Writing Character Description in First Person POV

What’s a great way to accomplish character description in first person POV? I want to talk about something I’ve been noticing a lot: third person-style narration in the first person.

character description in first person, writing a character description, character description
How does your protagonist describe him or herself? Don’t fall into this common trap when you’re writing a character description.

What to Avoid With Character Description in First Person

Character description in first person POV (and what to avoid) is easier to illustrate than to explain. It goes, for example, like this:

My gaze shifted to the corner of the room. A shadow seemed to move. It hadn’t been there a moment ago. My heartbeat quickened and my pupils contracted with fear. I leaned back against the wall, the muscles in my torso tightening, my mouth drying out, my legs ready to spring into action. With my breath coming in short, shallow gasps, I prepared myself to attack.

Now, this is a subtle one to pick up on, I think. Can you figure out, from this sample, what I might mean? I’m referring to a style of narration that is more commonplace (and appropriate) when writing a character description in the third person.

When you’re writing in the first person, you are immediately inside your character’s head, heart, and body. When you’re in third person, even if you’re in very close third, you’re on the outside of the body, seeing it from a bit of a bird-eye view.

External Character Description

Passages like the one I’ve written above are first person character description (within the body) but seem oddly outside of it. This most often happens with physical descriptions/actions. I fear I’m not making a whole lot of sense, so I will try another approach. Imagine you’re telling an anecdote to your friends.

You’ve got them wrapped around your finger as you’re describing a scene, say, the last time you were thrown a surprise party. When you’re writing a character description about yourself, do you say, “My gaze shifted to the corner and my mouth dropped open to discover Uncle Eddie wearing a party hat”?

That doesn’t sound very natural to me. If I were telling a story to a group of friends at a party, I would say something like “I looked and saw” or, if I’m feeling really fancy, “I glanced over.” When I’m writing character description in first person, it feels oddly distancing to say, about myself, “my gaze shifted.” I also wouldn’t say “my mouth dropped open.” I’m not watching myself on a video tape and narrating what’s happening. “To my shock” or “shockingly” would be more first person-appropriate.

Character Description in Third Person

To further illustrate the differences when you’re writing a character description, let’s put the above passage in the third person:

His gaze shifted to the corner of the room. A shadow seemed to move. It hadn’t been there a moment ago. Jake’s heartbeat quickened and his pupils contracted with fear [I have problems with writers relying too heavily on physical symptoms and gestures to convey emotion, but that’s another post for another day…]. He leaned back against the wall, the muscles in his torso tightening, his mouth drying out, his legs ready to spring into action. With his breath coming in short, shallow gasps, Jake prepared himself to attack.

Now, it’s not a perfect paragraph, and it still has a lot of no-nos in terms of how to describe emotion, but it sounds much more natural in third to my ear because we’re observing the character from the outside.

Sure, we can’t see his muscles tighten or his heartbeat quicken from a true bird-eye view, but the tone of this piece is that of an outside observer. That same tone doesn’t work when you’re writing character description in first person, when the protagonist is talking about their own body.

Writing a Character Description That Sounds Natural

This note about character description in first person is more subtle, but I’ve found myself giving it a lot lately. Sure, it’s probably less fancy to adhere to true first person tone when describing physical events (the boring “I glanced” vs. the sexy “my gaze shifted”) but I think it’s more authentic. On a related note, I’ve also been giving a lot of writers pointers about overwriting, making things more complex than they should be, and showing off. This is one example of prose where I think we should all strive for a bit more simplicity.

Do your character details sound authentic? Are you writing in the right POV? Hire me as your book editor and let’s talk characterization!

44 Replies to “Writing Character Description in First Person POV”

  1. Yep yep, I see what you are saying. I am switching a ms to third person-finally clued in that the story needed to be more outside the character so I could show her better….hmmm, I think that makes sense.

    Thanks for this!

  2. Great post. I have an issue when authors say something like “my pupils dilated” in first person, cause I have never noticed my pupils dilate. I really like writing in first person, and reading first person cause you get to share thoughts on a matter. I have a problem when I am writing third person, I will accidentally slip into first person and have to correct three pages of it by the time I notice

  3. Yes indeed!

    I’d like to hear your physical symptoms/gestures for emotions thoughts… I’ve been finding TOO much listing of abstract emotions in a lot of work I’ve been critiquing lately! But at the same time so many of the physical symptoms don’t quite fit how people *actually* feel – it’s an area where cliches abound.

