Nov 15 2008

Common Problems with First-Person Narration

Published by at 9:42 pm under Story Structure,Writing Articles

First-person narration is tricky. It often suffers from several major problems.

1. Effective writing shows rather than tells, but first-person narration tends to tell. If you were writing a third-person narration sequence to describe how sad John is, you’d probably realize that “John was sad” is a weak sentence. It would be stronger to use an action to demonstrate that John is sad. For example, he might flick a tear away or choke up. In contrast, first-person narration tempts writers into having their characters narrate their feelings. For example, John might narrate “I was sad.” That sentence is just as poor as “John was sad.” First-person narration is more prone to such mistakes.

2. First-person narrators usually intrude on readers with their thoughts. That makes it hard for them to be subtle. For example, let’s imagine a conversation between Peter Parker and his inept boss, J.J. Jameson.

“Don’t you think I’m a good boss, Parker?” asked Jameson.

“Of course,” I lied. Telling him what I really thought would guarantee a one-way trip to the unemployment line.

That’s not particularly good. It’s hard for a first-person Parker to be subtle about his actual opinion of Jameson. In contrast, a third person conversation might make Parker look more impressive. The author can’t rely on the crutch of having the character remind us what he really feels.

“Don’t you think I’m a good boss, Parker?” asked Jameson.

“It takes a special kind of businessman to save funds by cutting the annual Christmas party,” Peter said.

“Damn right, Parker! I couldn’t have put it better myself.”

3. First-person narration makes it absolutely imperative that you nail the character’s voice. Readers will get annoyed if the first-person narrator’s voice sounds wrong. In contrast, a third-person narrator lets you invent an impersonal character– The Narrator– that doesn’t have to sound anything like the main character. That’s particularly helpful if your main character doesn’t sound like you.

4.  First-person narrators frequently make the story sound like a laundry list.  “I did X.  Then I did Y.”  That feels more like someone reading a movie script.  Give us enough of the character’s perspective and internal workings to make the story interesting.

5. Rotating first-person narration is usually annoying bordering on painful. It’s hard enough to do one first-person perspective well, let alone several. If you’d like to rotate perspectives, please stick to third-person.

6.  First-person narrators sometimes just don’t know enough to tell the story. This leads authors to sometimes use contrived ways to explain how the narrator observes something that the audience needs to know, but that he shouldn’t. The cheesiest of these is when a narrator stares at his own reflection so that we will know what he looks like.  Additionally, first-person narrators also tend to stumble across private information.  For example, they might eavesdrop on a conversation they stumbled across, or pick up a phone to listen in on two other people having a private conversation.

Did you like this article?  We also explained some common problems with third-person narration here.

36 responses so far

36 Responses to “Common Problems with First-Person Narration”

  1. Ragged Boyon 15 Nov 2008 at 10:19 pm

    Hmm, A challenge. I like it.

    First-person it is. I’ll write out some practice pieces and post them for assistance. I know it will be somewhat difficult, but isn’t difficulty just so fun? Why do you think I love Final Fantasy games.

  2. Ragged Boyon 15 Nov 2008 at 10:19 pm

    Would it have killed you to put some positive things, haha.

  3. B. Macon 15 Nov 2008 at 11:16 pm

    On the plus side, most of these problems are very avoidable. There’s no reason a first-person narrator has to intrude on us with his thoughts. If you’re careful with his asides, #2 should be OK. If you have the character’s voice down, #3 shouldn’t be a problem either.

    Even #4 isn’t ironclad. Although I think that rotating first-person narrators are usually too superficial for older audiences, it’s definitely not a deal-breaker for readers 13 and younger. (For example, some of the Animorphs books used rotating FPN). Theoretically, if you could develop several first-person narrators well enough to satisfy older readers, you could even use it on older readers. However, that’s a tremendous challenge that I wouldn’t recommend for starting authors. I think that one of the reasons that Soon I Will Be Invincible failed was that Fatale was too mundane and rote.

