First-person, Past Tense: Playing to My Strengths

I am a slave to first-person point of view.

As I’ve said before, whenever I write a story, I want to connect with the reader. I like the storyteller approach, and I want the audience to feel like I’m talking directly to them, or at least give the illusion that my main character is.

For me, first-person point of view is the ideal vehicle to accomplish this. First-person is a “warmer” viewpoint than third-person in that it provides direct access to a character’s thoughts and feelings. It makes it easier to sympathize with a protagonist if a reader is experiencing his or her trials and tribulations in real time. (As much as reader time is real time.)

I can, and have, written in third-person, but when I do, I am very aware of an increased distance between myself and the story. I’m not as in tune with my characters, and the feelings and reactions I write in third-person never seem quite as authentic as they do when I’m tooling around in a first-person protagonist’s head.

I’m aware there are limitations to this approach. For one, first-person doesn’t usually lend itself to multiple viewpoint novels. I’d like to try one of those sometime, but I have to unlock the third-person authenticity thing first.

I also think first-person point of view makes you work harder. As a writer, you’re limited to what the protagonist knows. You can’t slip the reader covert information by way of another view point, and you can’t rely on alternate character’s plot lines to build suspense.

But I think a little hard work never hurt anybody. And the more a writer challenges him or herself, the better the future stories will be.

When it comes to verb tense, I tend to be a traditionalist and write almost everything in past tense. That’s not to say I don’t occasionally experiment outside of that, but so far those attempts have felt unnatural. I don’t know if this is because the vast majority of novels I’ve read have been written in past tense, or if my background in journalism makes past tense seem like an obvious choice for storytelling. Maybe it’s a combination of both.

Whatever the reason may be, straying into any other tense always makes me feel like an avant-garde poser, and artistic is not a word I would necessarily associate with my writing style. (This isn’t meant as a slight toward those authors who are out there making this kind of thing work for them. It’s just an acknowledgement that my own strengths lay elsewhere.)

I may be vanilla in my approach, relying primarily on past-tense and first-person point of view, but I like to think the stories I produce are anything but. Maybe having a standard set of guidelines by which I tell a story frees up a little gray matter for more important things, like plot points and penis jokes. Who knows, maybe I’m just being lazy by settling into the same old patterns and never exploring beyond those familiar borders.

Hopefully, if all goes well, you’ll be so entertained you won’t even notice.

Larry Jenkins is an aspiring Word Pimp. Has laptop, will travel. Let's make this happen, people.

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