When should we use first-person perspective? I keep seeing everywhere in writing spaces that a lot of people hate first person just on principle. They say it’s juvenile and lesser than third person. I know randos on the internet aren’t exactly an authority, but I notice it’s a very common opinion I see around, and it’s making me worry that people won’t want to read my book, which is in first person. So what kind of stories, if any, benefit from first-person narration? Is it actually juvenile? Is there something wrong with writing in first person?Ze
It sounds like you’re encountering casual misogyny. Don’t get me wrong, there are more genuine reasons to not like first person, which I’ll get to in a bit. But in this case, the fact that these criticisms are “on principle” and are using the word “juvenile” is extremely telling.
I have more on casual misogyny in this article, but basically, it’s people’s reflexive tendency to trash talk anything associated with women. In this case, first-person is a popular choice for YA books (hence “juvenile”), and YA is associated with women. Unfortunately, I don’t have any numbers, but it very much looks like books written by women featuring female main characters are much more likely to be shelved as YA than similar books by and about men. We’ve also seen cases where women’s books are referred to as YA by the media when they are actually adult books.
These internet randos are probably thinking of YA women’s works like Twilight or The Hunger Games, which are both written in first person. First person is probably popular in YA because those works are more likely to use a single viewpoint, and it’s great for modern-feeling prose with a lot of sass or quips. But there are also lots of popular adult works using it, such as the Murderbot Diaries or the Dresden Files. There’s also books like The Martian, which use epistolary first person. It’s a huge category of narration employed by countless works. And hopefully I don’t have to tell you that there’s nothing wrong with YA.
In summary, saying that first person is bad is laughable. If we listen to people like that, we’d have to write every single work in third-person limited past tense – and that would just be sad. You should ignore those remarks and reassess whether those writing spaces are places you want to be. I’ve seen writers make poor decisions for their stories because they’re afraid of that kind of shaming. If it’s affecting your emotional well-being, get out of there.
Are there some reasons people don’t like the first person? Sure, just like there is for any narration style. I know someone who doesn’t like first person simply because she feels like the “I” refers to her personally, which isn’t the case for most readers. Any narration style will also encourage some habits over others – both good and bad. Stories told as a first-person character retelling are more likely to ramble and might slow the narration down too much. A person who is more irritated by that than by, say, the excessive distance which often comes with third person, might start avoiding first-person works.
Your choice of narrative style is largely an artistic decision. However, by default first person is a great choice if:
- You’re only using one viewpoint.
- You want your work to have a modern feel, maybe because it takes place in the present day or future.
- You want to get deep into your main character’s head.
- You like first person!
Consider combining it with present tense for a story that’s riveting and highly immersive or doing a past-tense character retelling if you want a fun conversational voice.
I’m sure your book is just fine.
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Comments on Is There Something Wrong With Writing in First Person?
The only Rando I pay attention to, is in Archer.
I’ll remind you of something Stan Lee once said.
“Make great product and the product will sell itself.”
Just relax and write “the story the way the story wants to be told”…oh wait, that was Steven Spielberg.
It’s really silly to call first person “juvenile”. You’ve got old classics like Camus’ The Stranger, Céline’s Castle To Castle and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness written in first person. You’ve got modern novels by Nobel Prize winners like Kazuo Ishiguro, Olga Tokarczuk or this year’s Annie Ernaux written in first person.
Someone who thinks only YA is written in first person just shows how little they know about literature.
Not to mention the full Sherlock Holmes canon is also in first person (usually Watson’s , but there are a few stories which Holmes tells himself). To a degree, you could also argue that “Dracula” is first person, as it’s full of diary entries also written in first person. Yes, a lot of classics are in first person, too.
It’s more than silly to call first person “juvenile”. It’s a valid point of view, even if it comes with its own challenges – and so do all other points of view.
I’ve only used first person once so far, but it fit best (as there’s a pastiche quality to the story) and it certainly was interesting to write.
Absolutely! Every literature class I’ve taken has included works in the first person. This isn’t to say literature classes are the arbiters of what is good fiction and what isn’t (far from it), but it certainly shows how many serious and well-respected works are told in the first person, including household names like Frankenstein (technically epistolary) and, as Cay mentioned, Sherlock Holmes.
This goes for lots of modern literature, too, needless to say. Unless you want to argue that the horrific scenes of the cattle slaughterhouse in My Year of Meats or the pain of forced prostitution of women in Korea in Fox Girl are “juvenile.” They wouldn’t be improved by switching viewpoints; first person makes things much more real and personal, in my opinion, and does a better job gradually revealing the shortcomings and subjectivity in the narrator’s POV.
And this isn’t even getting into first-person nonfiction like memoirs. I have trouble imagining that these same people would object to something like that — so I agree with Chris’s assessment that this is probably spawned from a dislike of YA.
As a rule of thumb, anyone who hates something as mundane as what POV to use in a story “on principle” is not someone worth listening to. If you can’t explain it, you clearly don’t have anything convincing to say about it.
Yeah, exactly. This conversation is the first time I’ve heard that accusation against first person. I thought “wait a second, aren’t many of the best works I’ve read written in either first person or if in third person so limited to the POV of a main character that it’s close?”
