In some ways, writing in the first person feels like the most natural way to tell a story. After all, we create stories “in first” every day—over drinks with friends, describing our weekends to colleagues, and complaining about our jobs to our partners at night. “I did this…” and “I told him that…” we say, without worrying about perspective. All of that changes when we sit down to write fiction.
Stepping into somebody else’s shoes is hard, but inhabiting a character’s brain is even harder. Your job is no longer just to tell a story, but to tell it as only your protagonist would. And there are lots of traps you can fall into along the way.
This first problem is not one that’s exclusive to writing in the first person—it comes up when working in close third too. (Close third person = using names and pronouns for all characters while still “seeing” the world of the story from one character’s point of view.)
The issue here is undermining the perspective you’re ostensibly writing in by including information that your main character couldn’t possibly know. In third person fiction this could be by including a scene your viewpoint character is not present for, but in first person the violation is often subtler. Perhaps your character has never been to this planet before, but she’s speaking about the climate and vegetation as if she was an expert. Or your character is telling us exactly what his love interest is thinking, although he doesn’t have telepathic powers.
The rule is clear: if your first person character doesn’t know something, it can’t be part of their narrative. Once you’ve chosen your lens on this world, you can’t just jump outside of it.
Noticing the “Wrong” Details
Linked to this is an even subtler erosion of point of view through having your first person character noticing and remarking upon the wrong details at the wrong time.
If your character is a seamstress, she may well dwell on the fabrics and cuts of every dress at a ball, but if she’s an assassin on a mission to kill someone at the party, her focus may be elsewhere. Ask yourself what is unique about how your character experiences the world. Are they a perfumier who’s particularly attuned to smells? Is he the only child at a gathering of adults, observing the action from a different height? Lean into these perspectives and show us what it feels like to be someone else, as only fiction can.
The “wrong time” part of this equation is important too. If someone is in the midst of a fight scene, they probably aren’t thinking about the exact shade of a sunset. If someone’s just been kidnapped and is afraid for their life, is this a realistic moment to include a character-building flashback about their childhood?
(Over-)Using the Mirror Trick
Most often your viewpoint character will also be your main character, and you probably want us to know what they look like, right? But this can be tricky in first person fiction. In real life, people often think about their appearance when they catch sight of their reflection, but unfortunately having your protagonist detail their looks while looking in a mirror is a cliché that usually feels unnatural and inserted for reader benefit.
Does this mean your viewpoint character can never look in a mirror? No. But consider ways to drop in small details about their appearance over time, rather than telling us everything we need to know in a lengthy descriptive mirror scene.
Starting Too Many Sentences with “I”
Using “I” is what writing in the first person is about, but this doesn’t mean that every sentence needs to start in this way. Once the point of view has been established for readers, you can mix up your sentence structures for variety and interest.
One way to do this and to check you’re not getting stuck in a sentence rut is to listen to your writing using text to voice applications. Learn to appreciate the rhythm of prose and play with new ways to start your sentences.
Relying on Eavesdropping
Finally, try to ensure the mechanics of your plot don’t involve too much eavesdropping! How often is your first person character overhearing conversations they shouldn’t and spying on other characters?
As with the mirror trick, I’m not saying you should never do this, but if this solution is used too often your main character may come across as passive and weak, and you risk straining reader credulity.
So there you have it—common pitfalls to avoid when writing in first person! I hope this was helpful and that I haven’t scared you away from experimenting with my favorite point of view. There’s nothing better than a novel which introduces us to a new and standout voice, so get writing—I can’t wait to meet the characters you dream up.
Finola Austin, also known as the Secret Victorianist on her award-winning blog, is an England-born, Northern Ireland-raised, Brooklyn-based historical novelist and lover of the 19th century. Her first novel, Bronte’s Mistress, was published by Atria Books in 2020. Written in the first person, Bronte’s Mistress imagines the story of Lydia Robinson, the older, married woman rumored to have had an affair with the Bronte sisters’ brother. By day, Finola works in digital advertising. Find her online at www.finolaaustin.com.