Narcissistic prose will ruin your story
While it isn’t my personal preference, the current trend favoring first person POV is deeply ingrained in the current writing culture. If it is done well, this POV serves the story by its immediacy, and its inherent limitations, which allows the author to keep specific details from the reader or tell a story through unreliable narration. At its worst, it reads like a middle school journal entry.
The most frequent problem I see with drafts written in first person is the overuse of I-construction sentences or its close cousin, “me” as object. This perpetual string of ego-centric I/me sentences turns normally functional prose into the equivalent of an Instagram account consisting entirely of selfie’s. Narcissistic prose will kill the sophistication of your story. It will also undermine any work you have done to make your MC sympathetic.
Here are a few excellent examples of first person POV, followed by the same passages rewritten to overuse the I-construction.
Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander
The most likely reaction, I thought, would be to run, to summon the police, or perhaps to do nothing at all, beyond telling one’s friends and neighbors about the most extraordinary thing that happened the other day…
As for the visitor? Well, he might manage to fit into the new time without arousing excessive attention, if he was cautious and lucky. After all, I was managing to pass with some success as a normal resident of this time and place, though my appearance and language had certainly aroused plenty of suspicion.
What if a displaced person were too different, though, or went about loudly proclaiming what had happened to him? If the exit were in primitive times, likely a conscious stranger would simply have been killed on the spot without further inquiry. And in more enlightened times, they would most likely be considered mad and tidied away into an institution somewhere, if they didn’t quiet down.
Here we see evidence of first person POV, but Claire isn’t thinking about herself. She’s thinking through a problem in abstract terms.
Now here’s the same three paragraphs rewritten to overuse the I-construction. Notice how the entire mood changes.
The most likely reaction, I thought, would be to run, to summon the police, or perhaps to do nothing at all, beyond telling my friends and neighbor’s about the most extraordinary thing that happened to me the other day…
But if I were the visitor. Well, I might manage to fit into the new time without arousing excessive attention to myself, if I were cautious and lucky. After all, I was managing to pass with some success as a normal resident of this time and place, though my appearance and language had certainly aroused plenty of suspicion.
What if I had come to a place that was too different, though, or had told people about what had happened? If I had come out in primitive times, likely I would have been killed on the spot. And if I had come out in more enlightened times, I would have been considered mad and tidied away into an institution somewhere, if I hadn’t quieted down.
Two things happen, first the prose becomes repetitive. Read it aloud. The uninterrupted sting of I’s will start to hammer in your ear like a dripping faucet. Secondly, Claire stops sounding like a thoughtful woman, and starts sounding like a self-absorbed teen.
But what if my story is about a teen?
Susanne Collins’s The Hunger Games
I try to think of anything Peeta ever said that might give me an indication as to where he’s hiding out, but nothing rings a bell. So I go back to the last moment I saw him sparkling in the sunlight, yelling at me to run. Then Cato appeared, his sword drawn. And after I was gone, he wounded Peeta. But how did Peeta get away? Maybe he’s held out better against the tracker jacker poison that Cato. Maybe that was the variable that allowed him to escape. But he’d been stung, too. So how far could he have gotten, stabbed and filled with venom? And how had he stayed alive all these days since? If the wound and the stingers haven’t killed him, surely thirst would have taken him by now.
Here we see more use of the I-construction than in the Gabaldon example, but its use is necessary. When Katniss is thinking about other characters the subject of the sentences reflects that change.
Now let’s ruin it by overusing I-construction.
I try to think of anything Peeta ever told me that might give me an indication as to where he’s hiding out, but I can’t think of anything. So I go back to the last moment I saw him sparkling in the sunlight, yelling at me to run. Then I saw Cato appear, his sword drawn. And after I was gone, he wounded Peeta. But I couldn’t figure out how Peeta got away. I think maybe he’s held out better against the tracker jacker poison than Cato. He’d been stung, too, but I don’t know how far he could have gotten, stabbed and filled with venom. If the wound and the stingers haven’t killed him, I’m sure the thirst would have taken him by now.
Again, in the second example everything is about the MC. Even the sentences that were about Peeta and Cato are now about what Katniss is thinking. She is the subject of those sentences. This makes the prose her sound narcissistic. The I-construction becomes a filter. Phrases like: I saw, I heard, I felt, can often be eliminated since there is no doubt who saw, hear, of felt them.
Now let’s do an example in reverse. This is from my Space Opera, Captain Fabular and the Lady Space Pirates.
The first ship slips past our fire, but the second one is hit. My view screen fills with rolling fire as the gas and fuel from the small fighter combines and burns. A moment later, I feel the shockwave shake my ship, and I adjust my grip on the helm more to steady my anxiety than my hand. When I see the remaining fighter emerge form the fireball, I push the thrusters to the limit, but I don’t get the response I expected.
The fighter closes in. If it gets any closer, I won’t be able to avoid getting shot. I know the other pilot knows this. She’s counting on it. With nothing between us, a single shot will destroy my ship. I flip our direction again to put what’s left of the shield between me and the remaining fighter. It fires at us the moment I feel our gravity shift.
Now edited to remove unnecessary I-constructions.
The first ship slips past, but the second one is hit. The view screen fills rolling fire as the gas and fuel from the small fighter combines and burns. A moment later the shockwave shakes the ship. I adjust my grip on the helm more to steady my anxiety than my hand. When the remaining fighter emerges from the fireball, I push the thrusters to the limit, but the reduced power tempers the ship’s response. The fighter creeps closer. Soon it will be too close for evasive maneuvers. The other pilot knows this. She is holding her fire for the right moment. With nothing between us, a single shot will destroy the ship. I flip our direction again to put what’s left of the shield between us and the remaining fighter. Our gravity field shifts, and the ship rocks in four separate impacts.
The sophistication level instantly improves, as does the flow of the text. Notice that there are also changes from me to us, which shows Captain Fabular considering her crew, and not just herself.
As you begin editing your MS, examine your prose for unnecessary use of the I-construction ask:
- Is this sentence really about the MC, or is it about something else?
- Are you using filter words, saw, felt, heard, think?
- Can I describe this without referencing the MC?
Lastly, read your text aloud, or have your computer do it. This will illuminate any overused constructions in you prose.
Take the time to eliminate overused I-constructions in your first person POV, and your readers won’t find your characters nearly as self-absorbed.