First Person POV: Tips and Pitfalls

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You’re ready to tackle your manuscript, you have an idea in mind, and you’ve settled on writing in the first person. Congratulations! That was a crucial decision. You might be looking for helpful tips or warnings about pitfalls, and that’s what I’m here for: to discuss writing in first person POV.

Tip #1: Give Your Protagonist Personality

Remember what the advantages to writing in the first person are: intimacy and immediacy. With this POV choice, you’re giving the reader a guide through the story. Just like any great tour guide, it’s not only what they say, it’s how they say it. Your narrator/protagonist should have plenty of voice. The reader should get a sense of who this person is from the first page. The more the reader cares about the main character, the more pages they’ll want to turn.

Pitfall #1: It’s Possible to Have Too Much Personality

One of the pitfalls of writing in first person is that your reader spends A LOT of time in the head of the protagonist. It’s fun to experience a story from the inside out and to “get to know” the main character, but this person’s foibles can easily get on a reader’s nerves. It’s perfectly okay to have an unlikable, crazy, or unreliable narrator. But they need to be interesting, not irritating. Frankly, it’s an opaque line, so consider getting a beta reader to give you honest feedback.

Tip #2: Keep the Voice Active

Immediacy is an advantage of first person POV, so make your novel happen in the here and now. That doesn’t just mean using present tense (which isn’t required but is common). It also means to show not tell. It’s easy to burden a first-person narrative with too much introspection and not enough action. Make sure your main character’s thoughts aren’t doing all the work. Give them something to do; let them have a conversation with someone else. Keep it moving!

Pitfall #2: Avoid Filter Words

Filter words put space between your character and the reader. Here is an example:

          I heard him say that he didn’t like my little brother, and it devastated me. 

          He doesn’t like my little brother. Excuse me while I leap from a tall building.

These aren’t the greatest examples, but see if you can spot the difference. Did you notice that the first sentence adds a layer of space? The “I heard” phrase as well as the retelling of emotions keeps your reader at a distance. Pull them in tighter by eliminating the filter words.

Tip #3: Give Your Main Character a Distinctive Voice

Piggybacking onto my first tip, your narrator needs personality, and a distinctive voice will showcase it. One of the best ways to make your protagonist’s voice their own is to make sure it’s not yours. It’s easy to inadvertently write yourself into the main character. While it’s perfectly fine to include a little of you—don’t all authors?—you want to make sure the main character is the one telling the story. If you want to do it, write in third person. However, if first person is your thing, make sure the storytelling is done through your character’s voice.

Pitfall #3: Giving Your Main Character Too Much Info

If you’re writing a young adult novel as a grown up, it’s easy to let some of your “wisdom” intrude upon your main character. Make sure your protagonist thinks like a teen (though never condescend!). If you’re writing an adult character, you still have to be careful to not let them know what other characters think, say, or feel unless explicitly told. It’s easy give a first-person narrator some omniscient abilities if you aren’t mindful.

In conclusion, first person POV can be a winner if above all, you let your main character shine.

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About Author

Mary is a young adult writer and archaeologist. By day she teaches at a local college, and by night she writes about the adventures of adolescence.

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