  4. Interesting. Do think there’s a reason for this? I know that first person narration is extremely popular in YA (I read a review of a book recently that was written in third person where they reviewer claimed she hated all books written in 3rd person) but a lot of really popular books (Harry Potter) are written in 3rd. I wonder if this is a symptom of a writer who has read a lot of 3rd person books but thinks they should write in 1st to hit the YA market rather than letting the needs of the book decide what style of narration would be best.

  5. Sometimes, I wonder why I bother to blog when you always manage to say what I wish I could say but better!!! 🙂 This post is yet another example. I can’t tell you how many times I write WHO ARE YOU TALKING TO? in my crits. Writing first person as if you (the author) are speaking to someone else creates so many problems, all of which result in the reader ending up outside of the main character’s head, rather than inside of it. Kudos once again, Mary!

  6. I was just wrestling with the sentence “He sees my nose turning red.” How would the MC know it’s turning red. She can’t see it. But can she feel it? So far, I’ve left it in.

    To the point of telling a story to friends: I have told friends about how I was walking through a small English village and saw Paul McCartney walking towards me. I always say “My jaw dropped to the sidewalk like a Looney Tunes cartoon.” lol Yes, I did shake his hand.

  7. Great post. I think Shaun above is right on the money: you’re seeing third-person style in first person narration because so many writers have recognized the prevalence of 1st person in YA and MG (Harry Potter not withstanding.)

  8. This is a great post. Like Claire, I’m also really interested to hear your thoughts on physical description in place of emotional description, especially how it intersects with the POV issue. For example, when writing something in first or third limited, how do you deal with discussing another character’s emotions without breaking into an omniscient narrator?

  9. Kelly Andrews says:

    I love these very sophisticated, advanced posts on the craft of writing and revision. Very helpful — thank you.

  10. Agree with Kelly. It’s so helpful when someone makes revising technique concrete by actually showing what good writing looks like.

    Regarding the rest of the post, I think all good writing is ultimately authentic–authentic voice, authentic descriptions, authentic dialogue, authentic (as in “believable”) plotlines, authentic character arcs, etc. So I try to avoid pupil dilation descriptions because, frankly, I never look into someone’s eyes long enough to notice something like that. In fact, I’m not even sure what color my wife’s eyes are . . .

  11. MaryZ — As for blushing or turning red due to cold or sunburn, you can usually feel these things on your skin.

  12. This isn’t 3rd person writing disguised as 1st; it’s shoddy writing, and usually lazy writing, nothing more. When I write, the story will start off in its given POV (either 1st or 3rd), then on edit, I switch to the other because it makes me reexamine the structure of what’s going on. If I’m in 1st and switch to 3rd, then I’m forced to get out of my character’s head, which takes away the chance to filter. Then I put the story back into its proper state. Switching from 1st to 3rd is no excuse for something like that paragraph.

    A person, telling a story in 1st person, can’t see the things like the constriction of their own pupils, and there’s no need for so much filtering. This is the sort of thing you see a lot in bad fanfiction. Read the paragraph again, but listen for the rhythm; there’s too little variation.

    My gaze shifted to the corner of the room.

    … sentence one is fine as is.

    A shadow seemed to move.

    … did it “seem” to move, or did it actually move? “Seem” is a crutch word.

    It hadn’t been there a moment ago.

    … then “move” was a misnomer. The shadow appeared; it didn’t move.

    My heartbeat quickened and my pupils contracted with fear.

    … you can hear your own heartbeat, but you can’t see your own pupils unless you’re looking at something reflective. It’s not an action tied to a recognizable physical sensation.

    I leaned back against the wall, the muscles in my torso tightening, my mouth drying out, my legs ready to spring into action.

    … lazy writing epidemic. This is first draft “just get it out” description to hold the place for something better in editing.

    With my breath coming in short, shallow gasps, I prepared myself to attack.

    … ditto what I said with the last sentence.

    There’s no sense of person or voice here. There’s no real characterization, and it’s possible to have good voice and characterization in a scene like this more than others. This is where you get to see how someone reacts to fear; it’s ALL about their character. You can even sell the idea that someone catalogs their responses if you make it clear they’re a detail-oriented sort of person.

    My gaze shifted to the corner of the room, where new shadows had formed independent of the light.

