The First-Person Novel: Why You Shouldn’t Write One

I’ve wondered about whether to use the first or the third person voice in my own novel, and I’ve come to conclude that I personally cannot stand to read most first-person novels. More often than not, they’re a break from what John Gardener calls the fictive dream.

You see, more often than not, you end up reading these very “writerly” phrases in first-person novels. You read things like, “…and then I saw the first flake of snow—the brave pioneer of the coming winter—floating gingerly earthbound with promises of purity.” And I wonder to myself, why is this rancher’s wife speaking or thinking like someone who has an MFA in creative writing? 

I am a staunch proponent of the rule that one shouldn’t ever use the first-person voice unless there is a very damned good reason for it. I believe that those reasons are as follows:

1) You have a really interesting and captivating voice. Look at The Catcher In The Rye. Holden Caulfield has an extremely distinct voice, and it draws us into what might’ve normally been a boring start of the story. If you’re going to use the first-person narrative, make sure that you use a very distinct voice. Readers shouldn’t be able to mistake that character for anyone else. You can start reading a paragraph of Catcher and you can immediately tell its Holden. So keep working on that voice until your readers can identify that character by voice alone. One way to measure it is this: can I tell its John Hero without the surrounding context or other clues, such as, ‘…said John Hero’?

2) You are going to maximize the benefits of a first-person narrative. There are things that the first-person narrative can do that the third cannot. Make sure to use them. If you can simply do a find-and-replace on your novel and replace “I” with “she” or “he,” then you’re really doing it all completely wrong. There are other effects that the first-person narrative can achieve that are either harder to do with the third or impossible to. For instance, one can rapidly generate intimacy with the reader in a first-person voice. I won’t go into all the possibilities here, but suffice it to say that you should examine what is most distinct about the first-person narrative and pursue it to its fullest extent.

3) You’re not writing about yourself. If your novel is semi-autobiographical and its about a character whose troubles mirror your own, please do the world a favor and publish it on Blogspot or go to a therapist. There are too many works of fiction that are merely thinly-veiled autobiographies. You can smell them a mile away. You can tell that the author is trying to work something out in their life, a past trauma or some other psychological entanglement. It is self-serving and does not profit the reader in any way. I’ve been there myself, and it took me quite a long time to create a protagonist that wasn’t simply a copy of myself.

And there you have it. There are very few instances in which the first-person narrative is truly justified. Personally, I don’t think it should be considered by beginners, who should first learn the craft of creating and portraying characters.