Writing In First Person Perspective

by Ian Clements

First person perspective has a bad reputation, and I don’t mean that it wears a leather jacket and rebels against ‘whatever you got.’ It’s a dangerous thing for novice writers as, when you start out, a lot of your work is navel gazing. Your main character is probably you, except they’re wearing a hat (something you’d never do.) Mix this with a narrative that heavily leans on the ‘I’ perspective, and your reader will see right through the cunning hat disguise. Make no mistake, first person written badly can be quite excruciating. Imagine you going to make a cup of coffee and describing every action:

I walk into the kitchen and open the cupboard. I see the jar and lift it down. I spoon coffee grains into the cup as I wait for the kettle to boil. I start considering which life choices led me to be the star of this story.

It’s robotic, rote, and real life isn’t like that. Real life is full of actions performed on auto-pilot; your brain doesn’t bother you with a step by step breakdown, just as you shouldn’t bother the reader. So first person perspective is realistic? Not entirely. Let’s say your narrator has entered a room filled with cheap furniture. In reality, most people would just have a short, knee-jerk reaction. Their tastes weigh against the furniture, there’s a negative reaction, and a mental shrug: ‘Wow, look at this crap.’ Realistic? Yes. Interesting? Not even remotely.

To get to interesting then you need to see the room and furniture through their eyes. As what they choose to see/focus on will inevitably be coloured by taste, bias, a dozen different aspects of personality. The difference is that those aspects become a sprinkle of seasoning, rather than melding into a dull, flat hammer that only hits one note.

The room was a headache. I sat on a chintz sofa; half bleached by sunlight, half still vivid enough to snag passing eyeballs. Set my cup down on a dark wood coffee table, top polished to a shine. Further down, pale splinters where the weight of old magazines was pulling it apart. Net curtains, flock wallpaper, those china figurines of rosy cheeked girls. All forced together like strangers at a bus-stop.

Not only is this more descriptive, it’s also ambiguous. You can tell the narrator doesn’t like the furniture, but so far there’s only the possibility of cruelty or malice. He could just as easily be a grandson expressing affectionate disbelief. We’ll need to read more to find out. It’s the difference between first-person allowing you an intimate perspective, and it allowing you directly into the narrator’s brain to remove all mystery. In this way, a lighter touch can often be beneficial and remove the ‘I did this, then I did this’ aspect of first-person that many people hate. By lighter touch, I mean that you may only have your narrator say he needs to make some coffee, or go to the shops, and then you can describe the world moving past rather than his every movement through it.

Obviously there are times when physicality is necessary. Here is where, as in third-person perspective, it’s very useful to remember that your narrator has five senses. Use these well and, say, a fight scene in first-person can be quite harrowing for the reader. Let’s describe a character’s broken nose in third and first person perspectives.

His body kept telling him to breathe, kept forgetting he couldn’t. Paul gasped mouthfuls of air, choking when they became swallows that forced spit and blood down his throat. Eyes watering, he felt the next punches. Sudden, invisible explosions in his ribs.

My body kept telling me to breathe, kept forgetting I couldn’t. I gasped mouthfuls of air, choking when they became swallows that forced spit and blood down my throat. Eyes watering, I felt the next punches. Sudden, invisible explosions in my ribs.

Same words, but the first-person version is more impactful and immediate.

Plot is where it’s easy to run into problems. Easy, that is, if you’re planning a galaxy spanning epic. It could be that your narrator is someone with plausible access to information that can advance the plot (a high ranking military officer, perhaps), but communicating that can be difficult without resorting to info dumps. Having your narrator hear about the first strike of an alien invasion will seldom compare to being able to detail that strike in third-person perspective. You can’t cheat and get too specific or eloquent, as it won’t sound like natural dialogue. It’s entirely possible, of course, to have your narrator be present at pivotal moments.

Think of War of the Worlds by H.G Wells. The narrator witnesses the opening of the cylinders, and the first military battle with the Martians. The key point is that many others are also present. Similarly, his witnessing the battleship Thunder Child’s deployment against the Martians makes perfect sense. The Battleship is attempting to protect paddle steamers full of refugees, one of which the narrator is aboard. In between these pivotal events, Wells uses the narrator’s limited knowledge and perspective to his advantage. He turns the reader into a refugee; their experience throughout the book one of desperation and isolation, interrupted only by larger events at which they’re logically present. War of the Worlds is an excellent example of an author working to the strength of first-person perspective.

Well, that’s all for now, as this is already turning into a big old wedge of text. I’ve covered what I consider to be the most important points of working with first-person perspective, but would welcome more (ahem) perspectives in the comments. Thanks for reading.