First Person Narrative and Reader Resistance

The first thing my agent ever said to me was, “Readers hate first person narrative.” I had sent her a thrilling escape-from-the-bad-guys romantic suspense set in Greece under the Colonels. And, yes, it was told in the first person.

Still she’d read the thing. And then taken me to lunch.

So I nodded politely and murmured that it seemed to have worked all right for Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, P G Wodehouse and Mary Stewart.

“Yes, but they’re great,” she said impatiently.

I couldn’t deny it.

“What you need to do is forget all this ‘I think, I feel’ stuff. Readers won’t buy it. Concentrate on what people DO.”

Living without First Person Narrative

Goblin Court cover by Sophie WestonWell, I thought she was talking rubbish but she was the expert. I was the unpublished writer. So I spat on my hands, did what I was told and a year later Mills & Boon started publishing me.

Their house style was set in stone – and 3rd person narrative And I could make it work. I found I enjoyed it.

When I revised my second book last year, I admit that I added about another 10% that I thought was missing (mostly the hero). But I never considered for a moment making Lucy the narrator.

Why? Because first person narrative would slow down the story. And undermine all the best funny bits, too.

PITFALL 1 of the First Person Narrative

1st person narrative slowIt’s SLOW.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries nobody cared too much about slow stories. A stagecoach travelled at about 5 miles an hour.

In The Importance of Being Earnest Miss Prism’s lost masterpiece was “a three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality.” Catch anyone reading a three-volume novel now!

PITFALL 2 of the First Person Narrative

But PG Wodehouse kept Bertie Wooster’s first person narrative whipping along at a cracking pace, I hear you cry.  And he makes you laugh out loud.

Day 13Yes, he did. Because he was a genius. Make no mistake, that is very, very skilful writing. And he was a successful co-writer of musical comedies. His dialogue is spot on. His timing is perfect.

Even so, he had to hone it. Some of his early work is a bit laboured. It was only when he was absolutely certain that he had the style he wanted, that he went into first person narrative. Or, more likely, was lured into it by Bertram Wooster of Mayfair, blessings on his beautifully barbered head.

That agent was right there, I wasn’t in his class and never will be.

But in another aspect, she was wrong. It isn’t the plots that keep us turning the pages. It’s the wondrous dialogue. Bertie’s voice is not alone. We hear Gussy Fink Nottle, Aunt Dahlia, Anatole, Rosy M Banks… above all we hear Jeeves. Bertie, bless him, is a faithful reporter, even when, as he so often is, he is justifiably miffed with the lot of them.

And Pitfall 2 is that the first person narrator  GETS IN THE WAY. At least, he or she can get in the way in the hands of an unskilled writer.

Reader Resistance

reading with catI’ve been thinking about the first person narrator partly because I’ve been ill and reading loads of new novels in a range of genres.

Several of them were told in the first person – and in every single one, even those I enjoyed and admired, there were places were the story plodded.

One had almost no dialogue at all. It was all the internal analysis and reflection of the narrator. In another, a literary job this one, I couldn’t get anywhere near the other characters. Sometimes I didn’t even know what was happening, only the narrator’s exquisitely sensitive reactions. It was obsessive. I could have screamed.

first person narrative chemistryAnd I suddenly remembered that, when I was a child, I refused to read books that were told in the first person. I didn’t (and still don’t) know why I felt like that then. I just put them back on the shelf. Chemistry.

But I can now see exactly why some readers might have that reaction too.

Writer Resolutions

busy editingI’m currently working on a final edit of a novel that started out as a first person narrative. It just felt natural. I went with it. Some good stuff emerged, too. But, but, but… I knew something wasn’t right.

And then I realised – the heroine sounded self-obsessed and borderline neurotic. She isn’t either. But she was in the spotlight the whole damn time. It wasn’t her fault. It was mine.

Busy fizzI came back to third person narrative.

And now my hero has a voice. The minor characters get to do their thing. My heroine isn’t telling the readers when and where to laugh any more.

Above all, she gets to behave like an idiot without lacerating herself for pages afterwards. Result!

Maybe one day I’ll write a first person narrative that I can be proud of. But I’ve still got a lot to learn.

