Tips and Exercises for Writing in the First Person
The challenge of narrating a story in the first person can make even seasoned writers balk. Most books are written in the third person because it offers a wider, more flexible perspective.
But there are reasons for — and advantages to — writing in the first person. The most obvious is its intimacy. First-person storytelling brings you closer to the character because you aren’t just writing about them. Like method acting, you invite yourself to become them, which allows you and your reader to know the character on a level beyond what an external narrator could offer.
When written well, first-person narratives can yank readers deep into the character’s narrative.
But not all attempts hit the mark. There are certain challenges t with writing from this perspective. These challenges often scare writers away from this point of view, so let’s talk about them.
Three Common Challenges When Writing in the First Person
Below are some of the most common first-person writing challenges that I’ve encountered, both in my writing as well as in my clients’ work:
You have to develop your character’s voice — not your own. This isn’t always an intuitive process. Sometimes your personal voice gets tangled in the character’s, leading to stilted or clunky prose. Other times, you may accidentally overshadow your character’s voice with your own. This can obscure your character’s personality, especially if you have multiple characters telling the story.
The word “I” tends to become your arch nemesis as you lean on to the phrase repeatedly when creating your initial draft. It can create a lack of variance in sentence structure that jars its cadence, which negatively affects your prose.
First-person narration often triggers a writer to “tell” the reader what’s happening rather than “show” them. This detaches your reader from feeling like they’re part of the story as it unfolds.
Don’t let these challenges dissuade you from utilizing first-person narration.
Awareness and practice can help you clear these hurdles.
First-Person Writing Exercises
Below are some first-person writing exercises to help you practice writing from this perspective. After you’ve completed an exercise draft, save a copy of the original, then go back and look for the three common challenges listed above. Rewrite the sections you flag. Once you’re satisfied, re-read your first and second drafts, then reflect on the differences.
The Character’s Journal
The Task: Write a journal entry from your character’s perspective that reflects on a personal event, struggle, or decision in their life.
The Purpose: This exercise will help you develop your character’s unique voice while simultaneously deepening your understanding of their backstory and how it shapes their personality.
Inspirational Nuggets: If you don’t know where to start, try writing about:
A love interest or breakup: Does their crush even know if they exist or are they pining from the sidelines? Is your character with their lover, but facing a challenge that may ultimately change the relationship? Ride the emotional rollercoaster.
A traumatic experience or loss: Was your character in an accident? Have they lost something significant, like their home, their job, or someone(s) significant? If so, how are they dealing with this experience? Are they dealing with it? Dig into the hard stuff.
A new life chapter: What is their newest adventure or life change, and what does it mean to them?
An embarrassing moment: Reflect on an utterly mortifying event. What thoughts, feelings, and fears did it elicit? Is it changing the way they behave or their relationships with people?
A Difficult Decision: Difficult decisions can trigger numerous, and sometimes conflicting, emotions. Mull over it with your character. How are they grappling with it? What will they do?
The Adrenaline Rush
The Task: Write a short scene involving a high-intensity event. Focus less on what is happening and more on what your character is experiencing. Think about the sensory experiences and the emotional response. Paint a picture of what’s unfolding from their perspective.
The Purpose: This exercise will help you practice showing what’s happening rather than telling the reader a play-by-play of events.
Inspirational Nuggets: If you’re having trouble thinking of a scenario, try these:
Your character is lost in an unfamiliar place (e.g., a foreign city, an unforgiving rainforest, etc.).
Your character is facing off against an enemy or rival (e.g., being chased, hunted, accused, or confronted).
Your character is somewhere they aren’t supposed to be (e.g., they entered someone’s home uninvited, crossed behind enemy lines, or entered a business or store after hours).
Your character is competing in a high-stakes challenge (e.g., a duel or a competition).
Tip: Don't self-edit or backread while practicing these exercises, don’t self-edit or backread. Doing so will pull you out of your creative flow. Instead, find that place within your imagination where you can experience the moment with your character, and ride it from start to finish.