Pros and Cons of writing First Person

Using First Person to narrate a novel as if the main character is speaking to the reader or as if we are privy directly to his or her most intimate thoughts is useful: it can enhance authenticity, create greater intimacy and hence greater empathy in the reader - after all, it is like listening to a friend tell her or her story.  

I spend a lot of time telling my writing students and editing clients that, as narrator of their novel, they must be able to write standard English following the usual conventions of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

In First Person, however, all that becomes irrelevant. When the author writes in the first person, using the voice of the main character or any character in the story, that character can speak any way he or she wishes. The character as narrator can use bad grammar, poor expression, colloquialisms, slang and even swear words, all of which would have to be edited out of a straight third person narration.

Nevertheless, Writing in First Person  is not without its pitfalls; to pull it off successfully you must pay strict attention to detail if the character is from a particular ethnic group or profession or from another era. Thus, while one restriction is lifted by using first person narration, another burden is imposed.The speech of the narrator must be steadily maintained for the entire book and must remain true to the gender, age, ethnic group, social class, mores  and even era, of the character. This is by no means easy. Modern colloquial expressions become anachronisms if they creep into narration that is supposed to be a medieval monk or Victorin gentleman addressing the reader. For example, it would not be appropriate for King Arthur to tell Lancelot: You are getting on my nerves, Lancelot.  You're just not a team player. In the 6th Century they didnt know about nerves or team sports. Such a faux pas is the literary equivalent of depicting a koala with tiger stripes.

Worse still, you cannot write a  young adult book set in 2015, where the schoolgirl narrator persistently use 1970s slang. If you are not prepared to do the research and get it right, your book will be a groaner. If you are not Irish and have never been to Ireland, don't use an Irishman for the first person narrator of your book. You are certain to get it wrong if you rely on stereotypes.

Naturally, the English we choose for characters from former eras or foreign parts can only be a representation.  A book set in the Middle Ages cannot be written in Chaucerian English or it would be unreadable.  Nevertheless, we have to find an approximation that at least sounds convincing and avoids the most obvious blunders.

Using a first person narrator can add significantly to the sense of authenticity and it can be a whole lot of fun.

Here is a sample from my novel Beetle Creek, where I am using the voice of Jack Bournley, a bush Aussie talking about his childhood in the 1950s. It is in no way autobiographical.

Despite these good times, the front veranda put on its sinister face when it became Dad's consulting room. Perhaps my most memorable consultation was the day after my tenth birthday.

"Dad wants you," Davo said gruffly, "and jerked his head. Consultin' room."

Sympathising with the condemned man wasnt a family trait: after all, there was a good chance he'd dob you in as an accomplice. As I walked mournfully down the hallway, I could hear Denny whispering, "What'd he do?" and Lucy asking dolefully, "Is he gonna get a floggin?" It felt rather like being hissed by the other inmates as I shuffled the long walk to the gallows.

Dad was on his back on the sagging iron bed, the Sunday paper held above him at arm's length like a canopy. It crackled as he turned the page. I stood and waited; he knew I was there. Eventually, he drawled, "Yes?"

"Davo said you wanted me, Dad."  I scuffled my bare feet, picking up a sizeable splinter. Dad heaved his bulk upward and dropped his legs off the bed. The mesh base creaked and groaned. He sat there scowling at me. As a master of suspense, Dad could make Alfred Hitchcock look like an amateur. He got to his feet, strolled out to his waterbag and took a long pull, then walked back, wiping his sleeve across his grim mouth.

"Jack, m' lad," he said in an amiable tone that I knew from experience to be dangerous, "What did y' get for your birthday?"

Now lets switch voices! This time, from my work-in-progress called Aunt Harriets Legacy, I have to effect the voice of a middle-class woman living in Australia in the 1870s, the daughter of a wealthy brewer. She is, you will see,  somewhat a pain.  In this scene, she and her mother are waiting to have tea in the garden to meet a suitor that Sarah believes is beneath her.

I settled myself on a broad garden seat that allowed my crinoline to blossom.  I felt like a giant pink hollyhock.  On this occasion, Mama would not countenance my choice of the smaller, more practical, crinoline I had taken to wearing, despite it being quite the new thing.  She did not want me looking like one of the servants, she said.  Mama had no sense of fashion.  She wore a sadly out-dated lace bonnet and satin half-mourning dress that made her look like an elderly grandmother. 

If I needed any further proof that my suitor was no English gentleman, Angus Cole was late. 

"He is not so very late, my dear, "my mother said, for she had always been adept at sensing my mood.

"Can late ever be qualified, Mama?"

"There he comes now!" Mama replied, as if his arrival struck off twenty minutes of waiting. 

The horseman clearly did not know he was observed, for he was bent low over the sweating horse, spurring it like a racehorse along the main route. On turning into our poplar-lined drive, he hauled the horse back into a stately gait, sat upright, reinstated his hat and composed himself.

Using first person can be a wonderful experience, as you have a sense of channelling  the character.  Sometimes the characters says things in a way that you really did not expect. Nevertheless,  using first person when the character is from a specific ethnic group or social background or from a past era can be a disaster if it is not thoroughly researched and done well. As well, be aware that, writing in First Person  means that, logically, you can only offer the reader a single POV. The ability to step outside the character an just be narrator or to present another character's viewpoint is lost, as is the beauty of dramatic irony, where the reader knows something that the Main Character doesn't. When First Person is used, the reader can only ever know what that one character thinks, sees, presumes of others or overhears.

So, before settling on writing First  Person for your new novel, do consider the pros and cons.