Writing Tips to Test Drive your Story in First Person Narrative

  1. Dialogue balance. Just looking at the pages, see what proportion is dialogue. Remember that everything else is just ONE CHARACTER TALKING AT THE READER.
  2. Again, just looking page by page: how long are the paragraphs? If you’ve got 25 line paragraph after 25 line paragraph, your action isn’t very dynamic and your reader is probably losing the will to live. (NB This may not be true for literary novels. One that I’ve just read eschewed paragraphs altogether, just had sort of chapters-breaks. Irritated me, but it was long-listed for one of the prestige prizes, and it did have other rewarding qualities.)
  3. Read the first couple of chapters. How much time does your narrator spend actually doing something, rather than reacting, analysing, debating or generally faffing about thinking about himself? (We cover this in Liberta’s Workshop Sparkle 1. Have found it very useful, while editing!)
  4. Read it aloud. This is infallible. As your narrator havers between the gold dress and the black, wonders what this man means or that, all in the tiniest detail, second by second, you’ll get so bored you’ll throw it at the wall. These are probably the darlings that Stephen King wants you to murder, now I come to think of it. He’s right. Take a scythe to ’em.Sophie Weston Author


24 thoughts on “First Person Narrative and Reader Resistance

    1. sophiewestonauthor

      Oh that’s such a great book, Liz. And it has all the qualities of a truly great first person narrative.

      You understand that woman, how she lives and how she came to be that way, mainly because of the things she does and remembers or because of the dialogue she reports. And of course there’s that wonderful, sensuous sensitivity to landscape, atmosphere and food. Gosh, I salivate just reading that meal they have in the restaurant in Marseilles. Of course, when she wrote it, Britain was still in the grip of rationing.

  1. lesley2cats

    Liz – I was thinking exactly that! But I’m actually struggling to think of any books that have become favourites that have been told in the first person. And I can’t do it. I use what I believe the Americans call “deep third”. But our Plum – he, as Sophie says, was a genius. And Heyer never used first person, did she?

    1. Sophie Post author

      I have to say that Madam, Will you Talk and Nine Coaches Waiting are up there in my top 100, Lesley. Also Beauty and Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley – maybe even Sunshine, the acceptable face of Vampire. And PGW’s Bertie story with Gussie Fink Nottle, the soupy Madeleine Bassett and the Market Snodsbury Prize Giving once pulled me out of a major depression. All 1st person stories.

      In fact I’m surprised there aren’t more, because these days I think I’m fairly neutral on 1st or 3rd person narrative. But it certainly seems to be difficult to bring off well.

      I’m not the expert on Heyer. We’d have to ask Jen Kloster. But I can’t remember reading a 1st person GH, that’s true.

  2. Louise Allen

    99.99% of what I write is 3rd person but I’ve a timeslip series which is 1st person from the heroine’s pov. I find it very liberating to write, I can get more humour in & the pov is useful in exploring the contrasts between times. Plus, I find it helps me get into deep 3rd with the 3rd person pov books. So horses for courses – although absolutely with you on need to keep it dynamic, dialogue etc.
    But I dislike1st person present tense (or present tense from any pov) as a reader – those definitely do produce resistance in me!

    1. Sophie Post author

      Yes, I can see how 1st person pov would be a real asset in time-slip, Louise. Haven’t come across one of that series of yours. What title should I look for?

      Oh dear, 1st person present tense irritates me intensely. Especially from writers I admire. I think it’s because it fractures my perception. I keep screaming internally: I know what’s happening NOW and it’s not this. Very odd.

      1. Louise Allen

        Thanks, Sophie – An Earl Out of Time is the first (#2 is the current wip) of the Time Out of Time series. (Crime & romance) 21stc heroine who is a part-time Special Constable & an 1807 earl – 1st person seemed the right way to explore the heroine’s reactions to the world she finds herself in.
        Yes, my reaction to 1st person present tense is like yours. I find I’m reading and consciously putting it into past tense as I go. Exhausting.

  3. Jan Jones (@janjonesauthor)

    I’m going to slink off here, because most of my novellas are 1st person. It’s an immense help when writing short novels, because it gives the character an immediacy. I’m not saying I couldn’t have written them in third, but to me, the main character just came alive when I WAS her

    1. Sophie Post author

      No, don’t slink off, Jan. Lots of people like 1st person. I do myself when it’s well done. (When there aren’t monster paragraphs and no dialogue, for instance. As is the case with your books.) And I think novella-length is probably not so overwhelmingly One Person Talking as a whole novel anyway.

      I suspect the main problem is that when people do a Marcel Proust on every tiny element of the narrator’s thoughts and feelings, I get restless. Some writers seem as if they can’t resist, sadly.

    1. Joanna

      I think I probably dislike present tense more than I dislike 1st person narrative. And like you, Jan, when I write short (eg short stories) I often write in 1st person. But never in present tense.

