Some new fiction writers opt to write their novel in first-person, as they think this will be easier. But writing a novel effectively and compellingly in first-person is a lot more difficult than it first appears.
Some of the advantages to writing your novel in first-person are:
1. More like real life – we experience life around us only from our own point of view.
2. A direct connection from the narrator to the reader, so can create an immediate sense of intimacy and believability.
3. The narrator-character’s voice comes through more clearly, as it is expressed directly.
4. Can portray the POV character’s personality and world-view more easily.
Some of the disadvantages of using first-person point of view and narration are:
1. Difficulty dramatizing scenes where the POV character is not present.
2. Too many sentences begin with “I”. Can start to be annoying to the reader.
3. The reader may tire of the same voice and point of view predominating throughout the novel. Not enough variation in style and personality.
4. We may also get too much of the first-person narrator-character’s opinions on people and events around him, and long for a little variety. How do the other characters see things?
5. There’s a danger of too much introspection and interior monologue. Be sure to balance this with plenty of action and dialogue, which help the pacing and move the story forward more easily.
6. The viewpoint character has to be really interesting, with a distinctive, compelling voice, as we’re “in his head” for the whole novel.
7. With all those “I”s and “me”s, there’s a danger of the writer putting too much of herself into the novel.
First-person narration can work in the hands of a skilled writer, but is more difficult for a first-time writer to pull off successfully, especially for a whole novel. To work, your narrator-character needs to have a unique voice and personality, with lots of attitude. As James Scott Bell says, “There must be something about the voice of the narrator that makes her worth listening to—a worldview, a slant, something more than just a plain vanilla rendition of the facts.” On the other hand, don’t make your narrator-character too weird, as that could get tiring or annoying after awhile, too.
One can also choose to use first-person POV for different characters, giving each character their own chapters, told directly by them, from their viewpoint. In this case, it’s important to make sure that each character speaks with a unique, distinctive voice, with plenty of attitude of their own.
If you’ve written or started a book in first-person, try rewriting a chapter or two in third-person. Leave it for a few days, then reread the third-person attempt and see if you like the added freedom and variety of voice and point of view a little better. Or give both versions to a trusted friend or critique group and see which approach they prefer.
Resources: How to Write a Damn Good Thriller, by James N. Frey; “Look Who’s Talking: Mastering POV and Tense,” presentation by Susan Lyons, Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell.
Copyright © Jodie Renner, February 2011
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