The allure of first person is strong—it’s edgy, intimate, and goes down as easy as gossip. In the era of Facebook, we are writing more than ever—and almost all of it in first person. It’s a small step from detailing reality to detailing dreams—and from there, to detailing the events of a story. And with the success of many such ventures, why not? There is something powerfully emotional and immediate about first person, especially when we are so used to connecting with people via their online lives. And all the practice we receive from our own journaling makes first person both an approachable and natural form of narration.
But, while writing a journal—online or otherwise—provides excellent writing practice, when it comes to your actual story, there are a few important differences. For one, your online journal has context: you! For another, the reader has no expectations of an entertaining, immersive, world-shaking story from an online journal.
We care about online journals because they belong to real people—it gives it a sense of importance lacking in fiction. But once you know it’s “merely” another work of fiction, the bar raises—as do your expectations. In order to keep the magic, it’s important to understand the tricks—and traps--of first person narration, as well as how to control the context and expectations of the story.
Voice Is Everything
Voice is always important—but never more so than in a first person story. First person stories force an intimacy between reader and narrator unlike any other story. And, speaking as a reader, if that intimacy is abused by a narrator voice I don’t fancy, it doesn’t matter how compelling the story is--I will put that book down. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, the same as if that unlikeable voice were whispering in your ear. Just as a particularly good voice can get me excited about just about anything--from the history of the sea cucumber to the secret lives of washcloths.
So, take a little time. Think about those voices you’ve heard that can still a buzzing room without raising their volume. The voices that could say anything and make it music to your ears. The voices that silence the voice inside your head and fill the cavity of your skull with their own resonant tones. And then try to craft an engaging first person voice with those same qualities. Remember: many of the tricks that work for you as a person will read incredibly differently coming from an unknown character on paper. Being unduly negative can easily unite readers against you, rather than inciting empathy as it would were you to use it with people who know you for a good, relatable person.