Why I Love Writing in First Person

Sat Aug 05 2017

I admit it. I love writing in first person. I didn't start out writing in first person, and it's not the right POV choice for every single story. But over the years I have gravitated towards it, and now see the reasons why good first person writing creates such strong narrative in so many cases.

It saturates the reader in the character's mindset

There's a huge difference between reading this:

The woman entered the grocery store, unzipping her parka. She pulled a green cart from the rack. She wandered up and down the aisles, collecting items and checking them off her list.

and reading this:

The store's automatic doors slid open, a wave of warm air washing over me as I entered. I unzipped my parka, already feeling the tightness in my chilled face easing. I wrestled a cart from the rack and entered the back-and-forth maze of aisles. They ought to have a free cup of hot coffee right inside the doors, I thought. At least in the winter. Perhaps lemonade in the summer. That would bring the business in.

Third person writes from outside the character's head. First person writes from inside, where the character's thoughts, feelings, sensations, beliefs, attitudes, and desires all live.

Putting the reader there thus immerses them in the character. Letting the reader look out through the character's eyes, rather than letting them only see the character's outer surface, invites readers know the character far more deeply than 3rd person does.

It amplifies and clarifies the character's voice

Since third person narration comes from outside the character, someone else must be doing the narration. In most stories, this is some notional narrator entity who is not actually a part of the story's world, or even of ours. The narrator is a gloss for you, of course, but a disembodied one. Thus the narrative voice is distinct from the character's voice.

Since first person narration comes from inside the character, they themselves are doing the narration. Everything that isn't somebody else's dialogue originates from that character.

And how the character tells us the story--the words they use, what they choose to share with us, to reflect upon, what they hide from us--tells us as much about who they are as a person as do the events they're narrating.

You can stop stage-directing and start experiencing

When you write in first person, you have to get inside the character's head too.

Did you think I was cheating with the example passages above, because the first person passage has more detail? Well, the reason those details weren't in the third person version was because I didn't think of them.

When I was outside the woman's head, I was stage directing. Telling her, in my mind, what to do as she stepped into a warm grocery store on cold winter day. "Ok, lady, go in now. Good. It's warm in there, so unzip your coat. Right. Now get yourself a cart and start shopping."

But when I stepped inside the woman's head, I wasn't stage directing. I was experiencing. I wasn't imaging her going into the store, I was imagining myself going into the store.

And once I did that, I knew I'd see the sliding doors open in front of me, and feel that blast of warm air. I've stepped into a warm place after being out in parka-worthy weather, when the air's so cold it makes my face muscles tighten up. I know how good it feels when the warmth washes over me and those muscles can relax.

And I know how tempting a warm beverage would be, too. I know I'd be wishing there was a big thermos on a table right inside the door, just waiting to dispense me a paper cup of hot chocolate.

When I was outside the character in third person, those extra details weren't available to me because I was too focused on directing her actions. When I was inside the character, those details sprung to mind, obvious and vivid.

You become the character

And yes, I know I wrote coffee in the passage, not hot chocolate. I would be wishing for hot chocolate, because I'm not a coffee drinker.

But I know most people are. And I'm capable of imagining viewpoints that are different from my own, just like you are. I wasn't imagining me-me going into the store. I was imaging me-as-her going into the store. And she's a coffee drinker, even if I'm not.

That's the key to writing in first person. You don't step into the character's role to start playing their part for them. You become them. You wrap everything you know about the character--which is all stuff you've made up anyway--around your own mind.

You must do this because what you want as a writer is impossible: you want your character to live and think and feel just like a real person. But they can't. They're imaginary. They don't have a brain to do those things with.

The only way around this conundrum is to let them borrow yours.

Everyone's identity, the core of who they are, resides in their brain. If yours is the brain your character is thinking with, it thus follows that you are them, just as much as you are also yourself. Distinct, but real.

Succumb to the character

Once you let yourself succumb to this state of willing split-personality, the character's whole mental landscape rushes into view.

The simple act of writing "I" instead of "she" or "he" works a transformative magic upon you. You will find yourself almost viscerally imagining how your characters feel about everything. Thoughts, opinions, attitudes you would never have come up with on your own suddenly pop into your mind, just waiting for you to write them down.

Such a wealth of detail will descend upon you that you'll have to filter it down to just the best bits. But what a gift, to have more than you need to work with! It sure beats the alternative.

Everything you know about the character--their past, their traumas, their hopes and guilty secrets--will worm its way into the magic, flavoring that mental landscape with the unique recipe you have imagined for them. Maybe it's something as simple as coffee vs. cocoa. Maybe it's something as complex as a radically different set of religious beliefs than your own.

Whatever it is, becoming them is how their unique perspective becomes real on the page.

I didn't cheat, earlier. I had to succumb to that nameless woman to find those details. They just weren't there before I became her.

I love writing in first person because when I become my character, my character comes alive.

Who do you become when you write?