The Double-Edged Sword of Being a First-Person Writer

Since middle school, I have written almost all of my poetry and stories from the first-person perspective. Whether or not this habit formed out of teen angst is irrelevant–what’s important to know is being a first-person writer has many pros and cons in effectively telling a story.  Below I explain many of the positives and negatives I have learned about first-person writing and why and how writers should strive to use the third-person perspective.

1. You’re more likely to become wrapped up in the story.

Especially when first beginning.  Using “I” when setting up the scene for your story allows you to immediately delve in as a writer.  You’re the one in this story, not some random character that you had to spend hours creating and double the mental effort to maintain throughout.  Without worrying about staying in character, you can much more easily weave yourself into the thick of the plot.

This is both great and terrible.  Anything that helps the writer achieve a level of confidence when first starting out is a positive, but unless you want to be a one-trick pony, you will have to become somewhat of an actor/actress.

How to Become a Literary Actor/Actress

– Practice by choosing someone you know in your real life, and try to write a story in their shoes.  It will help you get into the mindset of using the “I” without always talking from your own viewpoint.

– Read some examples of third-person writing to see how you can use it in your own.  Revisit Harry Potter or The Giver to see how J.K. Rowling and Lois Lowry manages to successfully tell a story through another character.  Jodi Picoult also does an excellent job of telling a story through multiple perspectives, even within the same novel.

2. You will probably attribute many of your own personality traits to the main character.

This fact builds upon the previous statement I explained.  If you’re telling the story from an “I” perspective, it is all too easy to make the character yourself.  This can be excellent because you can explain how multi-dimensional you are as a character (and real live person), but if you’re writing multiple stories/novels, it can feel like you’re simply recycling material.

If You Choose To Make Yourself the Main Character…

– Recognize both your good and your bad personality traits. Don’t make yourself the completely perfect and unflawed hero of your own story, and don’t make yourself so pathetic and worthless that readers will roll their eyes.  Real people are both perfect and pathetic.

– Understand yourself, your motivations, and the results of your motivations.  To tell a story about yourself that is realistic, you have to truly know who you are.  You have to recognize that even though you’re a good person, you’re motivated by success and recognition and would sometimes make bad decisions based on these motivations.

– Decide whether your story would be more thoughtful as a fiction or non-fiction.  What message are you trying to send?

3. You can provide a much more personal and in-depth account of what is going on in the main character’s mind and heart.

Only you know exactly what you think and feel. Often, in a third-person or omnipotent perspective, inner feelings and thoughts aren’t directly stated. Again, stating them directly can both help and hurt you.

Should You Tell Them How You Feel?

– Remember that in writing, oftentimes the best way to tell the reader how you are feeling or what you are thinking is by showing, not telling.

– However, directly stating some thoughts and feelings can also improve upon your writing of the first-person perspective because it allows the reader to feel like they are inside your head.

– Moral of the story? Feel free to make direct statements, but use them in moderation! If you simply tell your reader everything, it’s not as fun to read.

4. You can easily leave the main character’s appearance out of the picture.

Depending on the goal or message of your story and your style of writing, this could be beneficial or detrimental.  Some stories are better told if the reader can create their own mental picture of the character or is unaware of their style/race/size.  However, appearances also are an important factor in how others treat you.

To Decide on Whether or Not to Include Appearances…

– Determine the overall goal of your story.  Is describing your appearance important to the message of the story? Will it help more effectively tell your story?

 

Being a first-person writer is both a blessing and a curse.  Play to your strengths and be aware of and strengthen your weaknesses!

Sincerely,

Erika

 

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2 thoughts on “The Double-Edged Sword of Being a First-Person Writer

  1. I find that I attribute various aspects of my personality on all of my characters. I usually don’t realize this when I start. I always believe someone else is the inspiration, but as I move through the story, I begin to see the resemblance to myself. For instance, when I wanted to create a controlling mom for my current project, I tapped into my own self-critic. It’s kind of cool when you can separate a small part of yourself, create a character around that particular personality trait and then confront it with your heroine.

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    • I know exactly what you mean! It’s funny how writing seems to be therapy, entertainment, education, and reflection wrapped together. There’s a reason writers are so emotionally invested in their stories.

      Like

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