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Monday, January 23

How to Write First-Person Internalization

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Part of the Your Writing Questions Answered Series


Q: I struggle with internalization in first person POV. I've read your internalization 101 post. Maybe it's that I don't know my character well enough to get a feel for how she would describe what she sees, feels, hears etc. I don't feel like I'm quite there with her voice and I think big part of it comes down to her thoughts (or lack thereof).

A: I answered the first part of this question last week, and today, I’ll dive in with the differences between writing first-person and third-person internalization.

Like so many things in writing, opinions may vary here, but for me, there are three major differences between a third-person narrator and a first-person narrator, and that shows up strongest in the internalization. They are:

1. The sense of intimacy


No matter how tight a third-person POV is, there’s still one layer between reader and character. The narrator might be sitting on the character’s shoulder with a direct tap into their brain, but it’s still someone else telling the story. First person has no layers between reader and character. What they think is what readers see. It’s their story, so their thoughts are raw and unfiltered, and readers see exactly what’s going on in there.

2. The sense of immediacy


Even when the story is told in past tense, first person still feels more immediate, as if it’s happening right there and then. Even in a clearly retrospective first-person novel, it still feels like a friend animatedly telling you the story—it’s feels as though it’s happening now, even if it isn’t.

3. The truth and reliability of the narrator


In third person, readers see what the narrator feels is important or accurate, which might differ from what the character feels is important or accurate. Most of the time, readers can trust that what they’re being told is the truth (even if it’s misleading). In first person, everything is colored by what that character thinks and feels, and if they’re wrong, readers have no way of knowing (generally speaking). It’s the difference between “these are the facts” and “this is what I think is going on.”

When writing first-person internalization, it’s important to consider these three aspects:

The sense of intimacy
helps guide you toward what the narrator feels is important and worth noticing or thinking about. For example, if they enter a coffee shop and have no idea they’re being watched, they won’t think about the person lurking suspiciously in the corner—but they might mention feeling like people are looking at them. The intimacy puts a bubble around the character, and unless something falls within that bubble in a way that would stand out to that person, it won’t exist for them.

The sense of immediacy
helps you decide what’s on the mind of that character at that moment. If they have no reason to think about it, they won’t. They’ll be focused on what is happening to them, why it matters to them, and what they plan to do about it.

The truth and reliability of the narrator
helps you sneak things past readers and manipulate them for storytelling purposes. It’s easier to mislead readers when the narrator doesn’t know or realize the truth. People lie to themselves, they miss things, they read things wrong all the time, so when a first-person narrator does it, it feels less like a trick and more like the character just missing important information.

Other Things to Consider When Writing First Person Internalization


It’s all about them:
Depending on the age of your narrator, this can range from, “I am the center of my world and it all applies to me,” (MG?YA) up to, “I am dealing with a lot of tough crap right now and don’t have time for other people’s problems.” Which means they’ll focus on what’s going on in their lives. They won’t think about the motives or actions of others unless that has a direct bearing on what they’re doing or trying to figure out. If the best friend is being grumpy, the narrator might think, “Wow, she’s in a bad mood,” but unless that grumpiness is in the way of what the narrator needs to do, they won’t really think about why.

It’s also all about the reader:
When you’re in someone’s head, you see it all, which can be problematic if you want to hide information from the reader. You can’t really have the narrator notice and remark on everything, otherwise readers will know too much and that might give away the plot. You have to pick and choose what the narrator will reveal based on what readers need to know in that scene. This one person is telling the story and readers trust them to convey what needs to be conveyed.

Voice is key:
Since first-person narratives spend a lot of time in the narrator’s head, a strong voice that captures the personality of that character is critical. What they think is what they think—so whatever quirks, flaws, tones, attitudes, or prejudices are going to come through. “She looked nice” is something anyone could think, but “Damn, that girl’s fine” belongs to a particular person.

(Here’s more on developing your narrative voice)

What do they know vs. What do they think: This is one aspect I enjoy playing with when I write first person. It’s not about the facts, but what the narrator thinks about the facts. It’s not just raining, it’s a storm designed to ruin their new shoes. A curt answer from a friend isn’t due to them just getting a phone call with bad news (which the narrator doesn’t know yet), it’s a slight because the friend knows the narrator sneaked their last candy bar without asking. First-person narrators can “know” things even when there’s no proof that they’re right.

Pitfalls of First Person Internalization


All narrative styles have downsides, and first person is no exception. Here are some things to be wary about when writing first person internalization.

It’s easy to be I-I-I:
Being inside someone’s head is different from someone narrating everything they do. If you focus more on describing the actions and the “what” in the scene, you can end up with awkward paragraphs. For example:
I ran down over to where Kiki was sitting. I waved, then I hopped up on the hood of her car. I hesitated, studying her face for clues she was mad. I wasn’t sure if she knew about the notebook thing, but I wasn’t going to come right out and mention it. I ran a hand though my hair and waited.
You can be too in the head of the narrator: Some first-person narrators like to go on and on and on about how they feel and what they think. Every last thought has to be expressed in poetic detail, and readers couldn’t care less about most of it. No other character can speak or act with the narrator expressing an opinion on it or making a comment about it.

