The agony of the First Person novel

I’m in the middle of writing a novel in the First Person. I haven’t written in the First Person before because there are limitations. I like descriptive passages and few people go off on long riffs about the colour of the sky and the sumptuous, rolling landscape. The bigger problem is self-awareness.


In my novel Not Always To Plan I had four characters, all members of the same family. Each chapter’s Point of View (POW) was clearly defined and it meant that I could write the same scene from a different perspective, showing how differently things could be interpreted. It demonstrates the mis-communication that is part of the human condition, and the funny, frustrating or tragic consequences. After all, people seldom say what they really mean.

My latest novel is from the POW of one person. It’s a fictionalized memoir of a real person who lived among some of the most interesting people of the twentieth century. But frankly she was not the brightest firework in the box.

And herein lies the problem:

How do you give the detail of all that lively, creative activity when the main character isn’t that aware of it herself?

Without lots of awful dialogue, that is. (“He’s just come back from writing his award-winning novel that will probably win the Nobel Prize for Literature and he’ll go out later for a drink with his very famous artist friends while I get supper ready…”)


I think of Paula McLain’s recent novel, The Paris Wife,  a fictionalized memoir by Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway. It gives Hadley’s side of their life together which is, of course, famously covered in his fascinating book A Moveable Feast. In McLain’s book, Hadley is a highly articulate and intelligent woman and obviously very self-aware. It’s a very successful and satisfying rendering.


I think I’m on the right track in my novel but I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts. What’s your experience of writing a First Person novel? Or what are your frustrations when reading one?

Share the pain and the pleasure…

Paris laneway

Paris laneway




Categories: WritingTags: , , ,


  1. I’m writing in first person, too, for the very reason that I want to explore the story from the perspective of a single character, and demonstrate the limitations of her interpretation of people and events. I’m looking at it from a psychological perspective. It also occurs in present tense, so the story unfolds as it is experienced. It’s a constant challenge to maintain the honesty of the experience.

    A character who is a bit naive or not very observant will still observe, s/he will simply interpret things in a different way. Do they completely lack insight or do they just misunderstand? It could be that they think someone is friendly and will, therefore, be shocked and confused when that person turns against them. Hopefully the reader would be shocked and hurt along with them. We’ve all experienced misunderstandings in life, no matter how wise me are.

    • Thanks for commenting, Eliza. Yes, I think the psychological aspect is the most interesting thing about writing in the first person. Really getting to grips with a person and hearing their inner dialogue that isn’t usually expressed. And you’re right, everybody, no matter what their IQ, observes the life around them. And that can be a great source of humour, too – all the stuff we would only say to ourselves, all that judgmental stuff.

      I love my character but I’m trying also to draw the reader into the lives of those close to her but whose actual creativity she took very little interest in. Maybe I should be writing a fiction with a non-fiction book attached!

  2. I’ve just finished reading Gone Girl. I wonder if you’ve read it? It’s crime but it’s written in the first person from the perspective of the woman who goes missing and her husband. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the writing but it did grip me and I can absolutely see why it was so successful. It’s a good example of the use of an unreliable narrator. Of course, in crime the first person can be fun to use especially if that person is withholding key bits of information from the reader i.e. that they’ve got granny buried under the mulberry bush in the back garden.The main problem I’ve found with first person is making absolutely sure that the ‘I’ of the book is not ‘me’ if you see what I mean! When it works though I think there’s an intimacy and involvement in first person narratives that is very powerful indeed. Good Luck with it!

    • I have read Gone Girl and it completely hooked me, too. I thought it was a very clever use of the first person, as you say. It wasn’t the kind of book I’m normally drawn to but I really liked its very clear voice. Or what I thought was clear until it wasn’t! I totally agree that it’s a great device for crime. And you’re right about not writing as ‘me’. This is something I’ve fallen into a couple of times with this current novel and hopefully I’ve weeded out those parts – when my character is just too nice or too thoughtful. Just because I was feeling in a warm, fuzzy mood when I was writing. Thank God for editting, the process I really enjoy (except when I find a chapter has been stripped of practically everything in it)!
      Thanks for your great comments!

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