I recently started writing a small story in first person. We'll see how much of a flop it turns out to be, but it got me thinking about first person in general, and what makes it different from other forms of narration. Let's really quickly go over the other types, just in case you're like me and don't think about them on a daily basis.
Third Person Omniscient: This is when the person writing the story is "looking down", so to speak, on all that occurs, while having access to every character's thoughts, feelings, or options. In other words, you get all sides of the story. Charles Dickens writes A Tale of Two Cities with this type of narration.
Third Person Limited: The writer is still looking down at all the events, but this time can only access the internal workings of one character. This character is the center of attention, and the filter through which events and other characters are viewed. The Harry Potter series uses this type, Harry being the character whose thoughts Rowling lets us see.
Second Person: This rarer form of narration is when the writer makes you a character in the story, and then tells said story as though you were witnessing it. I haven't read an entire novel in this style yet, and what I have read has been difficult for me to read. It would sound something like "You put your keys on the kitchen table and stepped over to the phone. Hoping he wasn't in a meeting, you dialed Roland on the phone and waited impatiently for him to pick up."
And finally we have First Person. This is when the character is telling you the story from their point of view, as they experienced it. Instead of the author looking down from their throne in the clouds, they step into the character's shoes and use "I" and "we" pronouns, as though the character is telling the story themselves. This way of writing is extremely limited, as you see nothing but what the narrator chooses to tell you. It's also very handy for unreliable narrators, because you are forced to trust them to tell you the right story.
This is by no means a complete list. There are a lot of sub-categories as well. You can have third person omniscient limited to only a few characters, and whether the story is happening in the past or present changes things up a bit too, but I figure this is enough to be getting on with.
Now before I present you with my signature numbered list, let me warn you that while this is by no means my first attempt at first person (hey, that sounds cool!), this is not an area I like to brag about. These tips are just as much for me as they are for you.
1. Give your character a narrating style.
This is something I think I've nailed so far with this story. Just like everybody has a different way of saying things in real life, your character isn't going automatically assume a standard speech just to make life easier on you. Oh no. They're going to describe things in roundabout ways, they're going to be terrible at descriptions, and they're going to force you to stay that way For. The. Entire. Book. Does your character tend to go on and on about something in long sentences? Or does she keep it short and to the point? For example, "her hair was pink", versus "her hair was the color of summer, happy and flushed, a bright fuchsia that no one could dim". Do they tell the story like one long narrative, explaining lots of things and speaking loosely? Or do they give you nothing but the bare bones, formally and tersely? Similes or Metaphors? Are there even descriptions at all? Even if this isn't your normal writing style, keeping true to your character is very important when writing in first person.
For example, I have not once in my life of writing described something like this: "Flat and lifeless, like an under-cooked pancake left out in bad weather for a week." But does my character? Absolutely. How he knows what an under-cooked pancake left out in bad weather looks like, I don't want to ask. In short, your character is going to have their own way of communicating, and you're going to have to adapt.
2. Your character will speak differently depending on where he's from.
No, you don't have to write in a Scottish accent, or a German accent, or something like that, but if your narrator is British, he's going to say "rubbish", "tube" will mean the subway, "lorry" will mean truck, and so on and so forth. If he's American, he's going to say "trash", "truck", and "subway". Bear in mind, however, not every British person turns their nose up and sips their tea like Mycroft, and not every American is a New York gang member or a bowlegged cowboy.
This also means that any incorrect grammar is going to have to be incorporated. If he says "ain't" , write "ain't". I know, I know, this is a shock, now calm down and have a cupcake. It's really okay for your character to be imperfect. I mean, we mess up our own language half the time anyway, so it's perfectly plausible that a character would do the same.
3. Your character can't tell you the whole story, or might choose not to.
Because you only see things from one person's point of view, you're not going to get the entire picture. Your character can't read other people's minds, she can only go off what she sees and guesses. If someone else gets angry or is mean to her, she might retaliate and hate that person. If we could see the other person's side of things, however, we might find a reason for their actions which was not what our narrator assumed in the least. This can also happen if you have a particularly young or naive character, who genuinely doesn't know what's going on because of a lack of life experience. Your character might not intend to lead us astray, she just didn't get an important part of the story.
Unless, of course, she does want to lie to us. Because she is our only window into the events in the story, she is the person we trust to tell us exactly what is going on. Your narrator can choose to withhold information just as easily as they can give it, they can tell you one story in the beginning and suddenly change it halfway through, and they can leave a crucial piece of information for later. In other words, the narrator can do whatever she wants, and give us whatever story she wants, and we have to trust that what she's telling us is what's actually happening. To make this more believable, your character could take an event and retell it through a heavy filter, so yes, Frank did visit Mrs. Whitcomb in the dead of night, armed with a knife, and it was the same knife found on her body the next morning, but we might not have been told that there was another visitor and a scuffle, before Frank was disarmed and chased out of the house. If the narrator wants us to believe Frank killed Mrs. Whitcomb, then kill Mrs. Whitcomb he did, and while we might get the sense something doesn't add up, we can't really know the truth until the narrator chooses to tell us.
4. Your character is not a memory master.
It's possible to remember some things in great detail. If Jeannie went through a life-changing experience, she's probably going to remember quite a bit of it. If you had a character keep a journal and record everything that happened, they're going to have details at their disposal they may not have had otherwise. And there's the key bit: "they may not have had otherwise".
You see, as much as we might like to give our readers all the nitty gritty, down to earth, gorey details of what happened that fateful night when Angie Meyers tripped on her front step, it's very likely that the person telling the story simply can't remember. They're going to tell you the parts of the event they remember well, but you're not going to get every single little thing exactly the way it happened. This could be from where they were when the event took place, or simply the fact that they've forgotten bits and pieces over time. Maybe they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, maybe they're old, or an important part of the puzzle slipped their memory. This ties in the the first half of the third point, in that a first person narrator can never get all sides of a story, and if they're recounting a series of events, they're not going to remember it exactly the way it happened, or might tell it in a different way than someone else.
Just remember that no matter what your character is like or what's going on in the story, stepping into someone else's shoes and looking at the world from their point of view should be fun, and it should be an opportunity to dive deep into the little details of a personality and explore things you might not see otherwise.