You can forget to show the story: It’s very easy to tell with a first-person narrator. Internalization takes over and the narrator starts summarizing what’s going on, describing the scene to readers instead of experiencing it. It becomes exposition, not dramatization. Be wary if your narrator is saying that someone spoke and what they said, but there’s no actual dialogue used.

(Here’s more on showing, not telling, your internalization)

You can be too self aware: Most of us don’t know why we say or do something, we just do it. But some first-person narrators feel the need to explain their motives, fully understanding the flaws and quirks that affect their behavior. Not only does this rob readers of the chance to guess these things, it makes the character sound too in control of themselves—how can they plausibly grow and learn if they understand their psyches like a professional therapist?

Finding the internalization sweet spot can be tough, but aim for a nice mix of description, opinions about that description, and thoughts. For fun, let’s grab a page from my novel, The Shifter, and look at how the internalization mixes in with the rest of the narrative:
“Pardon, miss.” He stepped forward and held his arm out across the walk, looking a lot like some of the trees that grew inside. Tall, wide, brown, with a mess of gold on top. Unusual to see a blond Baseeri. Most had glossy black hair that shimmered in the sun like raven’s wings. But he also had the Baseeri chin. Maybe he looked more like a bird than a tree. Or a bird in a tree.

“Yes?”

“Your business here?”

“I’m meeting my sister.”

He looked me over, and reluctance flashed in his dark eyes. Kindness too, if I could make use of it.

“It’s her birthday.”

“I don’t think—”

“Our parents used to take us here every year for our birthdays.” The truth popped out on its own and I couldn’t stop talking. “We’d walk down from the terraces, and if the wind was blowing just right, the whole bridge would be covered in pink flowers. They’d fall like rain, and the air smelled so sweet it made your eyes water.” Mine were doing it now. I hadn’t thought about those birthday trips in years.

His stern expression wavered a little, then he dropped his arm and nodded. “Go on in. You tell your sister Good Birthday.”

There’s a lot of details here, mixed in with the action and dialogue, but the internalization is what ties it all together. Let’s look at how this might read if I took out the internal thoughts and judgment on the narrator’s part and showed only the dialogue and action:
“Pardon, miss.” He stepped forward and held his arm out across the walk.

“Yes?”

“Your business here?”

“I’m meeting my sister.”

He looked me over.

“It’s her birthday.”

“I don’t think—”

“Our parents used to take us here every year for our birthdays. We’d walk down from the terraces, and if the wind was blowing just right, the whole bridge would be covered in pink flowers. They’d fall like rain, and the air smelled so sweet it made your eyes water.”

His stern expression wavered, then he dropped his arm and nodded. “Go on in. You tell your sister Good Birthday.”

See how flat it reads now? We don’t get a sense of why the narrator acts, or how she feels about this situation. We don’t see a moment of kindness from the guard, or how she takes advantage of that to get inside.

Now let’s put the thoughts back in, but make them general enough that the voice vanishes. It’s a person, sure, but not Nya.
“Pardon, miss.” He stepped forward and held his arm out across the walk, looking a lot like a tree. Tall, brown, with blond hair. It was unusual to see a blond Baseeri, as most had glossy black hair. But he also had the Baseeri chin.

“Yes?”

“Your business here?”

“I’m meeting my sister.”

He looked me over, and reluctance and a bit of kindness flashed in his dark eyes.

“It’s her birthday.”

“I don’t think—”

“Our parents used to take us here every year for our birthdays,” I said without thinking. “We’d walk down from the terraces, and if the wind was blowing just right, the whole bridge would be covered in pink flowers. They’d fall like rain, and the air smelled so sweet it made your eyes water.” My own eyes watered at the memory.

His stern expression wavered, then he dropped his arm and nodded. “Go on in. You tell your sister Good Birthday.”

The thoughts are there, but they really don’t add much to the scene. It’s more a reinforcement of the facts than additional information about what the narrator sees. It’s only when we let the narrator see the world through her eyes that it all comes alive.

First person is a lot of fun to write because it is so personal, and the internalization can reflect the narrator’s personality. Think about how that narrator sees the world and how they feel about it, and you’ll know what—and how—they’ll think about that world.

Are you a fan of first-person narratives? Why or why not?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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2 comments:

  1. Hi Janice. Thanks for this timely post...I just started writing my first 1st Person novel. Question. When you write first person, do you typically have only one POV? If you use multiple POV's, is each POV in first person? Cheers.

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  2. Yes, a great post. And, like Suzanne, I'd love to know about multiple POVs and First Person. Hugs!

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