I am not, in general, a fan of books written in the first person. In fact, I was dismissive of them all until Liz reminded me earlier this week of Jane Eyre. Which has made me think a bit more about what in particular I dislike about some first person narratives and why others work for me.
The problem of voice
If a book is written in the first person, then it only has one voice (yes, I know, some books alternate, but let’s keep things simple for the moment), and that voice belongs to a character. Usually the main character. That means I’d better like the character and the voice if I’m going to spend a whole book with her. Some characters just aren’t likeable enough for me to enjoy that, whereas perhaps if their voice only came in dialogue, or even filtered a bit through a third person close narrative, they might be okay. The Kristan Higgins book I tried (Too Good To Be True) didn’t work for me for this reason.
The problem of perspective
This can be a problem for any book told only from one point of view, whether it uses first or third person. You only get one view of events and one perspective on their consequences. In a romance I find this problematic because unless the author is extremely skilled, I only get to see one of the characters falling in love. This was a problem for me in The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers.
I am not your therapist
Sometimes a book written in the first person can read like the character is unburdening herself to her therapist. Everything is about the character and her responses and feelings and the inside of her head are examined in tedious detail and often in emotionally manipulative ways. I hate this kind of book with a passion. If I wanted to be a therapist, I would become one. Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry felt like this while I was reading it.
Mostly, I like to be told a story rather than expected to live through it. First person narrative, for me, often puts me into the action. I am the ‘I’ when I’m reading. It’s exhausting and emotionally draining, and I don’t enjoy that kind of reading experience. Third person allows me to keep the book at a safe distance.
So, here’s my advice if you’re thinking about writing your book in first person:
Work hard at making your character someone who is easy to spend time with. Give her the most attractive and compelling voice you can, since there’s nothing to dilute it for the reader.
Work hard to show other points of view when they are needed for the sake of the story. Show us when your narrator gets things wrong. Give other characters plenty of chance to speak. Help the narrator to understand what they are thinking and feeling so that the reader can too.
Remember that you are still telling a story. Edit your characters thoughts and feelings. We don’t need every last drop of internal angst. Do not EVER give her an inner goddess.
And mostly, my biggest tip is reconsider. If you can possibly find a way of telling it in the third person, do it. Use first person if you have to, and only if you have to.
Also, and here’s a tip from Charlotte Bronte, first person does not have to mean present tense.