I always associated jumping around between the POVs of ten or more characters and doing the “meanwhile this was happening in Paris and this was happening in Tokyo and this was happening at the Pentagon” thing as more a trait of oversized drug store spy thrillers to be honest.
Frank Herbert did a great job of constant head hopping in my opinion, but usually it seems far less of an intellectual style while first person and other limited POV styles seem more literary.
Maybe tell those people who think that first person is juvenile to read a little something called “The Book Of The New Sun” by Gene Wolfe
First person is also associated with wish-fulfillment self-insertion fan fiction, which may go a ways to explain the ire of many detractors. The next question, of course, is if there’s something wrong with wish-fulfillment self-insertion fan fiction.
I think we can tie that back to misogyny. The general perception of fanfic – especially when we’re getting to self-inserts and all – is “teen girls”. The horror.
Apparently, this is a sentiment not just shared by Reddit, but also by a few agents/editors. First-person narration is seen as a warning sign of author self-inserts, but you should probably ask someone with more experience in the industry than me.
But yeah, I’ve seen the kinds of Redditors that are being mentioned here. Their consensus seems to be that first person can be written well, but it’s only “acceptable” if the author meets impossibly high standards of what counts as “maintaining an engaging voice”. This is, naturally, a standard that Twilight and The Hunger Games do not meet, but whatever first-person books the poster likes do.
Confession time: I did suffer under the YA stigma a little myself. It’s part of why I switched my WIP from first to third person (the other being that I kinda suck at voice/characterization), after deciding to change my main character from high-school to college age. While I don’t plan on changing in it back, I still like reading books in first person and some of my favorite works (Worm and The Dresden Files particularly) are written that way.
I don’t think I’d recommend my path to anyone else though. At the end of the day, the author is a story’s first reader and should like its voice.
This is, naturally, a standard that Twilight and The Hunger Games do not meet, but whatever first-person books the poster likes do.
Yeah, and those authors are sobbing all the way to the bank, am I right?
That’s probably just their way of feeling smug and superior
I just had a story beta-read, First Person Present, switching to Past Tense at the end to show that everything was resolved, and the only ones who commented about it liked it and thought it worked
I used first-person in a fanfic I wrote several months ago because the main character is a take on a video game Blank Protagonist and I wanted to leave their gender identity ambiguous. I use they/them for Protag when I am describing the story, but did not use third-person pronouns for them in the story itself. I also didn’t use descriptions that might suggest a certain gender performance; e.g. no brushing hair out of their face because the reader might think “long-haired = woman.”
It was a mild challenge, but I was able to pull it off because the work has only one scene and Protag only interacts with one other character. It would have been a lot harder if I’d tried to write in third-person perspective without using a third-person pronoun for the viewpoint character!
When I did the first person for “Flatmates & Spies”, it was mostly as a pastiche. Yet, I also think that the general style and impression fit well with the stories (a set of three novellas).
I found it easier than expected to change the POV, as I go for close third person normally and there’s a certain overlap. First person is even closer, yet I didn’t let it get too close, as it was supposed to be a memoir (thus written long after the facts).
That’s actually a very cool use of first person!
Have to say, the word “juvenile” is not something you’d usually associate with sexism.
Ageism, sure, or racism, even, but not sexism.
Then again, it really shows how insidious bigotry is, doesn’t it? Words get corrupted, their meanings twisted, or (in this case, at least) their associations end up in all the wrong places.
Actually, the association between the two is quite old. In the 19th century and before, women were considered mentally immature compared to men. Like children, they were considered unable to be independent and had to be “guided and protected” by the men of their family.
I think the remains of this mentality are the reason YA and other things associated with women are seen as “juvenile”.
Now that you mentioned it…
Guess it’s not as easy to remember, since women in media these days tend to be presented as more mature than men (which can be considered sexist in its own right).
Come to think of it, youth has for a long time considered a negative trait. A lot of “Respect your elders” and all that. And since white culture views itself as the true baseline, it tends to push away traits they look negatively from themselves and unto others.
Of course, these days youth seems to be respected more than old age. Elderly in media aren’t as often presented as wise or something to look up to. On the contrary, elderly as often shown as comical and pathetic, or even reactionary and dangerous. And similarly other groups are increasingly looked negatively as “old”, something that stays behind, fails to adapt and holds up to something that has no place in the modern world.
Not that bias against youth has vanished or anything. The entire slasher genre is about punishing people for being young (namely in engaging in things negatively associated with youth).
As bizarre as it seems that both youth and elderly are looked down simultaneously, it’s actually quite simple. In white culture, skin color is not enough(If it was, albinos would be admired as a pinnacle, instead of ableistically labeled as evil or unnatular). You need to be part of the group, something that doesn’t stand out one way or another. You need to be in the middle, the golden mean, not too much this way nor too much in the other direction(for example, not too mature, nor not mature enough). And shame on you, if you do stand out.
Is it any wonder people are stereotyped? When you assume yourself to live in a mass, you assume others to live in other masses.
I got used to the first-person POV through visual novels, most of them is written in it. And I use it in my own writing as well.
