First Person, Therefore “I am”

An observation I’ve made recently:

Back in high school, I routinely turned to first person for stories, especially comedic works. I had a knack for exuberant characters. Dialogue was my first strength as a writer, so a rambling first person narrator was pretty much up my alley. (Like my short story “The Deadliest Sword,” which is a strange meta-story about first person narrators and one of the earliest appearances of Fred Milish, of Trouble on the Horizon fame. I’ll have to dig it up and post it. Remind me.)

(Update: Here it is.)

After high school, though, I tended to avoid first person, simply because I was excessiveI was learning to cut words and hone descriptions, and I didn’t trust myself to do it well in first person.

Novels started after this era, like The Unremarkable Squire, focus on third person. Actually, The Unremarkable Squire is quite the distance from my early comedic first-person work, avoiding even third-person insights into the protagonist’s thoughts.

I returned to first-person writing in The Story Project, but that was written as a series of fictional blogs, so the conceit helped me focus the writing style.

Then came The Isle of Gold, which I began in third-person, but it just didn’t work. It was a story that needed to be “overdone,” so to speak. The romantic adventurer need to express his thoughts on beauty in superlative, personal language. That was half the point of the novella. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea (ask my brother), but I love it.

And now I’m writing The Well’s Orphan, a new book for the Children of the Wells webseries. I planned it in third-person, even making notes to myself how in certain chapters it needed to be detached third-person. And then, days before I started writing, I switched. 

It’s a little frightening. This story needs to be tight and emotive. It needs to drag you along and get you to empathize with a character not everyone likes–Calea Lisan. I like to harass Natasha about how all YA books are first-person present tense just because it’s “cool,” and now what am I writing? An entire novella in that style. (Sure, I wrote half of The Select’s Bodyguard that way, but I still reverted to my traditional third-person limited for the other half. And Bron is, so to speak, a bit over-the-top in his single-mindedness.)

So, how do I write from inside the head of an overly-intelligent, emotional injured, socially brutal, philosophically hopeless twenty-something female scientist/magician?

I’m trying to figure that out. Stay tuned.

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  1. Looking back at some of my first attempts of writing, I think I stuck to the first-person role. I think it’s easier for a starting writer to build a first person narrative, as the narrator can state how their feeling, rather than showing it.

    At work, I listen to a lot of short scary stories to keep myself entertained. The majority of them come from a first-person narrative. So when I started writing scary stories, I followed suite. While third (or second)-person narrative can work with a short scary story, first-person adds an aura of authenticity to the teller’s tale. It’s saying “This is something horrible that happened to me, and it could happen to you. Third person can lose that edge if the writer isn’t careful in their approach. However, I tried stretching myself and wrote a piece in third-person to see if I could do it, and I think it retains the elements of a good scary story. Both styles of writing ultimately have their place in the writer’s arsenal.

  2. It makes sense for most scary stories to be first person. There’s an immediacy and raw emotion that’s much easier (and more effective, generally) in first person.

    I agree there’s a benefit to each POV (even second person, but mainly in interactive stuff). I think the trick is to know/discover what works best in each case.