When I was writing The Vesuvius Isotope, I learned the hard way that thrillers in first person are damn hard to write. A first-person novel confines the reader to the POV of the protagonist, so the reader never gets to witness the thoughts and behind-the-scenes actions of other characters. You don't get to see the bad guy building the bomb, so you don't know until it explodes that there actually was one. And chances are, you don't know who planted it or why.
This limitation in what the reader sees can have a couple of significant effects on the story. Here we discuss just one of the major issues that can arise in the first-person story: The protagonist can easily come across as narcissistic.
Repetition of the words "I" and "me" and excessive use of inner monologue are both pitfalls that can make the protagonist come across as self-centered and inwardly focused. To avoid this, I find it useful to sometimes deviate from the active voice.
We learn in writing school that active voice is better than passive voice. Instead of, "a bird was singing," we're supposed to say "Jane Doe heard a bird singing." I like to break this rule in the first-person story, in order to eliminate that excessive repetition of "I" and "me." When the protagonist is observing a scene before him/her, sometimes a little exposition is just what the doctor ordered. We can start with the observation of the protagonist, but then we can move away from direct observation to describe the scene more generally. Here's an example:
The taxi raced down a main street, weaving in and out of traffic that had no apparent legal regulation. There were very few road signs, and the traffic signals seemed only to flash yellow. I could not identify a correct side of the road or a speed limit. The sidewalk was open terrain for motor vehicles as well as for pedestrians. I quickly realized that renting a car was not going to be an option.
The streets doubled as supermarket aisles. Like islands in the center of a fast-moving river stood rows of vendors’ tents peddling food, jewelry, handbags, and countless other goods, while the heavy automobile traffic swirled around them. Hurried pedestrians zigzagged back and forth across the traffic like ants, jumping from sidewalk to vendor’s tent and then biblically parting on cue to accommodate a racing Smart car. Or a bus. Or a moped containing four passengers.The first-person perspective introduces the scene, but it then becomes more expositive. To give the reader a break from the protagonist's personal plight, the words "I" and "me" are left out of the second paragraph entirely.
Authors: do you write in first-person or third-person? Why do you choose the perspective(s) you choose? Do you have tricks for keeping your first-person protagonists from becoming tiring and coming across as narcissistic?