Writing in the first person – there are pitfalls

It’s got to be the easiest way to start writing, hasn’t it? Most people have kept a diary at one time or another, and most of us have written letters. Writing from the ‘I’ point of view looks like a doddle compared with handling a number of different characters, because you’re viewing the action from inside one head instead of many. But this approach brings its own problems.

The first one concerns the appearance of your narrator. People don’t usually describe themselves; they know what they look like and they assume you do too. But describing your central character is very important, because the reader will form a mental image anyway. So if, suddenly, three chapters in, your reader discovers that the slim little redhead they imagined is really a huge blond bruiser they may need to re-evaluate his or her personality in view of the vehicle he’s driving (a Picanto Kia? Really? Why? Did he steal it?) and the language he uses – or the make-up she wears and the way she interacts with other people.

This misapprehension can even happen with gender – you may have assumed the writer to be female, and discovering that they’re male totally alters the way you’ve understood everything that’s gone before. There are, of course, devices to get round this. The favourite trick is to use a hall mirror as the narrator prepares to go out, but it’s such an old chestnut that to make it work you need to find an original approach. A distorting mirror at a funfair, which accentuates things the character dislikes about herself, perhaps. Or maybe a reflection in a teapot/gin bottle/undertaker’s window will have far more impact, and tell you a lot more about the character. The other way to do it is to use dialogue, and have someone else say: “You really shouldn’t wear blue, darling, not with eyes as green as yours.” Or: “Why on earth would you need a hairbrush, when there’s so little left to brush?” Or: “You’re a dead ringer for Barack Obama. I bet people mistake you for him all the time.”

And that’s just the visual. Remember another character can comment on the sound of your voice, the perfume you wear, the texture of your skin. I think we leave taste to Hannibal Lecter – which brings me to the other issue about writing in the first person. You can’t kill yourself off. This might seem like a minor issue but actually, it’s not. When you’re writing in the third person and you put your character in danger we don’t know whether they’re going to survive or not. When you’re the narrator, we know you’re going to pull through whatever happens to you unless you cheat. Cheating is letting us know right at the end that you’re a ghost, or bringing in another person who finds your diary, or retrieving your personality and memories and putting them into a machine. You can write from the dead person’s POV (The Lovely Bones by Alice Seabold), but it requires considerable skill to find new ways of tackling something like this, so that the reader suspends disbelief. If you need to frighten your reader on your character’s behalf it’s better to let us know right at the start that there is some particular phobia or fear they have, and use that as the ultimate weapon. Your character can always go mad, of course!

The final issue is the inability of the reader to follow any action that doesn’t directly involve the narrator. It makes it quite difficult to keep things secret, because you can’t jump to the other side of the world to witness important events, or even go into the next room to overhear a crucial conversation. It’s a big undertaking changing the viewpoint throughout, but it can be done. Have you ever come to a full stop because writing your story in the first person has thrown up too many problems?

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4 comments for “Writing in the first person – there are pitfalls

  1. 10 October 2017 at 9:23 am

    Great post, Liz. So glad you mentioned the old mirror being a cliche!

  2. Linda
    11 October 2017 at 7:29 pm

    I for one have definitely turned back when writing from the first person POV, having found it difficult to communicate relevant actions which didn’t involve the narrator but were absolutely essential for the shape of the story. But I am determined to keep on trying, because I find the effect of first person narrative gives an immediacy which other POVs don’t.
    My favourite first person novel is The Lost weekend by Blake Morrison. I love the subtle way he manages to tell the story and be the unreliable narrator at the same time. I wish I could do that.

  3. Carlie
    12 October 2017 at 9:09 pm

    Thanks, Liz, great post. I almost always write in first-person and I’ve certainly run into some of the problems you’ve mentioned. Especially when my character’s name is unisex. I had considered not using any pronouns at all and having the reader make up their mind which gender they think the protagonist is, but it was too difficult. I’m having a go at third-person at the moment. I’m finding it hard to make each character’s voice unique. Trail and error 🙂

  4. 13 October 2017 at 1:21 pm

    love the post Liz.Perfect interpretation

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