Articles / On Writing

Divas on Writing: Issues with the First Person Perspective

 

I have to admit that I’m a fan of the first person narrative perspective, but it has its problems. So if you are planning to pen your upcoming masterpiece in the first person perspective, there are several things that you’ll need to look out for.

  1. Mind reading

The first and biggest issue I see as an editor is the tendency to have a character know what everyone is thinking and feeling. Let’s call this the Cullen Syndrome. Unless your character is a sparkly vampire named Jasper or Edward, they shouldn’t know what is going on in other’s minds or hearts. That said, your character can make assumptions, guesses, read body language or facial expressions, or even be prone to paranoid transposing of their own insecurities upon another character.

Signs of mind reading in narrative: I knew, I understood, I could tell, she/he seemed, and absolute statements about someone’s mindset or emotions involving were/was/are/is. There’s a fine line between a character who thinks she knows what others are thinking and a character who defines every implied emotion for the reader. The first is a workable element of the plot. The second is redundant and tiring and doesn’t let the readers figure anything out for themselves.

Mind reading is one of those areas where you can have a bit of fun with a character. So if you have a tendency to write a mind-reading protagonist, don’t despair. You just have to make that tendency work for the story and the character. Perhaps she knows what everyone is thinking about her, but she’s always wrong. Maybe she’s a bit delusional about her effect on others and can’t see everyone hates her. Or she could be a human lie detector. Or if you really want to have fun, make her a raging hypocrite and give her a strong inner voice that mocks all those around her.

  1. Jumps in perspective

The biggest limitation is that the entire plot is filtered through the eyes of a single character. Sometimes things need to happen in a story and the protagonist shouldn’t be privy to it but the readers should. What’s an author to do? Tell that part through the perspective of another character? Well…you could, but I’d recommend that you don’t. It’s jarring to read a story from one character’s perspective and then to have it suddenly jump into the mind of another character. Another issue with alternating or switching perspective in the first person, is that your second character may sound exactly like your first.

Each character should have a unique voice. It’s very hard to maintain that voice when switching between characters and it’s no fun when Character B begins to sound exactly like Character A. Another issue with the perspective switcheroo is the dreaded rehashing of scenes. I’m not a fan of seeing an event through the eyes of multiple characters. I got it the first time; everything else feels extraneous.

  1. Addressing the reader

Writing in the first person is very familiar—and sometimes it’s too familiar. When you have a character who is telling their story, it’s easy to fall into a pattern where the character is aware of what they are doing. This is the part of the article where I slap your hand hard. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t do this. Don’t break the fourth wall.

The character should never address the reader; they shouldn’t even be aware that there is a reader. This causes issues with the tone of the narrative. When things become too familiar or conversational, you have a problem. Narrative shouldn’t sound like a conversation between two friends. The character shouldn’t argue their point with the reader, ask the reader questions, address the reader directly with “you,” or assume that the reader is agreeing with her actions, perceptions, or thoughts.

There are exceptions to breaking the fourth wall (such as writing comedy), but as a general rule, I recommend that you don’t.

  1. Telling

The first person perspective is very prone to telling. Why? Because the character is telling the story. Think about it. People state things directly—writers do not. People are self-absorbed—narrators must be observant.

Is a teenage character going to say it’s dark out or is she going to describe the way the darkness oppresses the landscape? It’s common for a character to state or define and not describe, and this leads to dull, dull reading. You have to find the balance between a character who is true in voice and a character who sets the scene for the readers. Sometimes it’s a trade-off. Too far in one direction and you’ll have a lackluster novel. Too far in the other, and you’ll have a protagonist that feels more like a narrator than a character.

