The Use of “I” in First Person Narration

By Maeve Maddox

Graham Broadley wrote:

If I am writing a short story in the first person are there any tips or tricks for avoiding the overuse of the word ‘i’? My usual writing style leans towards short sentences but this seems to increase the frequency of the word “I” popping up.  Are longer sentences a way round the problem? Also, I’m trying to avoid sentences starting with “I”.  Do you have any advice, tips and tricks for writing in the first person?

It is inevitable that writing in first person will require frequent use of I, me, and my–especially I. This should not present a problem.

In a first person narration, the pronoun “I” is probably as invisible to the reader as the word “said.” Besides, the point of writing in first person is to establish an intimate bond with the reader. The reader becomes the “I” of the story. Listen to your own words and thoughts during the course of a day. The word “I” is probably the most frequent word that forms in your mind and comes from your mouth.

Plenty of websites discuss the use of first person narration, but I think the best way to see what works and what doesn’t is to analyze a published work of fiction. You might want to analyze some of your favorite writers to see how they deal with the pronoun I.

For example, in preparing this post I took a close look at the way Laurie R. King handles it.

Laurie R. King is a prolific writer, averaging a book a year since the publication of her first novel in 1993. She has created not one, but two mystery series. One is set in contemporary California and features Inspector Kate Martinelli. The other is set in the era of Sherlock Holmes and features Mary Russell. King has also written several stand-alone novels.

So far I’ve read only some of the Mary Russell books. I find them intelligent, entertaining, and unputdownable. I’ll analyze a few pages to see how King deals with the problems mentioned by our reader.

In the first chapter of A Letter of Mary, about 2,000 words, the pronoun “I” appears 60 times.

Note: All of these figures are approximate.

Here’s the breakdown on how the pronoun I is distributed:
Mary 39
Holmes 7
Dorothy Ruskin (in a letter) 14.

The paragraph with the greatest number contains nine:

”Megalomania, perhaps; senility, never.” I stood and watched a small fishing boat lying off shore, and I wondered what to do. The work was going slowly, and I could ill afford to take even half a day away from it. On the other hand, it would be a joy to spend some time with that peculiar old lady, whom I indeed remembered very well. Also, Holmes seemed interested. It would at least provide a distraction until I could decide what needed doing for him. “All right, we’ll have her here a day sooner, then, on the Wednesday. I’ll suggest the noon train. I’m certain Mrs Hudson can be persuaded to leave something for our tea, so we need not risk our visitor’s health. I also think I’ll go to Town tomorrow and drop by the British Museum for a while. Will you come?”

Sentence length does not seem to have much to do with the frequency of I. King’s sentences tend to be long. Sentences that begin with the pronoun I don’t particularly jump out. In the analyzed passage, 14 of the narrator’s 39 subject pronouns begin sentences.

Bottom line: Write your first person story without worrying about the pronouns. You can always see ways to reduce them in revision, if you think it’s necessary.

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9 Responses to “The Use of “I” in First Person Narration”

  • Jim

    During the State of the Union message, President Obama used the word “I” 96 times during a 70 minute oration. You’ll have to go some to catch up.

  • Sue O’Shields

    So, for the most part, this article was about “the King and I”?

    😉

  • Barry

    As a political consultant specializing in media, the question is answered one way very simply on how to best utilize the first person scenario. Many political speeches refer to “we” as a position of solidarity in an issue under discussion. Remedial action to solving a problem (politicians are primarily problem solvers and a representative voice) refer to what they promise they will do for the constituency in the first person, then interjecting “we” as encouraging an esprit de corps of the listener to help back and carry out that promise (a technique that subconsciously garners political solidarity with the speaker).

    A very good example is the Inaugural Address of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt does not use or refer to the first person at all in his address… A good speech at that and very much applies to our trying times.

    Respectfully submitted
    (and if you haven’t noticed, clearly avoiding using a first person reference in this note.)

  • David Jarrett

    I do not enjoy reading novels written in the first person, even though it is a trend that has become quite well established now. Somehow, I have a hard time putting myself “into the story” when there is another “I” in there doing the narrative. When I browse the shelves looking for novels, those written in the first person are usually put aside right away. I’m not saying that very good fiction cannot be written this way — I just do not enjoy it as a reader.

  • Bill Swan

    About first person: use of the word “I” in first person narrative is usually poorly done — and overdone. Two guidelines: first, never start a document with the word “I” (the exception may be a Dear John letter). As well, avoid starting any paragraph with the word. Why? To avoid overuse. Starting with “I” says this is all about you. Thus, the exception for Dear John.
    And remember: “I” and “me” in first person narration are there only to define viewpoint. Once that’s established, then move into standard narrative (third person). The reader won’t miss it. Move back only when needed to bring the reader with you. Write that way? No. Pour on the first person, but use a sharp razor when you edit. Three first person references in each 1,000 words is a good rule of thumb. Let yourself have six if this is too tough.

  • Aggi Arrowsmith

    I am writing a story in the first person, are there any tips or tricks for avoiding the use of the word ‘my’ or ‘me’ I have almost mastered the ‘I’ word, but not the word my’ For example…. Uncle Monty is expecting my arrival. Grammar check keeps reminding ‘me’ the word my! Is in the first person, I know this, but the grammar check refuse to give-in. Without going into exhausting of re-writing Uncle Monty expecting my arrival. Is there an better way of writing in the first person?

    Yours Aggi Arrowsmith

  • angie

    This comment is for Aggi–

    Here’s a suggestion. Write from the heart, and stop worrying about what a computer programme tells you about your skill to write….use the ‘ignore’ button and keep moving forward. When it comes time to seek publishing, you can always worry about it then if the publisher thinks it a problem. However, writing from the first person perspective means that you have a voice, if you can never say me or my or I then how can you tell the reader what you are feeling. So, in conclusion–avoid over doing it with said words and just write from the heart. If you re-read it and it feels uncomfortable, then you can rethink it.

    After all..Uncle Monty can’t be expecting anyone else right? You are only me, myself or I.

  • Jeannie

    As you can tell, I am trying hard not to use the word “I” in my first peron letter to you. How do I keep from starting sentences with “I” and avoiding always using beginning phrases with a word ending in “ing”?
    Thank you for your help and attention.

    Yours,
    Jeannie

  • Doug Kabrey

    I just finished writing my second novel. My first one is titled Father;Unknown and is written in the first person from the viewpoint of a high school girl named Lisa Morgan and since I am a man I had to ask my wife a ton of questions on how she thought a female character would react under certain circumstances. After I completed my first draft and let another female read my novel (not my wife) I found out I was way off base. I had basically written what would have been considered almost a porn novel. I listened to what they had to say and completely re-wrote the novel. Two years and three drafts later and a P G rating I finally got it right.
    My second novel is a sequel titled The Line-up. I wrote it in the same first person because I continued on with the same story line and characters. Since I started writing in the first person I think my mind is stuck in that format. I have a third novel in mind and I’m still going to write it in the first person simply because of a habit. Habits are hard to change!

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