything, right off hand, that was actually PUBLISHED that I think should not have been in first person. Not on a professional level, anyway…I’ll give it some thought.


  3. Janet Berliner
    January 4th, 2006 at 16:57 | #3

    Pattersin really did that? I wonder why his editor didn’t make him change it to an omniscient POV for that segment. Which book was it? –J.

  4. Mari Adkins
    January 4th, 2006 at 18:30 | #4

    Bev: can you think of a published novel in first person that you think is an example of a bad choice for POV Last year, I read a first book by an author who switched back and forth between third and first person pov. The third person pov was well-done. But I had trouble with the first person pieces; I think they’d have been better served in third person, as well. The book is The Effects of Light by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore.

    On the other hand, I just read Silver Screen by Justina Robson (her first book), which was written in first person and was well done.

  5. David Niall Wilson
    January 4th, 2006 at 19:38 | #5

    I think that SWITCHING POV is even more difficult than pulling off first person on it’s own. It can be done, but you have to be VERY good at seeing the “big picture” to pull if off, and it can be jarring.

    A book written all in first person that did very well is Stephen King’s “Bag of Bones.”

  6. Teresa
    January 4th, 2006 at 20:52 | #6

    Thanks David.
    Your comments have helped me to feel more confident that my ‘instincts’ as I read the story were correct. While technically the character did/could/should know the history/politics etc. of his world, the information still felt ‘forced upon me’ as part of his ‘thought process’ before responding to questions in the course of dialogue. It’s interesting to me that it wasn’t the dialogue per se that was ‘info dumping’ but the POV character’s thoughts…the effect was the same though: it continually took me out of the moment and into stuff that strictly speaking didn’t advance the plot at all…
    I prefer not to name the novel because it seems not right to voice a criticism to others in a forum where the author will not know the comments have been made,(and just what is the etiquette for such situations anyway??…I feel it’s wrong not to give the author a chance to respond to criticism but I was asked to review not critique…)

    BUT I will say that one of the best books I read last year was in First Person.

    The Apparition Trail by Lisa Smedman showed me for the first time that first person POV can tell a wonderful story. You can read the first chapter here.


    Keep those answers coming, folks…

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