As a Young Adult author, I’m well acquainted with first person. For as long as I’ve been writing, that’s been the main format of the genre. The good news is that it’s the most common way we tell stories in real life (which is part of why I’m a big fan of it), but it does tend to introduce several pitfalls.
One of the biggest is character description. More specifically, description of the narrator. As I explained in a post a long time ago, while it’s perfectly acceptable to provide description in third-person (‘she had blue hair and an epic mohawk’), first person is not so forgiving. Originally, I listed four ways to describe a narrator , but I’ve since begun using two more: delayed description and dialogue description.
Delayed description is sort of a sneaky technique where you avoid describing the narrator until some aspect of their appearance influences the story, such as them being short and fitting in with a group of children. Dialogue description is probably the most fun one I’ve found; it involves another character mentioning their description in dialogue. So one example might be a blonde narrator becoming the butt of a dumb blonde joke, and all of a sudden the readers know her hair color. Or perhaps a boy awkwardly tells her she’s beautiful, which also gives the readers a guideline.
I feel I’m at risk of seguing into a longer post on first-person, so I’ll stop myself there. Suffice to say that narrator description is a reasonably easy problem to solve. The next big problem is what I call the ‘I’ problem. It seems obvious, but in first person a significant portion of your sentences will start with the word. I ran to him. I jumped into his arms. I braced myself as he spun me around.
The main fix for this problem is to make yourself aware of it. When you have the urge to start a second or third sentence in a row with ‘I,’ look back and check if there’s another way to phrase things. In many ways this will actually help your overall writing, as it will eliminate a lot of boring sentences.
The third and final major problem that I’ve experienced is the limit on information. Third person allows for the reader to receive information from more than one source, creating a lot more opportunities for dramatic irony and tension (say, if the reader knew that the main character was about to sneak into a room filled with armed men). There doesn’t seem to be much of a fix for this; I know it’s tempting to simply up the level of knowledge of the narrator, but doing so makes everything feel cartoony. Instead, I’ve found that it’s best to work within this limitation and accept that the level of tension felt by the reader will match what’s felt by the narrator.
In general, the best advice I think I could give to someone writing first person is to imagine you were telling the story to someone else. How would you do it? Where would you pause? These little quirks help create a unique voice. As long as you’re aware of the pitfalls of first person, you can use it to create some amazing stories.
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