The Difference Between Engaging & Boring First Person in Three Tips

When writing fiction, there are several points of view an author can take. Omniscient, limited omniscient, first person—the choice of which to use is the author’s. Sometimes it depends on the genre, or the way the author intends to write the book. Sometimes point of view is obvious. Sometimes, not so much.

One point of view I’ve always struggled with was first person, both as a reader and a writer. It’s a very character dependant point of view, not only in terms of how fleshed out the character is, but in how active they are as well. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in the head of a boring, inactive protagonist.

So, how can you prevent a boring, first person narrative?

Tip 1: Make sure you’ve got a strong protagonist.

This is a very obvious point, but it’s extremely important. It doesn’t matter what kind of point of view you’re taking or what kind of story you’re writing, you need a compelling protagonist to carry it. Some narratives, if we don’t like one character, will allow us to at least enjoy other characters, either co-protagonists or important secondary characters. With the first person perspective, we are constantly inside the head of one character. If that character is uninteresting or unlikeable, we’re going to just end up putting the book down. A good character is key to holding interest, even if the story isn’t what one might call ‘action packed.’

Tip 2: Consider the type of story you’re telling

Certain styles are meant to be in first person. Travel writing, memoirs style, journal style, autobiographical pieces, whether fiction or non-fiction, you want a first person perspective for these pieces. General fiction has more leeway for points of view. If you have multiple characters who you want to take points of view from, first person would not be recommended. Sometimes, you may have to try writing a few pieces with a first person view to decide whether or not you think it works. It’s all very subjective.

Tip 3: For the love of all that is literary, have your first-person character actually do stuff.

Many times have I read a first person story where the main character is surprisingly inactive for most of the story. If something exciting happens, they hear about it second-hand. Obviously, what dictates activeness in your book depends on the genre; romances are going to be less action-packed than adventure novels, after all. The best kinds of characters for first person are the kinds that are always in the action, either because they throw themselves into the situations, or because the situations find them.

Now, this doesn’t mean that your first person protagonist should be in the action all the time. Every books needs breather chapters, or chapters to analyze discoveries. Good pacing is important in any novel. It’s when your character is experiencing nearly everything second-hand that first person becomes a problem.

These cover my general issues with the first person stuff I’ve read, and disliked. Boring protagonists, more worthy characters to focus on, and a bout of general inactivity have all made me put the book down or give up the written series in favour of a television adaptation. That being said, I’ve read a lot of good first person works as well. These tips just encompass the differences I’ve seen between the first persons done well, and the ones done not so well.

But sometimes, it just comes down to what’s written and who’s writing it.

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