The Peril and Promise of Writing in First-Person POV

From Jane Friedman:

Writing a novel is all about making choices—dozens on every page. Choosing the right point of view (POV) is arguably the most influential choice a writer makes. And choosing first-person POV, well, that may be the most complicated choice of all.


Because when you build an entire story around the “I” voice, you commit to installing the reader deep inside a single skull. In the hands of a skilled writer, there’s no more fun place to hang out.

“I am the vampire Lestat.” So begins Ann Rice’s rollicking novel, and we quickly realize we are to be guided by an enormously entertaining and self-absorbed narrator with a sly sense of humor.

“Call me Ishmael.” Like Lestat, Melville’s moody anti-hero (a self-described “simple sailor”) takes us on a vivid tour of city streets with a dose of social commentary on the side, followed, in this case, by a harrowing boat ride to track down a whale.

Lestat and Ishamel are each in their own way enormously charismatic and deeply observant of the world around them. A lot happens to them; they are also agents of their own destinies, at least in some respects. These are wonderful skulls to occupy.

No wonder some of today’s best writers gravitate toward first-person because, as Anne Tyler says, “It can reveal more of the character’s self-delusions” than, say, third person.

But to effectively execute this elevated brand of first-person narrative, writers must navigate a complex set of rules and avoid any number of pitfalls that will turn a novel into a flat, dull expanse of prose. I suggest that first-person POV is the most misunderstood and also the most difficult voice to master.

Let’s explore some ground rules (not an exhaustive list!) and common pitfalls before turning our attention to whether writing in first-person is the right choice for your story. (Spoiler alert: It’s often not the best choice.)

Rule #1: Constraint

The moment you elect first-person POV, you relinquish the option to tap into an omniscient narrator who knows all, sees all, and can travel at will through time and space, or walk through walls, when called for. (This is ironclad unless you write a fantasy main character who possesses omniscient powers, but that’s the exception that proves the rule.) The narrator can only process information the way we do in the real world: through her senses. This rule straps the writer into an exquisite straitjacket.

Rule #2: Complexity

A first-person narrator can lie to himself and everyone around him, but an attentive reader will always know, or have a good guess, about what’s really going on. That’s because the first-person voice exists on two planes simultaneously. On one plane, the main character speaks his truth (however deluded) within the context of the story’s self-contained world. (Rule 1 requires this.) Meanwhile, the reader is analyzing the narrator’s motives and circumstances—and drawing conclusions about what’s really going on. The writer needs to be true to the narrator’s voice and situation while remaining aware of the reader’s craving for moral and emotional ambiguity and conflict.

While this rule also makes sense for third-person POV, it’s worth stating explicitly that using first-person doesn’t let a writer off the hook with respect to composing a layered, nuanced protagonist. Writing “I said…” or “I believe…” doesn’t equate to simplicity.

. . . .

Alas, writing drivel is easy to do when wrangling the first-person voice. Here are some of the POV traps writers often fall into while trying to master the form’s particular aspects of constraint, complexity, and character development.

Pitfall #1: Over-relying on the power of “I” 

The easiest error is to fall back on sentences that begin with “I” because, after all, you’re in the head of an “I” person. This is a prose-killing mistake. Imagine getting through an entire book with this cadence:

I walked into the living room, where both my sisters were already seated on the couch. I asked them who called this meeting. Sally said she did, but I didn’t believe her. I looked at Toni but she didn’t say a word. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, but I couldn’t leave just yet.

This passage lacks meaningful context and subtext; the “I” here is rather airless. We may technically be locked into one skull, but that’s all the more reason to craft a narrator with the power to imaginatively describe interior and exterior landscapes (physical and psychological) as well as to surmise (or project) what others are thinking and feeling in relation to one another as well as toward themselves. Doing so will help you to de-center your narrator’s consciousness, so that the scene isn’t all about, or only about, them

In The Fault in Our Stars, John Green accomplishes this by turning “I” into “we” in some scenes, which essentially pulls the camera back away from a perpetual close-up:

We had a big Cancer Team meeting a couple of days later. Every so often, a bunch of doctors and social workers and physical therapists and whoever else got together around a big table in a conference room and discussed my situation…

Pitfall #2: Sticking readers with a boring narrator

If you’re going to lock us into one skull, please let it be a very busy and interesting one. (If you make the first error, you’re likely to make this one, as well.) A dull narrator has banal thoughts, participates in low-stakes events or waits passively for things to happen, and doesn’t do enough to help us get to know other characters, let alone chew on the scenery a little. These narrators aren’t people, they’re weak filters for storytelling. (If they were my tour guides at an exotic locale, I’d fire them.) They lack a distinct point of view and aren’t sufficiently wrestling with their own conscience and the outside world. A boring narrator suffocates the reader and doesn’t do enough work on their behalf. We need people like Mark Watney in Andy Weir’s The Martian, whose fierce intelligence continually shines through while he’s trapped on Mars:

First, I put on an EVA suit. Then I close the inner airlock door, leaving the outer door (which the bedroom is attached to) open. Then I tell the airlock to depressurize. It thinks it’s just pumping the air out of a small area, but it’s actually deflating the whole bedroom.

Pitfall #3: Over-limiting what the narrator can know or do

This is so damn tricky. One head, one heart. Everyone else is unknowable and your narrator can’t, in fact, see through walls, so how is she to know a murder’s taking place in the next room? In fiction, we can draw on the heightened capacities of all five senses to generate hunches, incite a narrator to action, and create every shade of emotion. We can also deploy time, through flashbacks and other devices, to give our narrator scope to think, feel, and act. A narrator may, for instance, dream that a murder is underway in the next room, and awaken to the sound of muffled screams. Life offers endless possibilities for the “I” character to venture far afield, literally and figuratively. Even interior thought can be made as lively as a high-speed car chase, as in this passage from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre:

What a consternation of soul was mine that dreary afternoon! How all my brain was in tumult, and all my heart in insurrection! Yet in what darkness, what dense ignorance, was the mental battle fought! I could not answer the ceaseless inward question—why I thus suffered…

If you choose first-person, you must let your character get out and about, so to speak, and avoid assuming that we only know what they (literally) see in any given moment.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

1 thought on “The Peril and Promise of Writing in First-Person POV”

  1. The problem with first-person stories is their infectious nature. When I read a really good one (maybe something by Gene Wolfe or James Crumley), I find myself trying to use first person even though it’s not the right choice.

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