To Use or Not to Use First Person

Lily Meyer

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 196.

As a reader I’m picky about first person. I dislike the vast majority of the memoirs I read; in fiction an I on the page makes me wary. First person is an inherently limited narrative standpoint, and in the last decade or so trends toward autofiction and unreliable narrators have meant that many writers lean into its limitations rather than attempt to push against them. Any kind of third person, even a very close third, lets the writer wander away from characters, analyze them, opine on them. Allowing characters to tell their own stories, while sometimes undeniably the right move for thematic reasons, often means the author is ceding power or, at the very least, giving up options. While I do sometimes enjoy first person, it’s generally when the author has mitigated this factor by putting the story in long retrospect, like nineteenth-century novelists often did, or by creating a narrator who’s telling somebody else’s story instead of or on top of their own—think Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (Europa Editions, 2012) or, more recently, Jennifer Croft’s The Extinction of Irena Rey (Bloomsbury, 2024), which layers a fictional translator’s perspective on top of the protagonist’s.

I do enjoy I in short stories, which, given their structural limitations, are well-suited to the constraints of first person: A story needs to be held back far more than a novel does. As a writer my rule of thumb for years was that if an idea presented itself to me in an I voice, it was a short story. I thought I would never use first person in a novel, although I always conceived of Short War, my debut novel published this month by Deep Vellum, as a trio of distinct parts that would add up to a unified whole. But as I wrote my way toward the last section, I realized I had to shake up my limited-third person. I wanted the book’s last piece to feel radically different from what came before. I wanted it to startle readers, to reach out and shake them. And no matter how flawed it may be, first person is unbeatable for intimacy and intensity. In fact, that’s part of why I generally distrust it: Writers often use it as a shortcut to those emotional effects, and I can tell.

But I needed to ratchet my book’s intensity up. I also, crucially, did not need intimacy. Ada, the protagonist of Short War’s last section, is an immensely guarded and controlled person. Her childhood was extremely painful, and she’s the bearer of, or heir to, a complex legacy of historical trauma. She survives by not letting anyone—least of all herself—into her confidence. I knew that if I gave her the narrative reins, I wouldn’t suddenly start writing easy, sloppy feelings. Instead, writing Ada in first person would make me tighter and more measured. It would force me to distill my prose and my thinking to their essence, and that, I thought, was precisely the form of intensity I needed.

I did have a problem, though. I was completely unused to writing in this sort of first person. I’d done it in stories, sure, but with characters who presented themselves to me through narration. Ada I’d been thinking about for years. When I began writing her in first person, I went overboard. I knew her so well; I had so much to say. It was hard to remember, in the moment, that the point of writing as her, not about her, was to say as little as I possibly could.

What saved me, in the end, was something else I had scorned: imitations. I had always bristled when professors asked me to imitate other writers’ work, not because I didn’t see the theoretical value of the exercise but because I minded having to step aside from my own projects to noodle around with someone else’s voice. But when I tried writing Ada as an imitation of a different scarred, repressed narrator I love and admire profoundly—Mattie Ross, the heroine of Charles Portis’s True Grit (Simon & Schuster, 1968), one of the greatest first-person novels ever written—it worked. Mattie got me out of my own head and into Ada’s. After talking myself into that imitation, I wrote the last section of Short War in a week.

My story here does not end with a dramatic embrace of the first person. I stand by my critiques; if anything, I’m even crankier and pickier about reading memoir and first-person fiction than I used to be. But I’m open to the prospect of using it again if I need it. After all, True Grit’s not the only I book I admire. I could emulate Ferrante or Philip Roth. I could try knocking off Emma Copley Eisenberg’s forthcoming Housemates (Hogarth, 2024), which manages to be first and third person at the same time, or Edward Carey’s beautiful Pinocchio retelling, The Swallowed Man (Gallic Books, 2020), which made me cry more than any other book I’ve ever read. There’s a wide world of narrators and narratives to imitate. It seems a bit, well, limited to stop at one.  


Lily Meyer is a translator, critic, and the author of the novel Short War (Deep Vellum, 2024). A contributing writer at the Atlantic, she has translated Claudia Ulloa Donoso’s story collections Little Bird (Deep Vellum, 2021) and Ice for Martians (Columbia University Press, 2023).

Art: Matt Lavasseur