My relationship with first-person narration

Off the top of my head, I can only think of one occasion when I wrote something in first-person that wasn’t told in journal format. It was one of the books of a discontinued series that was my attempt at writing a 1980s and 1990s version of the Little House books.

Every year, the family would move to and live in a new state. They had four daughters, Anna, Amy, Sally, and Kelly, and in the book about Montana, Mrs. Thomas, the mom, had twins, Davy and Emerald. The one first-person attempt in this juvenile series was the book about Illinois. So many years later, I can’t even remember why I decided to try that particular book in first-person. I still have those few pages, in the cornflower blue 5-subject notebook where I wrote the majority of the rough draft of Saga II of Cinnimin.

Boy, is it appallingly awful. Completely NOT in the sweet, innocent (if immaturely-written) style of the prior books. The other book in that series I still have (also never finished) is about Utah, and similarly seems out of style with the earlier books (really more like novelettes) I’d written. I probably aborted that series because I just realized my heart was no longer in it and I wanted to write longer stuff, with more mature themes. It wasn’t right to have these wholesome characters suddenly acting like my Atlantic City characters and doing really goofy, loopy stuff besides. So I moved on.

I’ve naturally always gravitated towards third-person omniscient, and will occasionally do third-person limited to an extent. But writing in first-person just doesn’t come naturally to me. I feel closer to my characters because they’re in third-person. I think of them by their names—Violet, Kit, Cinnimin, Max, Eulalia, Daphne, Portia, Justine, Adicia, Allen, Lenore, Lyuba, Ivan, Boris, Katrin, Kat, Nikolas, Eliisabet, et al. I get to know each of them as individuals, instead of a constant stream of I-I-I-me-me-me-my-my-my-mine-mine-mine.

When you’re writing a long, complex, sweeping saga with a very wide plot trajectory, many characters, and numerous subplots and storylines, third-person omniscient is the only way to go. And third-person limited works if it’s a book of a lesser epic scale but you still want introspection and world-building. Most of my third-person limited so far has been with my Shoah characters, in the collections of stories I’m expanding into full novels. When you don’t have an ensemble cast and the story is more focused on just one character, third-person limited can work very well.

I just can’t make the psychological leap of writing in the first person and pretending I’m a fictional character. Attempting to write an entire book, unless it were in journal form, in first-person when that’s not really my voice, would feel really fake and forced. I’d be extremely unhappy if I attempted it, since that’s just not who I am. I don’t want to pretend to be someone I’m not (i.e., a first-person writer, not a fictional character), and never will be. The old-fashioned third-person omniscient has always worked just fine for me.

Lately it’s harder for me to get into a first-person book, because it seems like 90% of all books nowadays, esp. YA, are first-person. I don’t remember nearly so many when I was a young adult a generation ago. I’ve enjoyed quite a few first-person books (most recently the classic Annie on My Mind), but because they were well-written and I liked the subject matter, not because I felt closer to the protagonist based on narrative choice.

But I have enjoyed writing limited first-person sections, in the form of letters and journal entries. It’s fun to write from the POV of just one character for a few pages, but I couldn’t sustain that over hundreds of pages.

4 thoughts on “My relationship with first-person narration

  1. I agree, I don’t remember nearly as many first person books when I was growing up. Unlike you however, I tend to gravitate toward them. I guess I like getting to know the main character really well. I can definitely see how you would need to use third person omniscient in your historical fictions though and I’m sure they are great!

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    • Thanks for commenting! I suppose since third-person omniscient seemed to be the default when I was growing up, and in all the older books I’d read, I stayed with what was most familiar and never got too much into first-person. But I am planning to go back to a long-shelved story told in journal format, starting in 1840, and give it a major overhaul. I’ll see whether I remember how to write an entire book in first-person, and if I remember how to write in this long-shelved character’s voice consistently.

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  2. I used to be bugged by 1st person until I started writing young adult and realized 90% is told in that narrative. Books of exception, like Cassandra Clare’s series, feel more suited as third person because of either the historical aspect (Clockwork Prince) or large cast of characters. Graceling also worked as third given it was high fantasy. For contemporary YA, I think 1st person works better because it’s more immediate and relatable.

    I am still annoyed a bit by 1st person present tense, and I’ve seen quite a bit more of it lately in YA.

    As you said, for a sweeping family saga, third person — and omnicient — makes more sense to get the wider scope. If it’s not one person’s story but many, then that’s the way to go!

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    • Thanks for your comments! I totally agree about first-person present tense, particularly in modern YA. I think the first time I saw it was in Pearl Abraham’s The Romance Reader, which I read in 1997 (a few years after it was published), and it didn’t bug me at all then, since it was so new and not yet a trend. And I do like it in certain types of memoirs. But in the average novel these days, my brain seems to freeze up and I have a hard time getting engrossed.

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