How To Write Effectively In The First Person

The first-person narrator is a favorite of first-time writers. Perhaps this is because,apparently, it is easier to write a story that happens to the narrator himself.And we emphasize in appearance, since certain mistakes are easy to fall into when using this narrator. That's why today we want to tell you some tricks from professional paper writer to write in first personin an effective way.

The first-person narrator

Let's start at the beginning, what is a first-person narrator?

When a first-person narrator is used, the story is told from the "I" point of view.

The narrator is usually the protagonist, the main character directly affected by the evolution of events; but it can also be a secondary character who tells the story that revolves around the protagonist.

There was light in the kitchen window. I walked the few steps that separated the garden gate from the door in an inconceivable state of nerves. I didn't know how to approach the situation; I didn't know what I was going to say to him. I felt my heart pounding and clenched my teeth to contain a tremor. I swallowed my breath and rang the doorbell. Its chime echoed loudly in my head.

You see, the first person is similar to a diary entry, to the way we tell a personal anecdote, or to the voice thoughts take in our head.

The reader does not perceive character and story from the outside, as in the case of other narrators, but "sees" the story through the character's eyes. He perceives, hears and feels "from inside" the character. And it is the perspective of that character/narrator that the reader will have: even though he might be wrong in judging events, even though he might be giving a biased version of events, without a shred of objectivity, the reader will have no way of knowing

When writing in first person you can do this in two ways:

  1. Using the present tense: The action and narration occur simultaneously, which can increase the dynamism of the story, but alter a bit the perspective that distance in time gives. "I don't see him among the people. I've lost him.The raucous music from the stalls reaches my ears. Next to me a girl laughs loudly. In the distance I spot her yellow shirt. I run over there."
  2. Using the past tense: Narration tells of an action that happened in the past. It is the most common form of writing in the first person. "I didn't see him in the crowd. I had lost him. The raucous music from the stalls reached my ears. Next to me a girl laughed loudly. In the distance I spotted her yellow shirt. Iran over there."

In addition to time, there are other factors you must take into account if you want to write in first person in your narrative:

  • The dosage of information as well as the chronology of the story. That is, what you tell and what you don't tell and at what time you tell it.
  • The register of the rest of the characters. Even if you use a first-person narrator, you should try not to make the other characters sound like the narrator. Take care to give them their characteristic traits.
  • Reliability. A first-person narrator is, more than any other narrator, a narrator who can be biased and tell the story from his point of view, as he experienced it. Therefore, he does not have to be telling exactly the truth, but his version of events. You must decide how reliable your narrator will be. 

Now that we know a little more about the first-person narrator, let's see how we can use it even better.

How to write in the first person effectively

As you have seen,writing in the first person is not complicated in principle; it is often used in writing courses to help students "lose their fear". However, we often make the mistake of using the narrator as a filter that separates the reader from the action, thus hindering the narrative.

Instead of allowing the reader to "see" the scene through the eyes of the first-person narrator, what we do is allow the reader to "see the character seeing" the scene. In other words, we place an unnecessary barrier between the action and the reader.

You will understand this better with an example. Look at this fragment:

From the doorway I glanced into the library reading room. I noticed the colorful smudges of books on the shelves reaching to the ceiling and heard the voices of students murmuring in the background. I saw how the librarian raised her head for a second to look at them and then went on with her work: the dry noise ofthe stamps she put on the pages marked a syncopated rhythm.

And then read this other fragment in the first person:

In the library's reading room, the colored stains of the books on the shelves reached up to the ceiling and some students murmured in the background. The librarianr aised her head for a second to stare at them and then went on with her work:the thud of the stamps she was putting on the pages set a syncopated rhythm.

Notice the difference?

In the second fragment we have a description of the library reading room from the narrator's perspective. We perceive what he, directly and without filters.

But in the first fragment what we see is the narrator doing things: he looks out the door, sees the books, hears the murmur of the students, looks at the librarian. A figure stands between us as readers and the narrative: that of the narrator himself.

Avoiding this filter makes the action closer to the reader and, consequently, it is easier for the reader to live it almost as his or her own, precisely one of the aims of writing in the first person. This technique is called deep point of view, which we explain in detail in this other article.

Should the first-person narrator never come between the action and the reader? Not at all. As always, there are nuances.

You may need to use your first-person narrator in this way to create a certain effect. For example:

On the table you indicated I found a pile of fabrics, I saw a jar with pens and some nicked scissors, but I didn't see the photos my boss kept asking me for. Where had they gone?

In these lines,witnessing the frantic search for the photographs and seeing the narrator rummaging through the objects on the table emphasizes the narrator's nervousness, his fruitless search while his boss waits impatiently.

Because on certain occasions we do want the reader to see the character acting as narrator as anactor on a stage.

Our recommendation: review your text to locate when the narrator is getting in the way of the reader's vision. You should almost always eliminate those words or phrases that build that annoying filter, but when in doubt ask yourself what you want the reader to "see": the scene, or your character witnessing the scene?

Writing in first person or writing about yourself?

As we have said, it is very common for new writers to prefer to write in the first person. It isa point of view through which it is easy to delve into the emotions and feelings of the characters, especially the protagonist. In fact, it seems natural to use the first narrator to give depth to the text; who knows his own story better than the character?

The truth is that many times an omniscient narrator can work better, because he can know things about the character that the character himself ignores. But, in reality, a new writer usually chooses the first person simply because he or she is writing about him or herself.

It's logical: when you start writing, you draw on personal experiences. Things you have lived or things you would like to live. Hence the use of the first person.

However, you risk turning your story or novel into a personal diary and, if your life is not particularly exciting, it may even end up being boring.

Therefore, if you notice that you use first-person narrators too often, ask yourself if you have created a character or if you are yourself (your experiences, opinions,beliefs, judgments and values). Stop and consider whether your narratives interest people or are so self-referential that they only talk about you.

It may be time totry other narrators, but also to open your focus and write something that is not based on your personal experience. Dare!