      I did finish Wolf Hall — eventually — but I didn’t read the sequel. That combination of present tense and continual use of “he” drove me up the wall.

      1. Sophie Post author

        I don’t dislike 1st person. At least I don’t think so. But I have found that when I don’t buy a book after I’ve read the Amazon sample, it’s often because it’s told in the 1st person and in a way that sets my teeth on edge.

        I confess that I never suspended disbelief in Wolf Hall. That never-named POV character i.e. Cromwell was continually disconcerting, I agree. And the present tense, so that you’re reading years in just a few days, is a paradox too far, for me. Plus it’s a nasty period and not one I know enough about to feel comfortable in. So I kept being thrown out of the story thinking: Who? What’s happened? Why? And then, inevitably, Do I believe this? And there’s a limit to the number of times a reader can ask that in a novel, before you stay disengage from it altogether.

  4. barbarahudson2012

    Useful warnings – thanks! Though I think one can fall into similar traps when writing 3rd person pov if one goes too often or for too long into the pov person’s head.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I’m sure you’re right, Barbara. I just happened to get there by asking myself why I wasn’t enjoying particular 1st person novels as much as I’d hoped.

  5. Gail Mallin

    I don’t mind a first person POV but I really dislike present tense novels. Just irritates me for some reason so I avoid novels using it. I did make an exception for “Wolf Hall” after a friend praised it to the skies, but I ended up wall-banging it after a few chapters. I suppose it all boils down to the author’s skill, if the book really sweeps you away you don’t even notice things that would normally make you wince.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I’m happy enough with 1st person POV, too, as long as it’s well done, Gail. Don’t do it well enough myself yet, though. And, these days, often stop reading when other people’s way of doing it jumps me out of the story. Thought I would try to work out why and, having done so, share in case it was helpful.

      I have even tolerated present tense narrative in some books. As you say, it boils down to the author’s skill!

  6. janegordoncumming

    Surely first person doesn’t have to be any more introspective and emotion-wallowing than deep third. Would one condemn ‘Rebecca’? But I agree it would be hard to get away with a whole novel in the present tense.

    1. Sophie Post author

      You’re probably right, 1st person and deep 3rd have a lot in common, Jane. Maybe the main temptation offered by 1st person to the unwary writer is just to keep on doing it longer.

      “Rebecca” is not my favourite novel but du Maurier certainly doesn’t fall into any of the traps I’ve outlined above. Interesting to remember that she also had experience of the theatre, albeit vicarious. She certainly knew the power of withholding – witness her heroine’s name.

  7. Elizabeth Bailey

    I’ve got the opening to a novel in second person present tense. Don’t ask. Just came out that way. Don’t think the whole book will be done that way though, assuming I ever write it. Envisaged in different modes.
    Also had one character’s pov in a novel mainly third which was present time present tense but it worked for her (Fly the Wild Echoes) in that particular book.
    Some stories just seem to demand it. But agree it is down to writer skill. Wodehouse is genius. Heyer never wrote 1st person. Jodi Taylor does it with brilliance and is very funny.

    1. Sophie Post author

      When a story demands it, you just have to go with the flow, Liz. So recognise that.

  8. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I agree with Gail. It’s the present tense that really gets me.

    I’ve only written one first person novel: ‘Frost Fair’ and it was a real technical challenge to write, especially when there was something exciting happening when the heroine wasn’t there herself.

    However, in ‘Highland Summer’ I wrote mostly in the third person and occasionally went into first person in my heroine’s diary. This allowed a sudden jolt of immediacy and the opportunity to see something that had just happened on stage in the third person, from a completely different angle – which might be contradictory.

    I thought: If Dickens can go into Esther’s diary in ‘Bleak House’, I don’t see why I can’t,. too!

    1. Sophie Post author

      Good point about the technical challenge, Elizabeth.

      One of the reasons 1st person didn’t work for the story I’m currently editing is that the heroine and hero met on the page and and weren’t together very much in the 1st half of the book. So if I didn’t get into 3rd and follow what he was up to, we lost sight of him altogether.

      With you every step of the way – anything Dickens could do, we can do. Except, possibly, soppy Dora Copperfield.

  9. lesley2cats

    I know this is a week late, but I’ve just read all the comments after my own, and I’m prompted to say my Mother’s Day present to me is the new Elly Griffifths, Dark Angel. I’m a huge fan of hers – and she writes in the present tense. I honestly didn’t realise it at first, so exceptionally skilled. And I’d forgotten Jodi Taylor, my publisher’s Star Turn!

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