Writing in the First Person....

This is a question for all the writers out there on the board. I hope it isn’t too open ended. Do you have any insight into or know of any websites that could help me with this:

When writing in the first person, how does one avoid the constant use of the word I. for instance, an example:

On those nights when I did go to the bar I was always happy if it was still warm when I got home, so I could play my guitar on the stoop for a while before going to bed. I used to play there a lot during the day also, but there’s something really cool about playing music on a quiet starry night.
I know this is tricky because it involves not just the structure of an individual paragraph like this (in isolation the paragraph’s not so bad), but a more wholistic vision of technique when it comes to a narrative.

Are there any tricks out there that some of you use to break out of this kind of rut? Where else on the web might I look for guidance?

eric II

Try studying the works of authors you like who write in the first person.

You’ll see that they handle it in a variety of ways, but mostly they use I and me a lot.

So why isn’t this a problem? Because most books on not just about the narrator, but about other characters as well. The interactions of the narrator with the other characters, and with the world at large through description, are what make for interesting fiction.

If all you are doing is just saying, I did, I saw, I thought, I said, then you probably don’t have a good story in the first place.* Broadening out the narrative makes for better fiction, no matter which voice you are in.
*Except for those books which do this to achieve certain effects. Not for beginners. :slight_smile:

Since this is about the Arts, let’s move it over to our Cafe Society.

samclem GQ moderator

Yeah, it’s a good suggestion to observe what other authors are doing with first-person writing.

I recently read and enjoyed Dinner for Two by Mike Gayle. I think that one was in first person.

A very basic idea to keep in mind might be that if you’re describing the experiences of the narrator (some people might suggest an “all five senses” approach to thinking about it), then you’ll be writing “I” less often.

Most people don’t notice if you use “I” a lot when writing in the first person. It’s rarely an issue.

What Reality Chuck said, and I’m glad he said it. Until he did, I was thinking that my critical reading skills were subpar, because I rarely notice the use of “I” in first person fiction.

(There are some people you learn to listen to, ya know?)

There’s nothing that wouldn’t read awkwardly. I suppose your character could refer to himself a la Bob Dole in third person, but it’s going to sound stupid or affected unless there is some prevailing reason for it. (Maybe the character is self-dissociated?) Other stylistic avoidances of “I” are just going to sound…stylized. It’s okay for Our Royal Personage to refer to himself in the plural “we”, but Huck Finn has to get along using the same old vowel over and over. The term just flows naturally.

If you find yourself overusing it, perhaps it is an indication that the protagonist’s view is to insular rather than being focused on the exterior world, and needs to get out more. Nobody likes a Proust. :wink:


Just because it is in the first person doesn’t mean the author has to
be the subject of every sentence:

“I was interupted from this thought when I caught the scent of her jasmine perfume”
“The scent of her jasmine perfume put the brakes on that train of thought.”

“I usually take the subway, but tonight I decided I would take a cab.”
“A cab seemed like a good alternative my usual subway commute”

“I was thinking how nice it would be to have Cynthia in my arms”
“Pleasant thoughts involving Cynthia, and my arms, filled my head.”

“Because of the severity of my injurys, it took almost 20 minutes for me to remove my pants.”

“20 minutes later my pants were off, and my injured leg felt ready to explode.”

It would seem to me that the bigger problem is to avoid the trap of writing about what others are thinking and doing. First person is just that - the thoughts and actions of the author and what he/she observes occuring around him. Some writers avoid this by switching person from chapter to chapter, but it’s awkward reading.

Bingo. I had a really irritating professor for my advance fiction writing class, and he told us that if we wrote in the first person we should avoid using “I” and “me” all the time. At first I thought this was dumb advice, since first person pov books are full of Is, but eventually I tried it out. The first results were predictably awkward, and were just attempts to mean “I” without writing “I.” Eventually though, I realized what you said above - the story isn’t just about the character telling it. Those parts of the story are without I’s

Sure, a lot of the sentences will have “I” in them, but if you tell the rest of the story, they blend in. See what you think about the snippets below of a (stalled) 1st person POV story I’ve been attempting to finish.

“I” is still used, but not in every sentence, because not every sentence is about Paris Falls, the narrator.

As others have posted, just because you are using the first person, doesn’t mean that your narrator will be the subject of every sentence, even in every paragraph. Stylistically, remember you want to use active voice as much as possible, anyways, and it’s hard to narrate from a first person perspective unless you learn to report what’s happening, instead of what your narrator sees happening.

I think the point to keep in mind is that you don’t have to keep reporting HOW you sensed whatever you mention, just report the sensations and the readers will understand perfectly well.


I smelled her magnolia perfume.


Her skin smelled of magnolias.

I saw she was smiling at me.


She smiled at me.


I heard Jack cracking his knuckles.


Jack cracked his knuckles.
As my writing teacher explained it, by putting in the "I saw"s and so forth all you are doing is adding another layer between the reader and the story. Without them, he can more fully ‘become’ the narrator, experiencing what happens ‘directly.’

Thanks a lot folks, for your well considered advice. I read them all and even saved them into a Notepad file for future reference.
Eric II

BTW, I’m not sure that this is any different in dealing with third person narration. If I’m writing about Harry Lime, say, I guess I can use “Harry” or “he” so there’s two words rather than just “I”, but still… if every sentence starts with either “Harry” or “he,” the writing becomes pretty repetitive.

This is what I was going to say. Because it’s in first person, the person doing the sensing is, well should be, understood already. You don’t need to keep poking the reader to remind her.

But I is a word, like “is” that most readers won’t notice.

And I love first person writing, so hop to it, Eric II! :slight_smile:

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

That’s how to do it.