  4. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 16 Nov 2008 at 3:42 am

    Something else I notice is that a story told from first-person means that the narrator can’t die. In third person, “Mallory was suspended above the ravine in the pouring rain, her hands slipping down the hemp rope. There were only thirty centimetres of it left, and if she slid to the end she would be dashed on the jagged rocks below”, this is a bit more dramatic.

    In first: “I was suspended above the ravine in the pouring rain, my hands slipping down the hemp rope. There were only thirty centimetres of it left, and if I slid to the end I would be dashed on the jagged rocks below”, we know that she survives.

    Unless she’s dead when she’s narrating, but that seems gimmicky. I mean: “Then I could no longer grip it and fell off, hitting the spikes. I barely felt it, just a dull pain erupting in my stomach for a split second, before an eerie peace settled around me. I felt my heart and breathing simmer down to but a whimper of life, before they ground to a halt completely. I was gone” makes it obvious that the narrator is a ghost. I think that would be gimmicky. The above excerpt is a more grammatical version of a paragraph from a short story I wrote when I was thirteen, for my year eight English class. I’ve improved since then (and thank God!), but I think I did well with the line about a “whimper of life”.

  5. B. Macon 16 Nov 2008 at 4:02 am

    That is an astute observation about the narrator’s general inability to die. I wish I had come up with that! Some books with multiple first-person narrators get around that by having the scene end with the character’s death, and then rotating to another character thereafter. But that option is only available if there’s a character that has clearly been primed to take over the narration. If you’ve read 50% of the book and there’s only been one first-person narrator, he will obviously survive until at least the very last chapter.

  6. B. Macon 16 Nov 2008 at 4:47 am

    Also, I’ll agree that it’s extremely cheesy for a narrator to be narrating something post-mortem.

  7. Ragged Boyon 16 Nov 2008 at 6:46 am

    Well, I was going to have a part where the main protagonist gets beats up and dies. But the contest allows people that die one chance at redemption. If you miss that, you go back to your normal life mind-wiped and weaponless. Don’t worry; I won’t have people coming back into the contest all willy-nilly, just Adrian and a few other characters. Or maybe I’ll make him not come back into the contest but somehow keep his weapon, so he can follow the main story on his own path. Well, at least in the beginning when he is getting used to fighting, he will get knocked around a bit.

  8. B. Macon 16 Nov 2008 at 6:54 am

    I’d recommend being careful. My impression is that it’s a slippery slope when characters start to come back from the dead; you only need it to happen once or twice to suck the drama out of death.

    Moreover, the redemption subplot– where they have to succeed at a subtournament to undo their death– may feel like plot-padding. If the character “dies” and then spends 20 pages to get back to where he was right before he died, those 20 pages will probably feel like padding. However, one way you could probably fix that problem is by having the character come back in some noticeably different way. For example, perhaps he has grown, or his powers have changed, or he is in some other way different.

  9. Ragged Boyon 16 Nov 2008 at 7:21 am

    Good idea! Don’t worry, Redemption will only happen ONCE. I’ll be sure to add a line like this:

    “Welcome to Redemption, you’ve got one chance to prove yourself worthy to stay in this tournament, lose and you’re DONE!” the woman said

    “This is pretty cutthroat, I’ve got one chance, I’m not gonna lose” I (Adrian) thought to myself.

    Redemption won’t be nearly 20 pages, I’m not sure of an estimat but it will be convenient for the reader. Adrian will come back noticeably different, he will probably have unlocked his weapons ability, before then he only had an advanced body like all the other competitors, but now he will have an egde. Redemption will more than likely happen early on.

  10. t3knomanseron 16 Nov 2008 at 8:01 am

    Interesting aside: I’m nearly through reading Stross’s Halting State. It’s an excellent book, and the author made an odd choice about perspective that worked for the story: rotating second person.

    The book relies heavily on role-playing games, so the idea of 2nd person works- you’re taking on a role in a game.

