Writing in first-person is about more than just saying ‘I’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she.’ Seeing a story or poem through a particular character’s eyes both conveys the story itself and tells us a lot about the character. We connect with first-person narratives because they, when written well, are so “real” and personal, but first-person is difficult to write convincingly.
J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is one of the best first-person narratives. Salinger does a remarkable job of maintaining Holden Caulfield’s voice throughout the novel. This is the biggest trap about writing in this perspective. It’s easy to let the character’s voice merge with the author’s voice. Even if the character is similar to the author, the character is a character and should consistently speak from his/her own perspective. Salinger’s ability to stay in the character allows the novel to become what it is, an exploration of the character, not just a recounting of events in the character’s life.
Some argue that Salinger had such ease with Caulfield because they were similar, but often our character needs to be someone quite different than our selves. I wrote a story a couple years ago from the point of view of a factory worker. I’ve never worked in a factory. I concentrated on my observations of my dad and his friends, many of whom have worked in that environment all their lives. My character had things to say about work ethic, unions, trade policy, and other issues that I can only talk about theoretically. Unfortunately, I did let my character sometimes sound more like an English major than blue collar man.
One novel that makes this mistake of the author’s voice co-opting the character’s is C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. Many of Lewis’ works are remarkable, and the mistakes he makes in this novel show how difficult writing first-person can be. His protagonist is Orual, a Greek princess, but the voice he uses is never convincingly feminine; it’s his overtly masculine voice poorly masked with female pronouns and experiences.
Another problem with Lewis’ novel that occurs in a lot of first-person writing is that the narration and descriptions sound like the descriptions of a narrator, not a character’s perception. Sure, there are reactions from the character to what is happening, but the format of “this is what happened; this is what I think about it” doesn’t work well in this case.
Another great first-person work is Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry which shows us how a (potentially) dishonest narrator can develop a story. The novel is set during the Irish Revolution and is told by Henry, a grandiose, self-deceived character who makes himself out to have nearly super-human strength. Though the context is the Irish Revolution, the real topic is self-formed mythology. Henry develops a mythology about who he is and also a mythology about what it is to be Irish in a post-colonial context.
What we learn from these books is that the most important aspect of first-person writing is consistency. We must remain consistent to the character we’ve created. Everything else is just writing.