First person present tense is a much maligned point of view. Generally, on twitter polls that ask, “what’s your favorite point of view to read?” poor first person present tends to score near the bottom. I will be the first to admit that, until about a year ago, I too was a hater. What changed my mind? I decided to write an entire manuscript in first person present.
To defend this social pariah of a point of view, we first must understand why it is so hated. First of all, first person present tense is found overwhelmingly in young adult novels, and in the eyes of some, that is enough to condemn it. After all, young adult novels are by and large read and enjoyed by women, and we all know that books and media primarily consumed by women are often looked down upon as being lesser than. Not only that, but first person present has what I tend to think of as a sort of breathless quality that lends itself to angsty reflections. Lots of cringey fanfic is written in first person present. In the hands of less competent writers, first person present can also degenerate into aimless recitation of day to day events. In a present tense narrative, many authors seem to forget how to jump forward in time, and mistakenly believe they must narrate every single action or thought the character has, no matter how mundane.
So, there are some pitfalls to writing first person present, and when I first began writing my current manuscript, I was aware of them. In fact, I wrote the first chapter and sent it to my critique partner (the other half of this blog, Bruce) and asked him “does this work, or should I switch to a more conventional point of view?” Only after reassurance that the point of view was not going to hold my project back, I went ahead and wrote about 150,000 words in first person present, the most I have ever written in this particular point of view. Am I entirely converted, only to write in first person present now and forevermore? No. In fact, my next project I plan will be written in a very conventional third person limited past. But would I tackle first person present again? Yes! There are some real advantages to this point of view, and I have come to believe that it is largely undeserving of the poor reception it receives.
The first thing I noticed about writing first person present is that the writing came quickly and naturally. Perhaps because the point of view and tense mirror our own natural thought processes, the words tend to flow easily for me, from my fingers to the page. First person in general, for many writers, tends to be an “easier” point of view to write than third person. Writing in first person is akin to journaling, except instead of writing about yourself, you put yourself in the shoes of your characters and imagine how they might narrate their lives, what thoughts and observations they might have about the events that take place. While third person sometimes can be a bit laborious to write, first person is quicker. Now, that doesn’t mean that all of those words are quality words, and you may need to do a bit more editing on subsequent drafts. However, if you are the sort of writer who struggles to get words on the page and has yet to complete a whole draft, you might consider trying first person (past or present) because you’ll likely find the words flowing with relatively less effort than other points of view.
First person present is probably the most immediate of all points of view and tenses, which means you can get very close to your characters, and experience events as they are experiencing them. How close or far the narration is from the events taking place is called “narrative distance.” Many readers tend to prefer points of view that are close to those that are distant. While third person can be written with a close narrative distance, most first person narratives are, by necessity, the most close and intimate of all (with some exceptions – in The Great Gatsby, for instance, the first person narrator, Nick Carraway, tells the story of the protagonist, Jay Gatsby, creating a first person narration with a degree of narrative distance). If your manuscript is more character driven than plot driven, if the main conflicts of your narrative tend to be emotional conflicts rather than external conflicts, then a first person present tense narrative will give you greater access to your narrator’s emotions and feelings, which can make for a more compelling story.
While both of the above points can apply broadly to first person narratives in general, there is one point that is unique to present tense: it much easier for me to write lyrically in present tense. While in third person past I often struggle with the feeling that my prose falls a bit flat, in first person present I feel free to be as lyrical as I imagine my characters to be. Remember how I mentioned that first person present can have a sort of breathless quality? I realized, after writing for nearly a year in first person, that this quality does not have to be a negative thing. First person present is great for creating a character voice that is at once earnest, emotional, and reflective, and, because of the way my character sees the world, her reflections are more poetic than they are practical.
First person present, perhaps more than some other points of view and tenses, requires a delicate hand. It is very easy for the writer to become grammatically confused and switch tenses within the narrative. I’ve read books, particularly self-published books, in which misuse of first person present made the author’s writing appear amateurish. However, if this problem can be avoided by hiring a good editor, and writers who have a strong natural sense of grammar usually won’t have any problems. Overall, first person present has acquired a poor reputation I think partly due to snobbery and partly due to the received wisdom of the masses. After all, when advice like “avoid first person present” gets repeated often enough it has a tendency to become gospel, much like “show don’t tell,” and “avoid passive tense” – advice meant for novice writers as guidelines, but which were never meant to be definitive rules. First person present can be a lovely way to write, and if you’re thinking of using it, give it a try before you rule it out. You just may find yourself pleasantly surprised with the result.