I-I-I-itis

Our most recent patient presented me with a novel written in the first person. When done right, this can be a very effective tool in drawing the reader into the story, reducing the separation between the main character and the reader until the reader feels like they are actually living through it. However, the first person Point of View isn’t easy to write, and many aspiring authors end up with I-I-I-itis. Or in other words, far too many of their sentences begins with I.

Example:

I walked into the room and saw a boggart blocking my path. I drew my sword, advancing on the beast. The boggart charged, lowering its massive horn for the attack. I waited until the last moment, then stepped aside and thrust my sword into the eye.

While an average reader might not be put off by the three sentences starting with I in the example paragraph, reading a couple pages of it is enough to make most readers put down the book. Consider, then, the same paragraph, with the I-I-I-itis removed.

Improved Example:

As the door opened before me, I saw a boggart blocking my path. By instinct I drew my sword, advancing on the beast. The boggart charged, lowering its massive horn for the attack. Closer and closer the beast got, until at the last moment, I stepped aside and thrust my sword into the eye.

The word I is found just as many times, but because it doesn’t begin almost every sentence, it blends into the background, where it belongs. Many successful book series are written in the first person Point of View, but it’s important to understand the limitations this creates.

First, and most importantly, using first person limits the Point of View character to one person. It is possible to extend this to two main characters, but those two characters must be well defined so the reader doesn’t get confused as to who is speaking. One such example is a love story, where the two Point of View characters are the boy and the girl. Even then, the structure of the novel has to support this convention, such as switching back and forth every chapter.

Secondly, the reader is only allowed to see what the main character sees, and only allowed to know what the main character knows. Everything else is shown through the eyes of the main character, including the motivations of all the other characters. I enjoy the part of the novel where the villain plots out what they are going to do. It creates a level of suspense to show how powerful the antagonist is early on, convincing the reader of how small the hero(ine)’s chances are of succeeding.

The author also needs to be consistent in their writing, and it’s hard not to drop in a few pronouns referring to the main character. It goes against the grain of what the reader usually expects, and so the aspiring writer often makes more grammatical mistakes when writing first person than when writing third person.

Writing a novel is no easy task. The easiest style of prose for most people to write is third person, limited omniscience, in the past tense. While it is important to have your work stand out, it should stand out for something you do well, not for all the mistakes you make by choosing a voice beyond your ability.

When I wrote Dani and the Dragon, I started the novel in the first person, then seeing it suffering horribly from I-I-I-itis, I rewrote it in third person. By the time I was halfway done doing so, I discovered the story would flow better if I stuck with one point of view character, and I went back to first person. However, between the first draft and the third draft, I wrote Princess Nenji and published it. I’d learned many lessons in doing so, as Princess Nenji was the third novel I’d written, and the first one I published. Dani and the Dragon is a more complex book, and it wasn’t an easy decision to write it in first person. But I believe I cured that book of I-I-I-itis. That being said, I haven’t written any other novels in the first person, nor am I planning to any time soon.

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