  11. Ragged Boyon 16 Nov 2008 at 11:49 am

    After Redemption, I’ll add a few more lines like:

    “That was my last chance, if I die this time I’m gone for good, have to stand, have to keep fighting”I said to myself.

    or

    “I can’t breath, I’m gonna die!”. I yelled out, under the tremendous pressure on my body “I can’t take it, I’m- I’m- NO!, I have to win, I won’t die again”. (Lots of commas, is that acceptable? if you’re trying to express points? dialogue isn’t my strong suited)

    Stuff like that to remind the reader that Redemption was a one time thing. As an addition I think I will make it so that you die, instead of returning to your normal life. Even if you did return to your normal life, that would still take the action out of death, so no returning to normality.

  12. Ragged Boyon 16 Nov 2008 at 2:46 pm

    What happened to Cadet Davis? He’s been gone for like a month.

  13. B. Macon 16 Nov 2008 at 5:18 pm

    The economic downturn hit us hard. The last time I checked, he was busy foraging for aluminum cans.

  14. Ragged Boyon 16 Nov 2008 at 5:50 pm

    What do you think about the comment above about my story?

  15. B. Macon 16 Nov 2008 at 6:03 pm

    It feels a lot like play-by-play narration. I’d recommend trying a rewrite in third-person narration. That might help you avoid the awkwardness of having him narrate his feelings to the reader. (I’d also recommend taking out the lines that he speaks to himself). Writing in third-person as an exercise may help you write more viscerally in first-person.

  16. Ragged Boyon 16 Nov 2008 at 6:23 pm

    Ok, how openly do you think a comic book company would feel towards a style of drawing other than cartoon realism like that used in most comics.

  17. Ragged Boyon 16 Nov 2008 at 6:29 pm

    I think writing a story is a little difficult for me and I know I can’t make a comic soon (well not one that’s going get published), I just think too many of my ideas are for a visual medium. I’d love to write a book, but a comic is my dream, either way it’s a long way to get there.

    Advice please.

  18. B. Macon 16 Nov 2008 at 7:43 pm

    I feel kind of uncomfortable offering advice on getting a comic book published. However, let me try to extrapolate from the business of publishing novels.

    It will probably be easier for you to establish yourself in the comics industry as either an artist or a writer. I imagine it would be very difficult to reach professional-quality in two disciplines that are as different as art and writing. From my limited understanding of the comic book industry, jacks-of-all-trades are pretty rare. Hell, even some relatively tiny series employ specialized teams of artists. For example, Atomic Robo’s art team consists of inkist Jeff Powell, colorist Ronda Pattison and Scott Wegener.

    What would probably be easiest for you is to submit a query to a comic-book publisher, probably a small one. I’d recommend asking them for an artist. After they agree to publish the series, if you’d like to assist with the illustration of your emerging series, you can ask your publisher about serving on the art team as well. They might say no if they find your art inadequate, but they will not fire you as a writer because you asked about helping out with the art. In contrast, if you apply jointly as a writer-illustrator, they probably will reject your query if they find your art inadequate. So applying jointly as a writer/illustrator will raise the stakes on how good your art is.

    Another way you may be able to break into the industry is to get an internship. I’ve heard some good things about Marvel Comics internships, for example. But I think they only take college students as interns. Anyway, if you’re at one of the local universities (Columbia, for example), the logistics should be relatively simple. Columbia also has a strong writing program (particularly at the post-graduate level, although that probably matters less to you).

    Anyway, I hope that helped. Please let me know if I can elaborate, clarify or (most likely) correct myself.

  19. Ragged Boyon 16 Nov 2008 at 8:03 pm

    What’s a query?

  20. Ragged Boyon 16 Nov 2008 at 8:13 pm

    I think drawing and art comes easier to me because I’m often inspired by new things, whereas in writing if I’m inspired by something new I change my story, I don’t want to keep changing my story. I’m torn in between art and writing, I think I could pick up on writing faster, whereas drawing takes a while to improve. Conversly, drawing allows me to go nutsand make up new things whereas writing makes me stick to one track and try to work things in.

  21. B. Macon 16 Nov 2008 at 8:25 pm

    A query is what a novelist calls what a comic book writer would probably call a proposal. You write a letter (more or less) to the publisher telling them that you’d be interested in publishing your story. You can see what Image Comics, for example, wants in its comic book proposals/submissions here. Dark Horse Comics’ guidelines can be found here. Note that Dark Horse will consider proposals/queries from a writer that doesn’t yet have an artist on board. Image will not.