    This was no time to hear Mr. Smith’s voice, by science teacher intoned over the whoosh of blood in my ears, and the lecture I thought I’d slept through came back loud and clear.

    “The fight or flight response is a common term for how one’s body reacts to sudden and unexpected danger,” he had said. “Tightening chest muscles, dry mouth, and constricting pupils…”

    Fight or flight – no real choice when the door’s locked.

    I let the wall take my weight for a moment, set my balance on my legs, and prepared to strike.

  13. Wonderful post and oh so helpful. I have endeavored to simplify my writing and get rid of purple prose. Now I need to go back and make sure I’m really inside my MC’s head and not 1st person thirding it.

  14. Wonderful post and oh so helpful. I have endeavored to simplify my writing and get rid of purple prose. Now I need to go back and make sure I’m really inside my MC’s head and not 1st person thirding it.

  15. Grr – somehow “but my science” ended up as “by my science” in that paragraph.

  16. Funny, but I see the kind of writing you are complaining about in published works all the time. So this blog post feels more like an abstract exercise than a real-world one.

    I agree with not being able to see your own pupils, but much of the rest has little to do with first or third person–it’s more about bad writing. How about giving us an example with good writing, though in the wrong POV, where you make your point?

  17. Mary, I get what you’re saying and it’s a good point. But about physical description of emotion: we’ve all been taught to do that as a way of showing rather than just telling (“he was scared”). How about another post on good ways to show emotion?

  18. Melissa K says:

    I love it when you write about craft, Mary. You always have good thoughts on these subjects. I hope you tackle that post on physical symptoms of emotions soon!

  19. @Josin, Winter – I’m thinkin’ maybe not so much “shoddy writing” as a “quick sketch of a paragraph to illustrate a point.” Just sayin’.

    And it’s an excellent point, too. I fell into this bad habit early on, and I so, so wish I’d found a post like this one months ago. Now I have to reschool this habit out of my writing.

  20. This is why I read your blog, Mary – when you go beyond the level of “show don’t tell” pointers. These “beyond-your-average-writing-craft-book” posts really get me thinking.

  21. I’m leaning toward Katherine Hyde’s point. We were taught this way, but this is an example over writing, over doing it. I do this. My critique partners have to tell me to cut on my overwriting. Often.

    As usual, you stretch me as a writer, Mary.

    Many thanks.

  22. Thank you for this: “cheap physical symptoms cluttering everything”

    My eyes roll up into my head when a well-meaning critique group *indiscriminately* shouts “show don’t tell” at any hint of emotion naming.

  23. I understand this if your writing style is “I’m telling my friends this right now” which is a common YA style, but what if you’re telling a story of what happened a while ago? Say an older man describing something that happened to him in his youth. Wouldn’t this style work then?

  24. Amy Christine Parker says:

    Such a well thought out post! I must admit, I have to fight against this one when writing in first person, but I’ve found that if I can give an action that implies the emotional state of the character without resorting to description, the emotion is all there anyway. Still, first person is incredibly tricky to do well since you can’t delve into other character’s emotional states, but worthwhile when you want the reader to go on the journey with the character, know only what they know at any given time. Thanks for helping to clarify:)

  25. Fabulous post and comments! I’m worried now, like many others here, that I too rely on cheap physical symptoms to show-not-tell. Looking forward to your thoughts on that. Hard to know whether to go with your instincts or your crit partner’s advice.

  26. This reads to me like a detached first-person narrator, one that *might* be effective, say, the narrator is telling the story from beyond the grave, or in a coma. When things like this happen they always force me, the reader, to ask the question: Why is it important for the story to be told this way?

    The problem with first-person is that it is the hardest voice to write in, second only to second-person. When choosing to write in the voice of the character the writer needs to decide at what point after the events the story is being told. A character telling the story immediately following events is going to be close and won’t have the perspective of time to understand it all; the character telling events long after will have the perspective of time but will also have to “cheat” and deliberately hide things from the reader that they know (after the fact) are important but that would ruin the story otherwise. Far too often I read first-person stories where the narrator seemingly knows more than they should at one point, then doesn’t know enough later to be consistent with the viewpoint.

    What this example looks like to me is first-person being told in the wrong tense, past, when it wants to be present. It’s missing the good emotional bits that might make it read more like hardboiled noir, and in some ways looks like a badly adapted screenplay. But with a shift in tense, some more active verbs, and a stylistic pulse to match the narrator’s being quickened, it might work.