  1. Lackluster secondary character building

First person perspective is very strong at building the primary character, but many times the secondary characters are left in the dust. Like I said above, people are self-absorbed. And when writing in the first person, your readers will get a very good sense of the narrator, but if your narrator is not a good observer of others, your readers may not get a good sense of your other characters. Remember everything is filtered through your narrator. If she is shallow, your readers will have only a shallow view of the other characters. If she is in her own head too much, the readers may see the other characters as cardboard props and little else. If she’s too focused on others (especially her love interest), readers may find her vomit-inducing. Which leads me to my final issue…

  1. A weak or unlikable narrator can destroy your story

When writing in the first person perspective, your story is either made or broken on the back of the perspective character. And you’re not going to please everyone. If your readers do not like your character, you’re sunk. I’ve walked on many a book because I found the narrator intolerable.

Writing in the first person removes all your protagonist’s mystery and intrigue. Your readers are going to know her inside and out, and just like looking into the heart of a real person, they may not like what they find there. And if the plot or the character is not strong enough to overcome this peek into your character’s soul…

So what can you do?

Pick your perspective character wisely, young Padawan.

A Mary Sue as a narrator is a death knell. A whiny wanker will keep readers reading only because they hope the narrator dies in a horrible (but totally justified) way, and this character will lead to brutal reviews. Overly Sensitive Sally inspires only joyous book burnings.

It’s all about the characters, baby. This is the greatest strength and weakness of the first person perspective.

So if you’re set on writing in the first person, remember: characters matter. A great plot can be ruined by telling that story through the eyes of an uninspiring character.

Now, back to writing. 🙂

 


Comments

  1. Thanks for another great article. I learned about not breaking the fourth wall during my first ever substantive edit (along with a heap of other newbie mistakes I was making), and I found it a bit puzzling. I’ve always enjoyed when a writer does this, especially when the narrative is in first person. I’m not talking about when the character addresses the reader directly, eg – “What would you do in this situation?” (ugh…I agree that is jarring), but more when they ask rhetorical questions, eg – “Now, what was I supposed to do?” I was told this wasn’t ‘allowed’, but it seems more like how people actually think than ‘breaking the wall’. What’s your opinion?

    • Hey there, Elise! Thanks for reading.

      Okay, where to begin? 🙂

      The tense you used in your example (past tense) is indicative of narrative, not inner thought (which I would expect to be present tense). As written, this could be construed as addressing the reader instead of oneself, which is most likely why your editor flagged it. If it had been phrased thus: now, what am I supposed to do? I wouldn’t have blinked an eye.

      I think there is a difference between what I would call conversations with fate/god/self and addressing the audience. “Now, what was I supposed to do?” kind of balances on the fence between the two. It’s not clear to whom the narrator is speaking. This means the reader has to rely on the tone of the narrative. If the narrator up to this point has been constantly addressing the reader, then it would stand to reason that this comment is addressed to the reader, but if the narrator has not, then your readers will assume this is a bit of inner questioning. And as I said above in the article, addressing the reader is not so good. Addressing oneself or god/fate/universe/etc. isn’t a problem (unless it’s being used too much throughout the book).

      Another issue with your example is that it is conversational in tone. Is a conversational tone a bad thing in your narrative? Well…I’m not inflexible, so rarely will you hear me say that something is absolutely wrong 100 percent of the time, especially when it comes to editing fiction. Style really does hold the trump card in our realm of publishing. So as the author, you have to make the call on the tone of your story. A conversational tone (even addressing the reader in some instances) may work really well for your book (perhaps it’s even a hallmark of the genre you’re writing), or it could be a tragic mistake.

      As for rules and what’s allowed, etc… Eh, rules are overrated. You’re an author. A rebel by nature. Amazing things can happen when you guys flout convention. Don’t be afraid to trust your heart, gut and muse and do something that will make us grammarians wag our fingers. We may call it “wrong,” but who knows, your readers might just call it “brilliant.” (Have you read Blood Red Road by Moira Young? It made my inner editing diva lock herself in a closet with a pint of rocky road and a box of tissues. But look at the reviews, darlin’. Look at the reviews.)

      Hope this helped. 🙂

      Shay

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