Writing in the First Person Perspective – A Guide
If you read last week’s post advocating for writing in the first person and have never attempted it before, you may be wondering what goes into it and where to start. In fact, a few authors contacted us about that specifically, which inspired us to dig a little bit deeper into the subject. This time, instead of just suggesting you give it a try, Ginger has put together a quick guide on writing in the first person perspective in the most compelling way possible.
So, you read my blog post advocating for writing in the first person perspective – and you’ve bitten. But, how does one go about writing from the first person perspective? Especially in the most compelling way possible?
Last week, I wrote about the often underappreciated value of writing in the first person perspective. Not everybody agreed with me, with talented author Edita A. Petrick making the very valid observation that “in first-person, you can’t really step ‘outside’ the frame of your story and give details that your character did not see, did not hear and did not experience.”
She also warned “the readers might NOT find the writer’s voice interesting. In fact, some readers might even find it off-putting. That was the case for at least half-a-dozen new writers who shared this revelation on couple of writing forums.”
While I think those are valid observations – and, I’ll admit, I wrote a half-dozen books in third person before I had the confidence to switch to first person – I still defend the use of the first person perspective, and I differ from Edita’s perspective by thinking it’s actually a very strong voice for new writers to adopt, since it forces you into the story and also forces you to be ruthlessly disciplined about which perspective you write the story from. One of the mistakes a lot of writers make with third person perspective is veering from focusing on one character to another without a suitable transition (or sometimes any transition) and you simply can’t make that misstep when you’re writing from the first person.
You can make similar criticisms and defenses for third person perspective, so I’m not here to argue that one is ‘better’ than the other (I think a lot of that depends on the writer!)
What I’ll do instead is respond to another email I got about that last article, asking: “I always write third person because first person scares me about the ‘unknown’ how-to. Would you mind telling me where I can best learn how to write my next book in first person? Possibly alternating hero/heroine? I have third person down pat, but the ‘tense’ in first person concerns me and the overuse of the word ‘I’.”
I’m very far from Shakespeare, so take the below with a pinch of salt – but here are some of the key recommendations I try to stick to when I’m writing from the first-person perspective:
Write the story first.
In the same article in which I spoke about perspective, I wrote that there’s a ruthless divide between story, and writing. Your story is what happened – and writing is how you tell it. This is why you can write the same story from multiple different perspectives – like EL James re-writing Fifty Shades of Grey from Christian’s perspective.
This is why you need to button down the story before you focus on the craft of writing it. You need to hit all the beats of a story in general (the story circle is invaluable to me) and your genre in perspective (I write romance, which has very specific ‘beats’ almost like long-form poetry.) Your character has to have a burning need, suffer a humiliating defeat, and then return with a new perspective to succeed where they once failed.
The story should be independent of how you write it, and generally the style in which you write it won’t impact what actually happens to the characters. If it does, you have to ask yourself why.
Why would a story go one way in third-person perspective, but change when you switch perspectives? Generally, it’s because you’re getting an alternative perspective on the motivations of your character; and what they’d ‘choose’ to do in third person perspective differs from what you might do if you found yourself in that same situation (which you can’t help but do when you write in first person perspective, because you’re literally there.) If that happens – good. It shows a more authentic course of action than your character might have followed otherwise.
So, my first advice is to hammer out all your story details first – because those are the foundation you’ll hang your writing off.
Get into the character’s head – but you don’t need to be your character.
One of the challenges of writing from a first-person perspective is that you need to describe everything they see, hear, and think from their perspective, not your own. This creates an interesting situation in that sometimes you’ll have to describe things through a lens that’s very different to your own. For example, a romance writer might have to write about a tortured former combat veteran with PTSD as their male lead – while they personally have a lot more in common with the female character.
My personal philosophy is not to overthink this. You’re not expected to be your character – just provide the character’s voice with a level of authenticity. To this end, when you’re writing from the perspective of a character that’s very different to yourself, make sure you do as much research as possible, and if you know anybody similar to that character, spend some time with them and study the words and intonations they use, any unique or notable habits they have, and their perspectives on various things – from politics to football teams.
