At long last, I think I’m ready to tackle this topic. I’ve done much reading on this subject and my brain is finally the consistency of something-firmer-than-soup. It might even be straight up to Jell-O status at this point. Without further ado, my own take on the pitfalls of first person (though this is not without its antecedent authors, whom are properly referenced, of course):
- Crappy Character – The #1 reason to avoid first person writing. If the protagonist’s point of view is not compelling and unique, avoid it like the plague. I believe a character can be interesting in and of themselves and just not have a particularly relevant or fascinating POV or voice. What if the entire book is about a character’s transition into knowing who they are? If they don’t come out a fully-formed person on the other end relaying the work, you run the risk of boring the reader – and yourself.
- Showing, Not Telling – Very easy to fall prey to this, and I try to be on guard. It’ll never be summarized better than in this excellent Julie Ann Dawson article: “The narrator spends the entire story dictating the narrative instead of engaging in the art of storytelling. A recent fantasy story rejection involved a goddess who spent the entire story telling us how she got revenge on a human that wronged her. But instead of allowing the story to develop, the narrator had to go on and on about how smart she was for coming up with her plan, and how stupid her nemesis was for betraying her, and yada yada yada. A narrator that loves the sound of her own voice is poor choice for a storyteller. And unfortunately first person narrators, if not careful, become too enamored with themselves to tell the story.”
- Ambiguous Narration – I’m talking about the who and why of the narrator telling the story in the first place. Why would someone be telling this story? To whom are they telling it? You may not have to reveal this in the book, but as the author you’d damn sure better have that space in mind as you tell the story. For instance, my own novel is told during interrogation by two of the angels in the story – this will become important at the end of the novel, so the first-person POV is tied to the plot structure itself.
- Info Dumps – Tricky one. In general, I hate info dumps, but when you’re telling a fantasy/sci-fi story you’re going to have to sneak that information in somehow. My own method has been slowly unraveling this secret world to the narrator one piece at a time and trying to make these info dumps relevant to the story at hand. For instance, the narrator (and the reader) doesn’t find out about her abilities until they’re needed to escape certain death. There is always sleight of hand to be used in drawing the characters away from the questions that follow until they’re also relevant to the plot – something I didn’t grasp until very recently. It felt like cheating, but I think it’s important in order to maintain some sense of mystery and drive behind the narrative.
Those seem to be the big four that I’ve found, and lots of blogs seem to agree with me. There are some others, such as the fear that you might insert too much of yourself into the story or the difficulty of dramatizing scenes that don’t involve the narrator, but I think if you’ve written for a long enough time those should be fairly minor pitfalls. I think the benefits far outweigh the potential cons of writing in first person. Here are the benefits that I have discovered just in the last month or so:
- Compelling Voice – Yes, third person can be compelling, but for some of us lowly authors, the voice of an interesting character can stand out far more and break through the layer of words separating the reader from the story.
- Immediacy – Close cousin to compelling voice and the last point mentioned above: this POV provides a near-instant character to whom the reader can relate. The story’s emotional impact becomes one step less removed.
- Ability to Synthesize Emotion – This is kind of a tricky one to summarize; by this I mean that first person allows a much stronger platform for showing a character’s evolution from talking about and feeling baser emotions into something more well-rounded. You can watch a character’s internal monologue as they piece together emotions in reaction to the story. See what I mean? Not easy to define, but I’m sure an example from a novel immediately sprang to mind.