The Rules of First Person

I have written some stuff in 3rd person but I predominantly write in 1st. I personally find 1st person easier to write and so it amazes me when I see people break the cardinal rules of the 1st person POV. These are:

1) The reader must experience everything the main character sees/thinks and ONLY everything the main character sees/thinks.

This is a two-part rule. The first part means that, if your main character looks at a squirrel, the reader must see the squirrel at the same time. If the main character thinks, “poor squirrel”, the reader must see those thoughts on the page.

The second part of this rule means that the reader cannot see/know what the main character cannot see/know. This should be an easy one but I can’t tell you how many times I see a narrator sneak in with something like, “Joan thought about her answer before she responded.” Really? How does the main character know this? Is he psychic? Because Joan might actually be pausing while she tries to remember what time her hair appointment is at.

2) All thoughts must be exactly as they would occur IN THE MAIN CHARACTER’S HEAD

Okay, I get a little testy about this one because it bugs me even more than when people say they’re going to speak to a subject. But enough about that restraining order. When a book is narrated by one character, all of the narration should come from that character’s head as if they were THINKING not as if they were SPEAKING TO SOMEONE ELSE. I can’t stress this enough. Yes, I know, it’s possible to adopt a style of writing where your main character speaks to the reader for the entire book. If that’s your style, don’t pass GO. Close this page now. If it’s not your style however, every word you write (other than dialogue) must come from the main character’s thoughts. This means that your main character can’t think something just because you need to explain it to the reader. I will give you an example of this┬ábecause it’s the mistake I see more than anything (and the one that makes me want to throw bananas at the wall).

The door opened and I saw Sarah Jones, my brother’s wife of ten years.

I’m going to grit my teeth now while I explain why this is SO DAMN WRONG. Say, for example, that you are the main character and you just opened the door to find your sister-in-law standing there. Would you think, “Hey. There is FULL NAME OF YOUR SISTER-IN-LAW, the woman who married my brother ten years ago?” NO! You would think, “Hey, there’s Sarah. Doesn’t her hair look nice?” or something like that. And for the love of twelve kinds of cheese you would not think, “Doesn’t her brown hair look nice?” When is that last time you thought about the hair or eye colour of someone you have known for more than 5 minutes? Let me guess…never! Finally, please remember that this rule applies to all descriptions of all people the main character knows. So his mother is “Mom” not “my mother” (unless he is speaking to a non-family member) and his best friend is “Jake” or whatever he calls him and not “my best friend Jake” or “my friend of twelve years, Jacob Jones.”

Okay, I’m done now. And I need some cheese.

Category: On Writing