  22. B. Macon 17 Nov 2008 at 2:42 am

    “Ok, how openly do you think a comic book company would feel towards a style of drawing other than cartoon realism like that used in most comics?”

    Hmm. I think that some stylized forms of art could work. For example, anime is stylized (big eyes, small mouths, wacky hair and weapons, etc). I suspect that it wouldn’t be very hard to find a publisher that would work with an anime title because many anime-styled series have sold in the past. If you were trying to pitch another kind of stylized art, it might be tricky because there aren’t as many prior cases to compare your work to. For example, if you wanted to illustrate every frame in a Cubist style, there’s no way an editor would get on board. It’s never been done before, and no one wants to risk his career by being the first person to try something that looks likely to fail. (If you’d like to try something revolutionarily different, it will help a lot if you’re actually established in the industry first).

    On the other hand, if the style you had in mind is easy to explain and seems marketable, an editor might go for it. For example, I’m not familiar with any black-and-white comics, but I think there’s at least some possibility that you could find an editor somewhere that would agree to that style if there were a good reason for it. (But let’s not kid ourselves: it will be harder– probably much harder– to get something heavily-stylized published).

  23. Ragged Boyon 17 Nov 2008 at 4:19 pm

    Well, I do still definitely want this story in first person. I need an example, could you write a couple of lines where the main character is (I don’t know) talking to someone or in the middle of a fight or describing his feelings (or all three)? Please.

    I’ve been kind of sidetracked from my writing right now, that’s why I haven’t posted much story stuff.

  24. B. Macon 17 Nov 2008 at 5:09 pm

    BAD:
    John sobbed. “You can’t kill me! I’m a very important man!”
    But I had to. I was the assassin and he was the target. I shot him.

    BETTER:
    The target—John Macintosh of 511 Oak Drive—sobbed. “You can’t kill me. I’m a very—“.
    I never miss.

    The bad scene is limited to a literal account of what the characters do and say. The main character doesn’t offer any sort of interjections or commentary. The closest we get to the mindset of the protagonist is that he says he feels he “had to” kill the target. Just because, I guess. That’s flimsy and bland.

    The better scene says more about the main character even though it leaves out several literal details. For example, we don’t actually know what John Macintosh would have said if the assassin hadn’t cut him off by killing him. Nor does the assassin even say that he shoots John… he just implies that. Nor does the assassin actually say that he’s an assassin, but referring to John as “the target” and John’s line clearly demonstrate that the main character has come to kill John.

    The better scene also gives us a much better window into the assassin’s mindset. He doesn’t say “I’m a merciless killer,” but cutting someone off by killing them definitely shows that about him. He doesn’t say that he’s cold and methodical, either, but defining John Macintosh in terms of his address is pretty cold. Finally, “I never miss” implies that killing people is not merely something he’s done before, but something he will certainly do again. (In contrast, if he had used a more remorseful construction, we might wonder whether this is his last job). “I never miss” also helps establish that he is a competent killer.

    I think an effective first-person narrator has to develop what is literally happening in the story by making interesting and dramatic interjections. For example, if the killer had just been describing what literally happened, instead of saying “I never miss” he would have said “I shot him.” I never miss is more effective because it suggests that this is just a habit for him. It also removes the victim totally out of the equation– “I shot him” is as much about the victim as it is about the shooter.

    The problem for first-person stories is that authors often think (incorrectly) that lines like “I’m angry!” or paragraph-long lectures about how the character feels count as dramatic interjections. Eww. Leave the lectures in school. “I never miss.”

    Neither scene gives us any scenery, something I would fix in a longer version. However, the better version at least implies that this scene is happening in a typical suburban residence at 511 Oak Drive. That’s a start.

    What do you think?

