Friday, June 20, 2014

Narrative Voices - Part One: The Pros and Cons of Writing in First Person

Image by Joel Montes de Oca
One of the fundamental decisions a writer has to make involves selecting the narrative voice(s) best suited to carry the story. The three most common candidates for adoption are

a) first person singular,
b) third person limited, and
c) third person omniscient1

Each of these options affords a different range of narrative possibilities. To start off this series of posts on narrative voice, we’ll be considering the pros and cons of writing in first person.

First person is the most subjective of the three angles of vision cited above. This subjectivity makes it an especially popular choice among writers of middle grade and young adult fiction.

For one thing, writing in first person is more economical in terms of word count than the other two options.

For another, first person narration gives the reader direct access to the thoughts, emotions, discoveries and experiences of the focal character. This access enables younger readers to identify closely with the speaker on short acquaintance.

Thirdly, even when word count isn’t an issue, first person narration readily accommodates non-linear modes of storytelling by mimicking the discursive nature of human thought processes.

Now for the challenges.

In first person narration, the speaker is the reader’s one and only source of information. I.e., all plot-relevant disclosures and discoveries must be channeled through the central speaking character. From the writer’s perspective, this poses a number of challenges when it comes to exposition. If there are Big Things Afoot outside the realm of the character’s immediate experience, it takes dexterous story-boarding to bring important facts to light without compromising your narrator’s intelligence.

Another issue has to do with endowing your first person narrator with a narrative voice that expresses his/her distinct personality. The tools at your disposal include diction, syntax, speech mannerisms, social/ethical outlook, and cultural referencing. By way of demonstration, below are two contrasting passages written in first person.
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day [and] I was glad of it; I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.
You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he mainly told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary.
In the first instance, the formal diction and gloomy outlook denote a downtrodden little girl in unhappy circumstances. In the second instance, the colloquial grammar and quirky attitude toward conventional morality denote a robust semi-literate youngster from the rural American south. Even if you haven’t read Jane Eyre or Huckleberry Finn, the mode of discourse employed by each speaker provides a clear index of their respective characters from the outset. Writers of first person fiction should aim for a similar standard of performance in terms of narrative technique.

1 Several years ago, I had a student who successfully experimented with writing a novella in second person (“you”). The result was technically interesting, not least because the relationship between speaker and audience is reflexive: they are one and the same person. But fiction written in second person is a rarity.

See also Terry Odell's post last month on Deep Point of View and Diana Hurwitz's recent posts on Interiority

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. I find it very hard to write in first person, and I'm also not fond of reading books written in first person. For me the choice is easy and almost always "b) third person limited".

    As for second person (as per your footnote), Australian author Elliot Perlman's literary novel Seven Types of Ambiguity is divided into seven parts, and the first is written in second person. It's a book well-worth reading/studying (and it was short-listed for a prestigious award here).

    And "Choose Your Own Adventure" books are often written in second person ;-)

  2. I write novels in close third person because I go into multiple POVs, and I want the reader to know what everyone's motivation is and also to get deep into their heads. But when I tried my first short story, first person lent itself better to the task and limited me from going off in tangents. The one book I remember that did well in second person was Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City.

  3. I love first person as a reader and a writer. It does take stringent editing to avoid narrator intrusion, so does third person limited. The "voice" can make or break a story. You can have an interesting plot, but if the person telling it is flat (or annoying), the reader may put it down anyway.

  4. Timely stuff here at the BRP ... my WIP just happens to be in the first person ... a 'first' for me.

  5. I prefer third person limited because I, too, like multiple points of view and complex stories. Nonetheless, knowing how to use other narrative voices adds value should the need or desire arise to slip out of my preferred choice. I look forward to your next post on this topic, Debby.

  6. I like deep POV (which is almost the same as 1st person, but you're not bogged down with all the "I's"). However, I was writing a short story, and 1st person seemed the way the character insisted it be told. But even though I write in 3rd person, I don't like lots of POV characters. I think it's my mystery background--as a reader, I don't want to know anything until the protagonist does. However, suspense lends itself to multiple POV characters. And romance readers want at least the hero and heroine.

  7. First person is a hard narrative for me to pull off for all the reasons that you listed. I think I might try it one day as a challenge. Bookmarking for future reference.

  8. I've been journaling since I was 14, so 1st person is second nature. Writing became a lot easier once I switched to it.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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