Answering Your Writing Questions: First Person

On Friday, I offered to answer any and all of your writing-related questions, and some good ones have come in.  Today, I answer a question from mystery writer and loyal reader J.D. Frost:

When writing in first person, can I stay in active voice without beginning every sentence with I?

This problem is the very reason that I vowed never to write in first person again.  (Those of you who read this blog regularly know I recently forsook that vow.) In the past when I've written first person, I've gotten mired in that I, I, I, I, I voice, where it seems like every sentence begins with I. And that does not make for a very flowy voice.  When I wrote my MFA novel in first person, my biggest complaint was that it just didn't sound right.  And I never could get it to sound right because of the preponderance of "I"s. 

But a funny thing happened when I switched my novel from third person to first person.  There were stretches of sentences that had no "I"s in them, because when writing in third person I hadn't felt the need to start every sentence with an I.  And it worked just fine.    So here are a couple of tips that will help:

1.  Get rid of the filtering consciousness.  Edit out all the "I saw" and "I heard" and "I smelled" constructions at the beginning of sentences and you'll be left with the meat of it.  By now we know that your viewpoint character is telling us the story. Work what's left of the sentence into an active piece of writing.

2.  Be the camera.  Report what your character sees, in camera fashion, in an objective way.  Read Hemingway for this.  He reports like a journalist with very little emotion (where you might be tempted to get that "I" in) and its very powerful.  Or, as Zan Marie put it in a comment below, it's not what the character is doing, it is what they are perceiving.  Well put, Zan Marie!

3.  Practice with description.  You can write paragraphs of description without need for the "I" voice. Then start translating these skills to the rest of your writing.  James Lee Burke is a master at description and he writes often in first person.

Anybody else have any helpful ideas for writing first person?  Leave them in the comments, we'd love to hear them.


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8 Comments on "Answering Your Writing Questions: First Person"

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06/18/2012 11:22

Thanks for the link, Charlotte. ; ) I have to remember these hints all the time. Once I stop telling and start showing, the I’s recede.

Karen Phillips
06/18/2012 15:39

Great info, Charlotte. I really like the direction of getting rid of the “I saw,” “I heard” and such. King’s ON ONWRITING reveals he has an Ideal Reader in mind. (It’s his wife, but that’s beside the point.) Having an IR reader in mind might make that first person POV easier to write, but I still would have to go back like you said and kill the I’s.

06/18/2012 17:11

Thank you for the great comment in the first place!  It was right on.

06/18/2012 17:13

Yeah, once I learned about the filtering consciousness, it changed my life–or at least my writing style.  I think my ideal reader is multiple–and its my writing group.  I often write with them in mind and they are my first and best readers.  I'm lucky to have them!

06/18/2012 17:54

Great advice, Charlotte. You’ve even addressed a problem I have other than all the “I”s. Too often I find myself delivering a running commentary on what the protagonist is doing. More interesting is what the character feels about what he sees, hears, feels or smells and how these things change him. Something like that anyway.

06/18/2012 18:06

Sometimes that running commentary might also come from you warming up, telling yourself what the hero is up to.  Whatever it is, knowing that you're doing it is way more than half the battle.  Now you can recognize it and change.

06/20/2012 07:52

I’m writing my novel in first person. I didn’t want to…it just kinda happened. My MC has a mind of her own! One of the issues I’ve seen through reading a TON of fiction is that a lot of 1st person stories either assume way too much or offer nothing more than vague generalizations (and repetitions). Here’s an example: Sandy carried the weight of the world of the shoulders and today was no different. She looked sad/seemed distraught/appeared distracted. I put my arm on her sagging shoulder and offered my “There, there. There, there.” So how does the narrator KNOW… Read more »

06/20/2012 08:03

Thanks for this, Heather.  As always, the comments are turning out to be better than the original post!  I totally know what you mean about not wanting to write in first person but then it happened.  Following the muse is like that sometimes.  And yes, I think if we can just remember that great old rule, to "show, don't tell," we'll be okay.  It's often the case that the "I" voice encourages telling and I fall into that trap, too.

I look forward to your questions!