Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror

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By Del Rey Editorial Director Shelly Shapiro

Many inexperienced writers choose to write in the first person under the mistaken impression that it will make characterization easier. In fact, the opposite is true. People rarely consider what they themselves are like; when a character does this in a book, it immediately rings false ("I looked in the mirror and ran the comb once more through my long, curly red hair. My green eyes looked unusually bright."). The author has no chance to step in. When the third person is used, however, the author can allow the reader to stick closely to a character's viewpoint, even to be inside that character's head, while still preserving a more critical awareness. Far from distancing the reader from the character, this outside awareness can (and should) actually add depth and realism.

There have been a number of popular series in which the author uses first person in every book. If you look closely at these, often the narrative voice is interchangeable from one book to another; the only things that vary are the character's trappings: name, job, domecile, etc. What these authors have done is to hit upon a voice that readers resonate to. Their fans like that voice so much, along with the books' plots, that they don't mind that all the protagonists are essentially the same person. Finding a voice like that is nearly impossible to do by design.

Sometimes a writer wants to use the first person in order to limit the reader to the same information restrictions that apply to the protagonist. This is a device commonly used in certain mystery stories. However, third person can accomplish that same goal just as neatly.

To write successfully in the first person requires a high level of skill and, usually, experience. If you're just starting out, stick with the third person. Trust me, it'll be easier.