  25. Ragged Boyon 17 Nov 2008 at 5:21 pm

    OOOH! so when it’s in first person, everything doesn’t have to be dialogue, you can still say “I”. That should have been obvious, but I totally blanked. Hmm, it makes a lot of sense and expresses a lot in two lines. Hmm, I’ll write some new stuff out.

  26. Ragged Boyon 17 Nov 2008 at 5:30 pm

    Ok, thanks a bunch. I’m probably gonna need some help easing into first person narration, but I believe in myself and my ability.

  27. Ragged Boyon 17 Nov 2008 at 5:36 pm

    I’ll need help with fighting but that will come later. I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

  28. B. Macon 17 Nov 2008 at 6:35 pm

    I’m kind of clueless on fight-scenes, particularly first-person fight scenes.

  29. Bretton 17 Nov 2008 at 6:42 pm

    I woke up that morning to discover a gun pointed at my head. Again.
    “Please tell me you’re not trying to kill me.” I said with annoyance.
    “Well actually I am.” The man had a stupid grin on his face. The enemy was getting desperate if this was the best they could afford for an assassin.
    “You can’t be serious. With that stance? My mother could lay you out.” I then demonstrated. His arm was a pretzel by the time I finished. “See?” I unloaded the gun and tossed it next to the others. “Ordinarily I’d shoot you, but I’m in a good mood today, so…” I dragged the poor sucker over to my bedroom window…on the 20th floor. “I’ll let you take your chances with gravity. That is unless you want to tell me who hired you.”

    Not much of a fight, but you get the idea.

  30. B. Macon 17 Nov 2008 at 8:09 pm

    I love the detail about the gun being tossed next to the others. However, it may feel a bit contrived to work conversation into this fight.

  31. *i88*on 01 Jul 2009 at 5:50 pm

    I kinda have to strongly disaggree with the “evils of first person” because you can understand the character better when you do first person, I mean, I don’t know but to me third person characters all sound like the same personalities… don’t they?

  32. Bretton 02 Jul 2009 at 9:39 am

    Not if the author does it well. That’s the trick. In 3rd person (which I prefer because I think it’s less limiting for my style) you have to put more effort into giving not just the main character, but side characters their own unique personalities.

  33. Luna Jamniaon 02 Jul 2009 at 12:59 pm

    Yeah, I’ve only recently learned how much phrases certain characters say and whether they use contractions or not really lends them a ‘voice.’
    I still sometimes mix up contractions with non-contractions. Like the … narrator/I will put “she couldn’t believe she did that” and in the next paragraph say “she could not climb the wall.”
    Instead of just staying with/without contractions for the whole book when describing/showing/telling stuff. (though yes I am aware, ‘telling’ your readers isn’t as great as showing)

    Personally, first person is quite hard for me to write. Because I get confused between or switch between “I say, laughing at him.” and “I said as I laughed at him.” Or I’ll mix them up–“I say, and laughed at him/I said, laughing at him.” Past and present kinda stuff.
    With third person, for me it’s always past and a lot easier though I tend to do other characters’ perspectives as well instead of just one. Third-person Omnipotent thing.

  34. HUsheron 26 Jul 2009 at 6:07 am

    Grrraaarrggghhhh.
    It wasn’t until I began writing the second part of the book that I realized the awkwardness of first person. I can keep it from getting repetitive. ‘I did this. Then I did this. Then I did that.’ I just have to be careful how I go about it. But it didn’t occur to me just how much it limits your ability to tell the story. There are some scenes I wanted to fit in but I can’t, because the narrator of the story isn’t there. And annoyingly for me, since she’s sitting in a small room telling the story to her companion, I can’t really just swap over to third to do the scenes.
    Anyone got any ideas? I’ve thought about the idea of framing the story as though it’s been written years after the events, and that the companion she’s telling the story to wrote it all down later, but it seems more than a bit contrived.

  35. Ashleyon 13 Apr 2012 at 9:58 pm

    The only problem major problem I have with first person is that I have one scene that I want to show from the hero’s and the villain’s pov. I don’t know what to do there

  36. YoungAuthoron 14 Apr 2012 at 3:02 pm

    type in one POV. then make a line like this.
    _______________________________________________________
    and then change the POV

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