I’ve been doing a bit of writing and reading over the weekend, and something sort of occurred to me– writing first person in the present tense feels more natural than writing first person in the past tense.
First off, uh oh, a post about writing. Let me make it clear that I’m not arrogant enough or confident enough to suddenly start giving lessons on writing, so that is not what I mean to do here. If anything, I would like to just start the discussion because it’s interesting and I might learn something or come away with some evolved thoughts on the subject. So to get on with it…
First person can be good to tell a story where you want the reader to be intimately close. Personally, I find first person stories easier to fall into. I like the idea of looking through the world from someone else’s eyes, even if it’s someone I might not agree with. Another possibility with first person is the narrator who is telling a story as if the reader is one of their friends, which is also an interesting way to get a story across.
But there are problems with first person. What if the reader doesn’t want to be that particular character? What if they don’t like them or can’t identify with them? I don’t think it’s possible to create a first person narrator that will connect with every single reader.
Another issue is the tense. If the narrator is telling the story in the past tense about one of their adventures, well then we can assume that they have lived to tell this tale. There is a possibility this will diffuse some of the tension of the story that is being told.
So what’s the easiest way to retain tension? Write it in present tense. Have the character tell you the story as it happens to them. This is my preferred method. I use it to purposely make the reader feel a little anxious– not about the story though. The use of present tense just seems to have this effect on people, which is why many don’t like to read stories written in present tense.
But of course there are still issues. The big one is the fact that your narrator is narrating their life as they live it. They’re telling you and themselves when they’re opening doors or when they’re sitting down and picking on their nails. It is sort of strange, and I try to be aware of just how strange. One of the things I do to get around this is have the character talk about physical sensations against their bodies and leave narration for other characters’ actions. But nothing is perfect, and neither is this method. Sometimes, for the sake of clarity and simplicity, the character just has to say what they’re doing.
I choose the point of view based on the experience I imagine I’d like the reader to have. Of course there’s one other thing about my first person narrators in particular. You can’t really trust them. I mean, they’re telling you the truth as far as they’re concerned, but that doesn’t mean it is the absolute truth. They could have been lied to or they could have formed a wrong opinion based on what they’ve been told. I try to use this as part of the narration, characterization of the speaker and the story. First person is really just one technique I enjoy messing with.