On Writing in First Person: No ‘I’ or DIE!

I read a critique once that said the writer used too many I’s in a first person story. I’ve heard English teachers tell students not to use too many I’s in their story. I hear people parrot this information all the time but I never see a good explanation for such advice.

“How am I supposed to write a first person story with less I’s damn it?!”

How would you do it, indeed. Well, first, you absolutely cannot write a novel in first-person point of view without them unless your main character is one of those annoying bastards that refer to himself or herself in third-person. Please, oh, please never do that.

So, I believe what they mean by using less I’s is actually not about the number of personal pronouns you use but rather how you use it (I think you women will agree with me there heh-heh-heh). Anyway, you need to ask yourself two questions: 1) am I showing or telling, and 2) do I need to use ‘I’? Consider the following passage carefully:

It’s not easy losing your mother when you’ve just turned twenty. Okay, to be fair, I don’t think it’s easy at any age, but when you’re young and the worst problem you’ve ever had was agonizing over whether or not the hot guy at the coffee shop will ask you out, you get quite the shotgun into reality. When my mother died, I thought it would be the worst thing I ever experienced. That was true until she told me something that changed my life forever.

I arrived at her room a little after noon that day and sat on the uncomfortable metal chair next to her bed. The heart monitor remained quiet, only showing a graph of her life’s energy peaking consistent but slow. The clinical smell of the hospital’s solvents made me nauseas, but that wasn’t the only thing that bothered me. My mother, once a vision of beauty, laid against an absurdly white bed. Her mottled and darkened skin hung slack as if someone had draped a thin wet towel over a skeleton. Her hair had been full for years, which I’d inherited from her, but now it was wiry and faded. You never really understand how greedy Cancer can be with someone’s life until you see a loved one withering away on a bed in front of you.

Sitting there, it seemed liked I’d only just learned she was sick. I remember getting the message when I was dancing at friend’s wedding. The speakers thumped something jubilant, and as I moved, I felt the tickle of sweat trickle down my back. When the music died, I tore off my pumps and listened to a friend tell a joke. The ensuing laughter was strong and it felt good. When we got back to the table, we tasted the delicious cake as she told me another one. That’s when I checked my phone and found a text message from my father. It was the longest one he’d ever written, and by far the worst.

In that example, there’s a special effort there to take some of the focus off the main character and tell the story as well. Sure, you can use ‘I’ all over the place and have the MC talk about herself, herself, and—oh, right, herself. Maybe that would work if the MC were Regina George and overly narcissistic, but really that doesn’t work very often. Therefore, a very good balance of the character telling you about herself and showing you the world in which she lives is what I feel you need to make the prose POP! in a first-person narrative.

Do you have your own interpretation of the “No ‘I’ or Die!” rule? Comment below or find me on Facebook or Twitter and let me know what it is!

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