The reason for this is to include similar details in your writing. What you don’t know about the life of a character you’re writing about, you don’t need to mention. The details, mannerisms, experiences, and opinions you learned during your research, you should. These provide a sense of authenticity which makes your description of that character’s experiences so much more believable.
Some writers get uncomfortable delving into first-person perspective when it comes to some characters, and I think there’s some validity to this concern. We live in a very sensitive era, and there’s increasing scrutiny of who a writer is as well as what they write – because some people believe that can add positive or negative context to their words.
Author Gwen C. Katz brought attention to this when she accidentally led to the creation of the Twitter hashtag #describeyourselfasamaleauthorwould. This is a game in which women take tropes and turns-of-phrase attributed to male writers and use them to describe themselves. While the game is kind of sexist – only a minority of male authors, generally writing for specific genres, are actually guilty of such egregious writing – the game did highlight how even well-intentioned male writers can come across as very inauthentic when they try to write from a female perspective.
I believe the same could probably be said about female authors writing from a male perspective – or people of one race, or nationality, or background writing from the perspective of a different race, nationality, or background. In fact, a few years ago the author Anthony Horowitz was ‘talked out of‘ including a black character in one of his novels, because it was ‘inappropriate’ to write from his perspective given that Horowitz is white – and there was similar controversy surrounding the best-selling book The Help, because it incorporated a black perspective provided by a white writer.
Ultimately, I think there’s a common-sense perspective to be adopted here. If writers were only allowed to write through the eyes of characters who shared their background, we wouldn’t have very many books! The essence of a good story is conflict, and the quickest way to develop conflict is to thrust two very different people together. If you write from the first-person perspective, that means you’re going to be forced to write using the voice of somebody with a background very different to your own.
And that’s fine – if you do the research, and have empathy for that character’s experiences and motives, there’s no reason why you can’t write authentically from their perspective. It’s just important not to sell a story off a perspective you don’t truly have appreciation for.
Understand their motivations.
If you’ve read any of my other articles, you’ll probably appreciate that I’m a nerd – and when my eight-year-old asks me if I prefer Marvel or DC comics, I’ll usually nerd-out completely by answering ‘both.’
I love the heroes of Marvel comics, but nobody creates villains like DC. Every DC villain has a backstory – a reason for them being so evil – and that’s what makes them so much more compelling then the Marvel bad-guys; who are kind of one-dimensional.
In terms of storytelling, this is important because from the perspective of the villain, they’re the hero! The Joker is psychologically broken, so only commits his atrocities because he believes life is meaningless – a bitter, unfunny joke. Likewise, Mr. Freeze was only trying to save his dying wife. When you look into the backstories of these bad guys, it’s often difficult not to wonder if you’d do similar things in their circumstances.
Hopefully not – but even if you don’t have sympathy for a bad guy, you can at least understand their motivations for doing what they do; and that’s what’s so important to think about when you’re writing in the first-person perspective.
It’s actually one of the reasons why I’m such a fan of writing in first-person; because you get to draw on a character’s entire life history in order to explain their actions. When you write from a third-person perspective, you’re an external observer to a character’s actions; and it’s sometimes not clear why they’d do what they do. When you write from a first-person perspective, you can be completely explicit – and it doesn’t come across as forced.
In a third-person adventure story, you might wonder why the hero crossed the desert instead of taking a shortcut across the river – it makes no sense! But from the first-person perspective, you could explain how the hero’s little brother got swept away in a river as a baby; and so he’s never liked the water since. It’s a bit of a melodramatic example, but does demonstrate the value a first-person perspective brings to explaining a character’s reasoning.
When you write from the first-person perspective, it’s vital to embrace the character’s motivations. Remember, they’re not doing the things they do because some mysterious sky-author told them to (even though they literally are) but because they want to. No, need to. A story is mapped out by the actions a character takes while attempting to meet their needs; and explaining those needs is the key to creating characters who are believable.
Layer in the details.
Another tip I have for writing in the first-person perspective is to embrace all five senses when you write using their voice. This is what really helps tune a reader into your character’s experiences – because, as I said in my prior article, it’s a scientific fact that the brain can’t actually tell the difference between what’s real, and what’s imaginary. If you describe a character shivering in the snow, you’ll often have the beach-side reader doing the same, despite the heat.