  27. I cheated and read your example paragraph before your intro paragraph…and I got it. 😀 You’re right, it does sound awkward and reads oddly.

  28. This is exactly what I needed to read right now. I wrote an entire MS in 1st person, and have decided it needs 2 other POVs. I switched the first 50 pages to 3rd person but often asked myself why it never read right “just” to switch the I-me-my-mine words to she-her-her-hers. After that, I decided to keep the one character in first person, but by now there were new scenes in 3rd that needed to switch to 1st . . . basically I have been switching scenes between 3rd and 1st person for the past couple weeks.

    3rd and 1st POV are so much more different than a couple pronouns.

  29. Funny… I have the opposite problem. I can always tell I had an off day when my writing is filled with “I saw the ball bouncing, and I saw the little girl catch it” type sentences. Very egotistical, my MCs. It’s all about I, I, I.

  30. Thanks for this. I really needed it today. I got a request for my manuscript but the agent wanted to see it in 1st person instead of 3rd. I’m converting it now and I’m struggling with this very thing.

  31. Great post. I’m writing my 15th book and its the first one ever that insisted on being written in 1st person POV. I’ll be on the lookout for this when I revise.

  32. KDuBayGillis says:

    Revision Note #569 for WIP: Look for 3rd person description in 1st person narration.

    Got it.

    Thanks Mary!

  33. ‘Shoddy writing.’ Didn’t expect to snort my tea over my keyboard while reading this post/comments but that’s precisely what just happened.

    First person tends to feel overly dramatic to me, a lot of the time, and I think it’s quite tricky to get right. Thanks for the post!

  34. That’s the one crippling problem I’ve always had that’s kept me from being able to write first person:
    How do you Show, Don’t Tell, when you have to Tell about what you’re Showing?–If you’re the character, just how conscious ARE you of your own facial expressions or body language?
    Seems like you have to sacrifice one for the other, and too many first authors in love with telling their story in the cool vicarious first-person idea aren’t willing to make that tradeoff.

    I try to go in the opposite direction and write Ultra-Subjective Third Person, where third-person actions and reactions are described with the rhythm of the character’s own thoughts (and letting the reader fill in the specific ones), but editors still think it’s too “distant”:
    Her gaze flew to the corner of the room…Did a shadow move?
    Hey, I’m just trying to set the scene visually!!

  35. Lyle Blake Smythers says:

    Brooke, you wrote: “I got a request for my manuscript but the agent wanted to see it in 1st person instead of 3rd. I’m converting it now …”

    Wow, are you really making a major change like that just on the off chance that you might get this agent to take you on as a client? I don’t think I would do something like that unless I had been given a contract and the request came from an editor.

    I’m curious to know what reactions others here might havde on this topic.

  36. This was a great post for me as I’m switching my book from 3rd to 1st.

  37. KellyDhouse says:

    Great post, Mary. I just took a week to rewrite the first 3 chapters of my YA in 1st person only to scrap that and go back to 3rd this morning. It was a good experiment. It helped me refine my protag’s voice, but it didn’t work for the book as a whole. 1st person has its benefits, but it has just as many pitfalls. I think 1st POV is very difficult to do well and keep the reader interested for 300 pages.

  38. Great post! Writing in first person can be tough, but I love the intimacy of it. Doing first person in third person style just doesn’t make sense to me.

  39. Also that little POV error where the protag wouldn’t know that his own pupils were contracting since he’s not looking at himself in the mirror.

  40. Ooh, I hope this means a post on how to show emotion in writing is coming up! I think the reason you see so much physical reactions is because there is so much emphasis out there on “show don’t tell” and body language or physiology are almost always mentioned as the best way to go. But then you read through your ms, proud to have “shown” emotions and realize something’s gone wrong. I’ve had to do a lot of switching out body language for internal dialogue, but then I begin to get reactions again of “show don’t tell,” which I’m beginning to suspect is more of a blind recitation of a rule rather than actually good advice.

    Anyway, I’d love to see a post on the “next step” or other options in showing emotion.

  41. Thanks for the post. I recently finished a 1st person book that I think would have been better in 3rd. A critical character (not the MC) changed a lot through the book, but ended up appearing flat and fairly boring when he should not have. Does first person only really work if the story is being driven by just the 1st person character(s).

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