I’ve made no secret of it. I hate first person stories. It might seem harsh, but I’m serious. I have a visceral reaction when I discover that a novel is written in first person. Something happens to me, akin to a heart attack, or that moment when you realise you’re about to puke up and there is nothing you can do to stop it. It is a very rare thing for me to read past the first page of a first person story, or the first sentence. In some cases I won’t make it past the first word.
I’m not saying that first person stories are wrong, or bad, just that I personally (generally) do not like them.
You may think it odd, therefore, that I am currently writing a story in first person.
That’s because it is odd.
I have had to take a step back to analyse why I hate first person narratives, and why I can manage to write in first person without spewing all over the floor every time I put a sentence down (writing is hard enough as it is without having to go through that sort of nonsense). Do I think my writing is better than anyone else’s? Not particularly, arrogance is not the issue here. There is a reason though and I believe I have finally figured it out.
It is very easy to write badly when writing in first person narrative. There is a lot of debate going on lately regarding show vs tell writing, and whilst I could argue that some “tell” writing is acceptable within a story, I feel compelled to put a limit upon its usage. Let’s say somewhere between 1-7% of a story should be written in a tell style. There are always moments where a short, simple “tell” sentence is better placed than a slightly longer “show” version, for dramatic effect, or for simplicity. You might feel that percentage should be higher, but I would argue this is down to preference, and in any case, the higher you go with a percentage of “tell” writing, the worse a story will be.
What does this have to do with my aversion to first person? Everything.
When writing first person it is inevitable that an author will fall into the tell style. And you know what? It’s dull. God is it mind-numbingly, ass-fartingly, brain-meltingly dull to read.
I woke up.
I started my car.
I felt hungry.
I DON’T CARE. If a story begins with the word “I”, then I will not read it. The exception to this rule is if you can follow the “I” with something, unique, amazing, and interesting.
I am an eight legged bear from the planet Zongrikon with a pet dwibble named Stanley and I am currently attempting to blow up the planet Earth.
Alright, I’m in. I’m hooked. Give me more. Don’t tell me “I woke up”. Every human being who has ever lived as at some point woken up. Big woop. If you are going to open with a tell sentence then it had better be a fucking amazing tell moment or I won’t bother reading the next sentence.
You might think I’m harsh, but you know what? I work two jobs, and I have a family. My reading time is limited to a half-hour slot before bedtime when I’m able to harness enough brain power to still concentrate, or the half-hour bit during my daughters swimming lesson on a Saturday where I can look away and concentrate on something else, safe in the knowledge that she won’t drown. I don’t have the time or patience to read dull shit from a writer who can’t be bothered to give me interesting stuff from page one, sentence one.
Stories are all about the author’s voice, and it is tough to be unique in the literary world. It’s even tougher to pull it off in first person. But it’s not impossible provided you put a little more thought into the work.
I have this reaction every time I write an “I” sentence in my book. It makes me wanna hurl, which is probably a good thing, because it’s forcing me to do better. If only more authors suffered from this odd affliction, there would be a lot more well-written first person stories in the world.
In any case, if you like to write first person, then go ahead. I won’t stop you. As a new member of the First Person Perspective Club, I shouldn’t be so judgemental I suppose.
But if you’re going to write, at least have the decency to write to the best of your ability and try not to litter your manuscript with throw away “I” sentences.
p.s. I realise the irony in the fact that this blog post is in first person, so no need to point it out… however, that’s kinda the point of blogs, so … yeah.