So, when you write it’s good to close your eyes and actually visualize the experience through your character’s eyes. Does the steering wheel vibrate as they drive their old car? Do they hear the birds chirping in the trees as they walk through the park? Does that old sports injury ache on cold mornings?
Remember, you don’t have to be the character – your job is just to describe their experiences; and that’s the real power first-person perspective has over the third-person. Obviously, you can describe the same things using an external perspective; but they are so much more powerful when you read about them through the first person perspective.
Words are extremely powerful – magic, even – and one of the most basic tenants of human psychology is that we tend to believe the statements we absorb when they’re written using the ‘I’ conjugation. This is why salesmen stand in front of the mirror every morning to make positive affirmations – a twist on the Stuart Smalley sketch from SNL: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and – doggone it – people like me!”
If you write “my hands balled up into fists” then many readers will crumple their page as they do the same. Still more of them will narrow their eyes, and feel the heat in their belly, because they know that balling your hands up into fists normally means that you’re angry.
Describing a character’s experiences of being angry will actually make the reader angry; in a good way. First-person perspective is like a cheat-code for creating a connection with your reader; and it’s one you can leverage into some incredibly powerful writing.
Describe experiences, don’t make statements.
Further to that point is a final tip I’m including in response to a concern mentioned in the email which inspired this article. They asked how to avoid overuse of the word ‘I’ when writing in first-person perspective.
The answer is to embrace a twist on the invaluable writing advice of ‘show, don’t tell.’
When you’re writing from the first-person perspective, the magic is to be found in actions, not statements – and that also eliminates overuse of the word ‘I’.
What do I mean by this? Take that example I gave above – of a sentence like: “my hands balled up into fists.”
A writer could have simply said “I was angry” – but that’s not as powerful. That’s a statement, whereas “my hands balled up into fists” is what the character did when they felt angry, and it makes the same statement without having to say it so explicitly.
That’s the essence of good writing, and the key to mastering the first-person perspective. Always describe your character’s emotional experiences through sensations and actions, rather than by making simple statements.
“My palms were sweaty” is better than “I was nervous.”
“My pulse raced” is better than “I was excited.”
“A cold chill ran down my spine” is better than “I was frightened.”
The reason I make the definitive statement of better harkens back to what I wrote in a previous paragraph – that it’s a scientific fact that the brain can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s imaginary. Write “my hands balled up into fists” and the same parts of a reader’s brain will light up as if they themselves balled their hands up into fists.
Then, tie that into another truth of human psychology – that action creates emotion, not the other way around. In layman’s terms, put a big smile on your face and you’ll actually feel a surge of happiness as your brain releases dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins into your bloodstream. You’re literally hacking your emotions.
Now, think of that from a reader’s perspective. We’ve already established that when you write “my hands balled up into fists” the same parts of a reader’s brain lights up as if they’d balled their hands up into fists. Then, remember that actions can trigger emotions, and you’ll understand why a reader will feel a swell of anger in their belly when they read about your character’s rage.
This isn’t something that happens when you write “I was angry.” That’s merely a statement – just like how when your toddler complains “I’m hungry” you don’t instantly start to feel hungry yourself.
But when somebody yawns – so will you. When you mirror somebody’s big smile, you’ll feel a surge of happiness yourself. Using this knowledge, you can place yourself into the driver’s seat of a readers emotions and take them on a journey by triggering their feelings – and that’s when the magic happens.
Plus, as I mentioned earlier, it also means your writing won’t be full of repetitive ‘I’ statements.
Writing in the first-person isn’t necessarily a better way to tell a story than third-person, but it’s definitely an option you can take and do some pretty incredible things with. As a writer, I find it makes me much more invested in the characters I write about, and I know I’ve created more of a connection with my readers by shifting to first-person.
I hope the tips I gave you above will help you if you experiment with first-person perspective – or if that’s already your chosen writing style. If you think I’ve missed anything out, don’t be afraid to let me know in the comments section below – and if you’d like a similar deep-dive into the third-person perspective, let me know!