I love books told in first person. I love the conceit of someone telling you a story, directly, like you were sitting in a bar with a loquacious stranger. I love it for the intimacy and immediacy, for the personality and the limited point of view.
Some of my favorite writers have worked best when they worked in first person – George MacDonald Fraser with Flashman, P. G. Wodehouse with Bertie Wooster, Kazuo Ishiguro with Stevens in The Remains of the Day, Emma Bull with Orient in her novel, Finder, and I have always found it a very comfortable to write that way myself.
So, how do you write first person well? I’ll give it to you in one word – voice.
In a third person novel, a character’s character can by revealed in several ways – by what others say about her, by their reactions to her, by her reactions to them, and to what happens to her and around her. When the writer turns to other subjects, however, the character building often stops. The descriptions of the world, of the situation, of the action, are in the writer’s voice, and often reflect the writer’s personality, rather than the character’s.
But with first person, a writer has the opportunity to reveal his protagonist’s character not just when they’re the subject of the scene, but in every single word, because every single thing that happens in the story is told in the protagonist’s voice – every description of what others say about her, their reactions to her, what happens to her and around her, of the world, the situation, the action – all are filtered through her unique perceptions, and thus reveal what she thinks about these things. The character’s personality is showcased on the page, rather than the writer’s.
It’s important then, to find a good and entertaining voice to showcase. Some people work out detailed character sketches before getting started, figuring out who their protagonist is, what they believe, and how they would react. Lazy bastard that I am, I tend to do it the other way around. I start writing in what I feel is an entertaining voice, and let it start to tell me who the character is, and what’s right or wrong for them. After a chapter or two of that, I’ll have a pretty good idea if the voice is going to be interesting enough to carry a whole novel, or if I need to trash it and come up with something else.
And once I have a good one, the voice tells me everything I need to know about what the character would or wouldn’t say in a given situation, how they would react, how they see the world and other people. All of a sudden I have a fully fledged character without really trying, and the second hardest part of writing – after plotting – is all taken care of, and I can just get on with telling the story – coloring it with my main character’s voice.