Most books and stories are written in the third person. In other words, they are written as if the characters are being observed by an all-knowing being. This perspective allows the author to look inside the characters and describe what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, what they’re motivation is for the way they act and so on. The writer can know when one character is being deceived by another, or when something happens beyond their sphere of knowledge that has ramifications for a certain individual. This is a powerful position and it allows many separate elements within a story to be woven together in a seamless manner that allows the reader to know more than any individual character about what is happening.
However, there is another perspective a story can be written from, that of the first person. In these stories, the author, and indeed the reader, can only see the world through the eyes of the individual who is narrating the book. This can make for a compelling tale, since the reader discovers things at the same time as the main character, and can feel as if they are going through the same events. While first person narratives are rare in some genres, they are very common in others. In particular, many of the best post-apocalyptic stories are written from a first person point of view. This is because it’s narrative format is well-suited for telling stories of survival and turmoil.
Yet, writing a first person narrative can be very different from writing from a third person perspective, and if you’re familiar in writing from the third person point of view, it can be difficult to shift into writing from the first. In particular, while the reader is all-knowing in terms of the narrator, they can only find out about what others are thinking or feeling by their actions or if they talk about it. This means that you have to be very careful about how information is revealed, and the whole story must be played out by the actions and interactions of that one key person. So how do you go about writing a first person narrative? Here’s my top six tips:
1. First person narratives are best kept relatively simple and linear. This means you need to avoid many of the multi-faceted elements than make stories told from a third person perspective so compelling. Remember any explaining of complicated back stories or personal histories has to be done through speech, and if you make them too complicated, it will interrupt the flow of your main story.
2. It is usually best if you keep the cast of characters small. Every time you introduce a new character, they will have to explain where they came from and who they are. This can get tedious for the reader if it happens too frequently, particularly if the character is not pivotal to the main story arc. I remember in one story I was working on, I ended up cutting the number of named characters in half after the first draft because introducing new people kept slowing the action down. Instead, I just used existing characters in the same situations. This kept the story moving along, as well as allowing me to develop these characters in more depth.
3. The narrator is not a mind-reader. The only way he or she can know what someone is thinking is if they tell them. The same goes for events that happen out of sight of the narrator. They cannot know what has happened unless someone tells them. This means the narrator must be in ever scene, although you can have scenes within scenes where another character describes to the narrator what happened elsewhere.
4. While writing first person narratives, it’s very easy to get suckered into using very passive language. For example, if the story arc calls for two people to move, it’s easy to write something like this: ‘We decided we should head north and we set off in that direction.’ This might be how you’d describe what happened if you were telling someone about it, but it’s hardly the most gripping writing style. Instead, you need to work hard to keep your story in an active voice. One of the best ways to do this is to use speech. In the above example, you could have a section of dialogue that tells the reader how the decision to head in a specific direction came about. Something like this:
I looked around desperately, trying to work out where we should go next, then I saw it, a small break in the trees up on the ridge to our north. ‘Up there, do you see it? It’s a way out.’
Bob lifted his binoculars and scanned the path that lead up to it ‘I don’t know, it looks too dangerous to me.’
‘You got a better idea?’
‘No,’ Bob scratched his beard and thought for a moment before carrying on, ‘But I still don’t like the look of it.’
‘We’ve got no choice. If we stay here, they’re going to find us, and then they’re going to kill us.’
Bob stared silently at the ridge as if waiting for something to happen.
‘Well, I’m going for it.’ I walked a few paces forward before turning back, ‘You coming?’
Bob said nothing, he just picked up his pack and followed as I led the way up the hill.
5. When you’re describing how the narrator is feeling, you need to vary the way in which you reveal this information. If you always use the same method, your story will soon get very boring. For example, if you continually use ‘I felt…’ phrases (as in ‘I felt sad’, ‘I felt run down’, ‘I felt frustrated’ etc) your story will quickly become monotonous. Instead, you can use a variety of different ways to reveal the narrator’s inner emotions, such as, ‘I kicked the door in frustration’, ‘John’s assessment of the situation, while accurate, left me feeling thoroughly depressed’ or ‘As I walked through the ruins, a sense of desolation settled over me’.
6. When writing from the first person perspective, don’t imagine you’re writing a diary that describes what the narrator did. That style of writing it too passive and, as you’ll know if you’ve ever read someone’s diary, rather boring (they’re never the thrilling read you think they’ll be!). Instead, imagine you’re trying to entertain someone with your story over a couple of beers. You’d use very different, and much more active, language than if you were writing a diary, and this is closer to the style you should be aiming for in a first person narrative.
So, those are my tips for writing a story from the first person perspective. I hope you find them useful. If you’d like to read a couple of short stories I have written from a first person perspective, you can find one here and another here.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.