If you’re a newer writer, this feeling might be quite common when you first start writing with the first person narrative. It’s pretty enticing to try writing that way at first, especially if it comes easy or feels more natural than third person.
But it’s not as easy as it looks. And doesn’t sound as natural as you might think it does.
In fact, I’m coming to realize, by my own errors, that most writers shouldn’t write in the first person at all. (Of course as I say that I have to confess that my first novel, which is set to debut next month, is written in the first person.)
However, if you do choose to write in the first person, you should be aware of these potential pitfalls:
1. Loss of Voice
The biggest problem I’ve found in my own first person narratives is that, while it might start out just fine, the longer the story goes, the longer its voice no longer resembles the character who is supposedly telling the story. With each passing page, the voice of the character mends with my own and no matter the character (it could be a grumpy 39-year-old guy or a happy 16-year-old girl) it eventually seems to become me telling a fictional autobiographical story.
One easy way to fix this: Pick out some random early pages and some random late pages. Read them aloud to a friend. Does the sample feel like it’s coming from you or from your character?
2. Too Wordy
During my querying process, I’ve had at least one agent come back and tell me that she felt my first person novel was too wordy. At first I shrugged it off, thought back to the KL Going and John Green novels I listened to in the car and thought, “That’s how YA novels are supposed to sound.”
Yeah, right. Maybe for those authors. For us unknowns, if that’s how a novel is supposed to read, that same agent would have been asking for a full request and not telling me my sample chapters are too wordy.
In some ways, this is a symptom of the first problem. Once you forget that you’re writing as “I, the protagonist,” and not “I, the writer,” your writing becomes too conversational and a lot of that “wordiness” slips in.
Just remember who you are writing as, and cut back on the language a bit. It’s your character that is telling the story; not you having a conversation with the reader.
3. Too Much Telling
This is another huge problem I fall into when writing in the first person. Way too much telling. I ate a sandwich. I went swimming. I listened to Weird Al for thirteen straight hours. Oh, wait, that last one wasn’t an example…
It’s difficult enough to tell the damn story without actually telling it (i.e., show the story) but when you’re writing in the first person, it can be even worse. If you’re currently trying to sell any first person stories, I’d suggest you immediately drop everything and count how many paragraphs open with “I”. Then rewrite at least half of them.
“Show, don’t tell” isn’t just one of many writing tip clichés. Nope, it’s the single most important writing tip cliché you’ll ever hear. Never forget it.
With all that said, if you still feel that your story needs to be told in the first person (which I did in my first novel), go for it.
But if you do choose to write in the first person, just be careful and make sure you have a vine handy to use for swinging over these pitfalls.