I remember daddy beating my brother with a leather belt for spilling water on the floor while washing the dishes. Daddy had slipped in the water and fell. I covered my ears, the screaming was so loud. Later that night, I rubbed baby oil on the welts for Billy trying to reduce the sting. I mentioned it to my teacher the next day and she called the police.
I saw daddy go into a rage when he found out. I knew he thought it was my brother who tattled on him. I was afraid of daddy, so I did not say anything, even when the social worker took my brother away. I never saw him again.
“I”, “I”, “I” . . . it gets boring. Sure, a paragraph or two is fine, in fact, it can be compelling, but page after page of this writing style gets boring real fast.
First-person POV can be powerful. You’re inside the character’s mind, privy to their private thoughts, sharing their happy moments and suffering with them during painful experiences. Everything the MC sees, the reader also sees, but nothing else. That limitation poses serious issues for a writer.
Omniscience – In 1st person, every scene can only be related from the main character’s POV. There can be no outside awareness . . . no man hidden in the shadow around the corner, or knowledge of preparations by the antagonist for an unexpected conflict. Every scene is limited strictly to the MC’s view, knowledge and experience.
Reader exhaustion – How many times can a reader see the pronoun “I” before it becomes annoying: I did, I was, I am . . . or even using active verbs . . . I ran, I jumped, I ate, I hated. The opening example (above) illustrates the excessive “I” dilemma.
Other writing techniques are limited, too.
Foreshadowing - In 1st-person, tension comes primarily from suspicions or knowledge, expressed to the reader through dialog, internal thought, or narrative. The MC can only tell the reader about matters that he/she should know about or that are introduced to the MC by an outside source. For example, “Luke. Trust the force!” (This was masterful foreshadowing when Obi Wan’s voice popped up in Luke’s mind during the vent-targeting scene against the Death Star. It created expectation and foreshadowed a result.)
Scene building – Scenes can only show 1) what the MC sees or already knows, and expresses to the reader through narration or dialog, or 2) information given to the MC from an outside source, one that is also shared with the reader. There is no omniscent narrator warning the reader about the massive wall of snow coming loose on the ridge above the lodge. The MC and reader do not get wind of the avalanche until a wall of ice blows through the picture window, hence, the reader was deprived of anticipatory anxiety.
So, how do we writers get around these 1st-person limitations?
Let’s look at a re-write of the opening example. This time, the goal is to minimize the use of “I” and to generate sentences that begin with action words instead of boring articles and pronouns.
I grew up in a dysfunctional family. Not that I wanted it that way, but kids rarely get much choice in the matter.
Discipline came from a leather belt. Daddy did not know any other way. One time, he slipped in water my brother spilled while washing the dishes. Screams from my brother’s punishment made me cover my ears. Later that night, I rubbed baby oil on Billy’s welts trying to reduce the sting. I told my teacher about it the next day, and she called the police.
Daddy exploded in rage when he found out. Accusations flew at my brother. Being fearful of my father, I did not say anything, even when the social worker took my brother away. Never saw him again.
The concepts (minimizing "I" and starting sentences with colorful words) in this rewrite can be repeated throughout a whole book, thereby diminishing boring repetition and creating vivid imagery.
What about foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing can come from the MC or it can be experienced by the reader, while the MC remains unaware. For example:
Booklets for women about how to do a proper breast self-exam lay on the doctor’s waiting area table. Being young, I scoffed at them.
They’re for old gals with saggy tits, I thought to myself. Little did I know.
This example of foreshadowing used narrator (first person) internal dialog and the MC's observation of the brochures to suggest that something was/is about to happen, adding tension, and all within the POV of the MC.
Scene development works similarly. For example:
Stopping at the door, something felt wrong, but the source of the feeling eluded me. Gray metal looked normal, but as my palm pressed tentatively against the center or the door, searing heat burned flesh with an audible sizzling. Second degree burns raised painful blisters.
This brief scene conveys lots of information: character development-the MC acts on his intuition, visual/imagery-he’s facing a metal door implying commercial structure, conflict/tension-fire is raging on the other side. This scene accomplishes many goals, all with information the MC experiences first-hand . . . and none of those damn I’s.
In writing first person, the key issues are to 1) limit every piece of information to what the MC would actually know or experience . . . that includes all scene development, foreshadowing, dialog or narration, and 2) avoid repetitive sentence constructions.