Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The First-Person Novel, Part I: Avoiding Narcissism in the Protagonist

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?


  1. I write in close third, because my attempts at writing in 1P usually lead to the character sounding like me. Close third gets me the tight focus on one character's experience at a time without tying me to that character for the whole story.

  2. I love the chart. I have never seen that before and I will be downloading it.

    I have always had POV issues in my writing. Mainly because I have never understood it well enough to know what I was doing. For my work, I decided on 3rd person limited or 3rd person close. I figured out that if the character could experience it then I would write about it. If not, I needed to change the POV to another character.

    That I could understand and that is how I write now. I have read a lot about POV but it seems that most people make it harder to understand, not easier. Until this post anyway.

    Personally, I have never cared for 1st person. Maybe it is because as you say the character feels narcissistic. Maybe I am my favorite jerk and I don't want to live through someone else's viewpoint.

    Great job of explaining it.

    1. Thanks Rob, although I must disclose I took the chart off Google images. My current novel is in first person...which I decided to do because I wanted the reader solving the mystery alongside the protagonist. Its prequel is third person, because I do NOT want the reader to know what the same character is thinking or doing :) Which I realize is a little weird. In fact, I don't think I have seen another series that jumps from first-person to third-person. We'll see how that works out LOL

  3. Hi Kris...

    I love the chart as well. I recently self-published a fictional memoir written in first person. I'm really struggling with my second novel, a mystery/romance, trying to decide which POV I want to use. I have written about three chapters and tried both first and third person.

    I feel more comfortable with first person...becoming the character and living the scenes. However, I do find it limiting. I want to make it a series and I've even played with doing each character's story in first person. It's a lot of work as you said, but I think it can be done.

    Great post...thank you for sharing!

    Taylor Fulks

  4. A funny thing: One of the critiques my novel gets is that the first-person narrative doesn't sound like the dialogues from the same character. I assumed in writing it that the dialogues should sound like natural speaking, but the narratives should sound more like a formal speech or lecture (for example, I wouldn't use slang, dialect, or four-letter words in the narrative parts, but I would in the dialogues.) Thoughts?