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The Perks and Pitfalls of Writing in First Person

Not everyone considers themselves a writer, but we are all, in one way or another, storytellers. Whether it's explaining to our boss why we were late for work, recounting to a friend how terrible a blind date was, or expressing in our journal how we feel about a difficult family member, we tell stories in the first person point-of-view every day.

As writers, because of how natural first-person POV feels, it can be easy to gravitate toward this in our creative work. However, like most craft choices in writing, using a first-person narrator can be a double-edged sword. It's important to know what we gain when using first person, as well as what we might be giving up. Here are some perks of using that ever enticing "I" pronoun, as well as some of the common perils (and how to avoid them).

 

PERKS

Greater Intimacy - In first-person, readers have direct, VIP access to the narrator's feelings, insecurities, thoughts and opinions. The narrator is not filtered or censored by anyone other than themselves. Being immersed in the narrator's perspective can create intimacy with the reader, as well as make the narrator more vulnerable. This vulnerability is what helps the reader emotionally connect with the narrator and invest in their story.

Unique Perspective - First-person narrators who have a distinct take on themselves, others and/or the world around them can be highly entertaining and engaging. The reader gets to revel in the thoughts, experiences, actions and reactions of someone other than themselves. This is one of the major reasons we read: to inhabit the unique and interesting lives of others, to walk in someone else's shoes without ever leaving our living room.

Distinct Voice - Narrators with big personas and/or a singular way of telling their story can grab the mic and take center stage unabashedly in first person. Word choice, syntax and rhythm can be used to reveal a lot about the narrator and help make them feel three-dimensional. In addition, a distinct voice can reinforce that the narrator is uniquely qualified to tell this particular story in this particular way.

 

Pitfalls

Lack of Distance - Sometimes when using the "I" pronoun, writers identify too closely with the narrator. If working with autobiographical material, the writer may feel compelled to tell the story exactly as it happened, regardless of whether it serves the story. They may also feel locked into telling the story from their own perspective, even if it's not the most engaging point of view for their material. One way to overcome this is to see the narrator as distinct from the writer, even in first person.

Stuck in Interiority - When writing in first person, it's easy to get stuck inside the narrator's head. Giving the reader only the narrator's thoughts can leave the reader feeling adrift. In order to keep your reader connected to the story, it is important to ground them in a scene. Balance what is happening in the narrator's interior world with what is happening in their exterior world. Use scene as a touchstone for the narrator to react to, even when they're lost in their own thoughts.

Less Awareness - When a narrator is disconnected from others or themselves in some way, such as depressed or in denial, they often lack the self-awareness to tell their own story with enough insight to be engaging/offer depth. In this situation, consider using an older narrator looking back, who can describe their thoughts and feelings at the time the story was unfolding, while also adding perspective based on the wisdom and experience they have acquired since.

 

What do you think? If any of these perks or perils resonated with you in particular, please let me know in the comments section. I'd be happy to offer a follow-up post on any of these topics in more depth.