When you’re new to writing in first person, or you’re returning to the practice after not having done so for a long time, it can be difficult to adjust to the style. It’s a big shift to go from writing from third person, a relatively straight-forward perspective, to first person. First person introduces a whole new set of elements to consider when writing. Bias, reliability of their memory versus the objective truth versus the other characters’ memory of the same events, and motivation. Motivation is especially tricky when it comes to the first-person narrative because you have to sort out not only what happens and how it effects the characters/plot but why the narrator is including it, and how their personal perspective changes the way you’re depicting the events. The best way to adjust to this style is to practice. One of my personal favorite ways to practice is through low-stakes writing. Fanfiction, short stories, personal retellings of my own experiences like diary entries, etc. These are all methods of story-telling that are typically short-form and allow you to naturally familiarize yourself with the characteristics of a first-person narrative.
Including Backstory & Context
When you’re writing in first person, it’s important to consider that certain characteristics of the narrator’s perspective won’t make sense to the reader or adequately add to their reading experience until you apply the relevant context. Personal experiences, values, motivations, and priorities all influence how a person tells a story, and in order to write a good first-person narrative, you need to have a grasp on these things. The reader needs to understand them as well. Perhaps some of these things are deliberately omitted from the reader’s awareness,. If a narrator’s motivations, for example, are going to remain a mystery until the end, you must deliver a satisfying conclusion that establishes to the reader why that choice was made. It’s generally a good idea to introduce this information early on. Backstory and personal context are essential to the foundation of a first-person narrative.
Developing Secondary Characters
Developing secondary characters can be a challenge in this point of view because you’re solely focused on the lens of an individual. The other characters in the story will therefore be established to the reader based on what the narrator thinks, feels, and tells of them. Many writers feel concern about creating well-rounded secondary characters in a first-person narrative because everything the reader sees must be witnessed by the narrator. However, this can be an advantage. A secondary character’s arc forms more naturally because it’s being observed organically through the eyes of another. The narrator makes observations for the reader to interpret alongside them. The reader may not have extensive knowledge of the specifics that cause a change in the characters, but they are more intuitively informed by the secondary characters’ behaviors and reactions to the narrator and whatever the narrator can see.
You must be deliberate in the way you construct the narrator’s consciousness. It’s imperative that you be somewhat in-character while you write in first person because their thought process must be consistent throughout the storytelling. What are they likely to notice or fixate on when they’re experiencing or recounting events? What is likely going through their heads? What causes alarm or comfort and how is this reflected in the vocabulary or tone they use in description? A distinctive voice is a major part of developing your perspective character, so approach it with intention.
Depict, Don’t Report
It’s just as easy in first person as it is in third person to fall into the habit of reporting events rather than depicting them. Reporting is when the narrative consists of “she said this” or “he felt this” or “the weather was bad”. Depicting is recounting the events with style and deliberate detail that constructs a tone and absorbs the reader. “He cast his eyes downward and kicked at the rocks on the path.” “A shadow fell over the café as clouds inched across the sun, “I love you,” he said. “I know,” I whispered. My eyes refused to lift from the condensation on the glass before me.” That’s the difference. Vocabulary, syntax, and deliberate detail absorbs the reader.
~ How do I avoid starting every sentence with the word “I”?… Intimate vocabulary & diverse sentence structure. When a scene consists of too many sentences that begin with the word “I”, that’s a good indication that you’re telling rather than showing. Detail should be interspersed and create some distance from the narrator’s inner monologue. Use vocabulary that bring the reader in and vary the construction of your sentences. This often becomes easier when you set aside time to focus on the practice of technical writing skills, rather than the practice of storytelling.
~ How do I maintain consistent tense (past vs present) while writing from the first person perspective?… Practice. A lot of narrative skill and consistency comes with practice. Devoting time to a focused practice of maintaining consistent narrative tense at the same time as telling a story in first person is immensely helpful. Set aside time before and during the drafting process to practice your skill in this. Once you’re comfortable and zoned into these mechanics, you won’t have to think about it that much. It’s like muscle memory.
~ How can I identify biases the character might have in relation to the events they’re recounting?… Analyze their motivations. Analyze their relationships to the other parties involved, and how that may influence what they focus on and what language they would use to describe the other characters’ actions. A lot of this nuance comes in the second draft and editing stages, but initially these two things are essential to writing a sturdy, foundational first-person narrative draft.
~ What techniques can I use to keep the POV character’s voice unique & consistent?… Include deliberate trends in vocabulary, thought process, and focus. This is where their personality shines through their words. Are they more likely to notice the weather or the traffic when they first step out of their home? When having an argument, are they more likely to apply context to the other person’s tone or their body language?
~ How do I avoid accidentally making the POV character omniscient?… Get in character and don’t repeatedly remind yourself of things that you as an author know, but you as a narrator do not. If you as a narrator know that a secondary character is upset during a scene for reasons the POV character isn’t aware of, it’s important to walk the line of first person observation and omniscient foreshadowing. Question often why you’re including details in description, and if the answer is ever information that the POV character doesn’t know yet, it’s probably best to cut it out.