The second-person POV is on a shaky ground for me. Mostly because if it’s not done well I get a whiplash of “I wouldn’t do that!” which breaks my immersion.
I love first person in a lot of cases! Just deal with the fact that you’re stuck not only in the narrator’s viewpoint but their vocabulary and personality for the entire story or the entire part of the work you’re using first person in.
Another option is close third person (I’ve heard it called) in which the main character is the only one whose thoughts are told to the audience and perhaps all action in the story happens in their presence.
A good example of this is Orwell’s 1984 in which Winston is almost a first person character but not quite (except his journal). This allows the author to say things about the environment that Winston could not say himself, but it’s still his point of view pretty much.
I’ve just realised this morning that most cosy mysteries are written in first person. Like this, the reader is not only seeing what the main character (the one solving the case) is seeing and hearing what they’re hearing, you also get the full thought process (exactly what Doyle avoided by having a Watsonian perspective). I think since most cosy mysteries have a female MC, that might be another reason why some people look down on first person perspective.
Urban fantasies also tend to have female leads and first-person narration and they’re heavily looked down upon.
I’ve been looking at some patterns behind the type of fiction targeted at men and the type of fiction targeted at women and the thing with first-person narration stuck out to me. I wonder if there’s some kind of underlying reason (do male readers prefer more narrative distance?). Of course, it might be that the pattern doesn’t exist and I’m just seeing things, but most people here seem to agree that the association between first-person narration and “female” fiction is there.
First person seems like a good style for mysteries and thrillers in general. Wasn’t a lot of the very “manly” pulp hardboiled detective stuff in first person too?
I can’t remember as I haven’t read that type of material in a while.
It seems like anything where you’re dealing with the unknown is likely to work out well with a limited POV where the character has to piece together what the hell is going on.
If we’re head hopping there’s less of a mystery. As someone who likes a lot of cosmic horror I didn’t notice the gender thing as it’s often in first person whether men or women write it.
I also prefer shorter to longer works and they’re more likely to use first person and other limited POV as well.
Yes, classic ‘hard boiled’ is also often in first person. It limits the viewpoint, but allows for witty commentary on everything, because we’re literally in someone’s head.
I don’t like first person narration. But I can also one hundred percent understand that that’s purely because of a personal preference and has absolutely nothing to do with there being anything “wrong” with it.
I think a lot of people like to think their tastes are especially “refined”. If they don’t like something, there must be a strong, legitimate reason behind that dislike. And while that is sometimes the case, a lot of the time there really is nothing more to it than personal preference – and that’s okay. I also hate tomatoes, doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with their existence.
Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with disliking it. I love it but wouldn’t want it for everything as it can be interesting to see the events of a story from more than one POV.
I tend to also like stories where it alternates between the POVs of two or maybe three characters (sometimes more but that’s pretty challenging). This can be done with alternating chapters each done in first person by those characters.
Or even if they’re doing third person, at least develop the inner life of at least one significant character very deeply. If I want to see everything from the outside I’ll watch a movie. I love movies but they’re two different media.
Sometimes the film of a book I like feels cold to me because the innerness of a character or characters I like is lost.
If I love a film based on a book I haven’t read I often don’t read it as I don’t want to ruin my enjoyment of the film by vastly preferring the novel.
Same. I don’t like it either, because it tends to disrupt my process of getting into the narrators/character’s head as my head keeps thinking I refers to me, while that’s not the case, resulting in a lot of cognitive effort that I can’t put into experiencing the story. This also tends to make my reading experience less enjoyable. So it has nothing to do with the style being bad ‘on principle’, a judgement that’s rarely true for the full 100% of different situations or contexts and preferences.
Third person also allows the reader insight into a characters deep thoughts (even without tagging it with stuff like ‘she thought’), so there is not a trade-off regarding that. For example: On my own, I could probably escape. But if I left Amber here, they may not find her in time. F*. The ground shook. I had to make a choice. Now.
Turning it to 3rd POV, very little changes and it still feels natural (to me): On his own, Zack could probably escape. But if he left Amber here, they may not find her in time. F*. The ground shook. He had to make a choice. Now.
Although, I can see how it would take some getting used to do this for writers.
To be honest, I won’t immediately put the book down if first person is used and have enjoyed quite a few books in this narration style. However, because of the disruption, the threshold for grabbing my attention to keep reading is a higher than for third person, meaning I will give up faster.
I disagree with EH regarding multiple POV’s in first person. Aside from the difficulties that multiple pov’s tend to bring (and summarized in a great article on this site), this is so confusing and disoriënting for me. Unless the story is really good from the start, I won’t enjoy it enough to keep going. In some stories the writer even forgot to be very clear about who they switched to and you have to read a whole paragraph trying to figure out whose head you’re in. Very disrupting. It’s also like creating, upholding and switching multiple identities that are all referred to by ‘I’ that gets very taxing to keep up. In first person one only uses I, while in 3rd person it really helps to keep seeing the character’s name every few sentences (which is weird to use in 1st person) with creating the distinction between myself and the character, consequently making it easier to “leave myself behind” and get into the character’s head.
What does the ‘F*’ mean?