Me, Myself, and I

June 19th, 2008

Question from Valtameren:

When writing a first person short story is it possible to over use the words, “I” and “myself” when actually referring to yourself. Is there anything else you can write in it’s place?

Yes, it is possible to overuse I when writing first person, just as it’s possible to overuse he or she in third person or any other word that gets stuck in the brainpan. Unfortunately I seems to glare in readers’ eyes like undimmed headlights, and ruin their appreciation of my own personal favorite storytelling “person.” It’s certainly something I have to watch. If you can’t see it for yourself, try reading your work aloud (always a good technique anyway) and listen.

You’ve said that you are conscious of the problem and work on varying your sentence structure, but here are a few other things to consider.

1. Search for instances of I thought, I felt, I saw, I heard, I knew, and the like, as well as the ubiquitous, I said. Many, many of them are unnecessary and can be deleted. You are telling the story from this person’s point of view. Of course the sights are things he sees; the sounds are things she hears. The narrative voice incorporates your POV character’s thoughts. No need to hammer it home.

Unless you have some particular need for emphasis, you can change
“I heard the nightingale singing.”
to
“The nightingale sang.”
(or something more interesting!) and we’ll know you POV character is the one who heard it.

2. Try to recast an I-sentence with some other noun as the subject. Often the effort will produce something more interesting and reflect your character’s “voice.”

You could replace:
“I didn’t believe Gerald was telling the truth.”
with
“Gerald couldn’t tell the truth if his granny were on fire.”

3. You can also “tone down” an I-sentence by leading with a modifying phrase.

You can reshape
“I had lived in awe of Kajetan’s magic throughout my boyhood.”
as
“As a new student, a boy of fifteen, I had lived in awe of Kajetan’s magic.”

4. Make sure your character is focused on external events and not overly on herself/himself ; remember, the narration itself can reveal your character.

“I had ever reveled in nature’s glory.”
could be
“The dew hung on the leaf tip, poised to…”

or
“I watched the prince riding and knew he was the lord for me.”
could become
“The prince rode as a man worthy of his destiny. My heart swelled.”
or
“The prince sat his horse like the First Outlaw. Any dude with a heart would follow him over a cliff.”

OK, you get the idea.

Any more techniques out there?

As for use of myself, it should be very rare anyway. Make sure you’re not using myself when me or I or is correct or when nothing at all would do just as well.

Incorrect: “He argued with Jim, Slim, Tim, and myself.”
Correct: “He argued with Jim, Slim, Tim, and me.”

Myself can be used as a reflexive pronoun when I is the subject of the clause, such as:

“I injured myself.”
or
“I grumbled to myself.”

But why not just “I grumbled?” Is anyone else there?

But if myself is popping up everywhere, perhaps you can recast the first example as:
“I sliced my finger to the bone.”

Myself can also be used (and overused!) for emphasis.

“I myself must tell the tale.”

Hope this feeds thought…

Carol

17 Responses to “Me, Myself, and I”

  1. SMDon 19 Jun 2008 at 3:47 pm

    This is really useful. Thank you! I used to hate first person, then I grew into it as I started writing more and more, but I find it is a difficult POV to write in at times (mostly because of what you highlighted here). Thanks very much!

  2. Maryon 19 Jun 2008 at 6:10 pm

    Here’s a writing exercise:

    Write a passage of first-person narrative, about 600 words long.

    You can use three first-person pronouns.

    (It was interesting to pull off.)

  3. Gyp Orienson 19 Jun 2008 at 8:37 pm

    First person is my favorite to write in! It’s so much easier for me to crawl into a character’s head and write than it is to write omnisciently. Close third would be my second favorite, but I find that, depending on the character, first makes for a much stronger voice and more opportunity for drama.

    Good tips, all of ‘em.

  4. Foz Meadowson 19 Jun 2008 at 8:46 pm

    Not that my CV is a work of fiction, but the problem of first-person is exactly why I hate writing resumes. Not only is it a type of document that demands you talk about yourself in unnecessarily glowing terms, which is irksome in and of itself, but because of the way you’re encouraged to write them, they wind up cluttered with ‘I’, ‘also’ and long comma-trees (as I call them, you know, when you list that you’ve done blah, blah, blah, blah and blah). I really work at mine so they don’t read like total corporate narcissim, but still – I’d prefer to write fiction first person any day!

  5. Sam Grahamon 20 Jun 2008 at 10:11 am

    Great points. :)

    The rule of thumb that seems to apply to first-person books that I’ve found to read well is to only use “I heard…” form if the emphasis is on the fact that the protagonist heard it, rather than just on the fact that it happened.

    “Stepping past the doorframe, I heard the shallow breaths of my injured opponent from one side and crashed to the floor, barely avoiding his wild swing.”

    Even so, you can rewrite that to avoid it, and in fact while rewriting my example I unconsciously used point 3 that you’d made by adding the leading phrase (although I was doing it more for context.)

  6. Sam Grahamon 20 Jun 2008 at 10:14 am

    Oh, I feel silly now, I’ve just reread your piece and I’d completely missed the paragraph with the nightingale when I’d scrolled down my newsreader, you’d already made my point!

    At least I feel my point stands in good company now. ;)

  7. Carol Bergon 20 Jun 2008 at 11:01 am

    Yet your point about emphasis is well taken, Sam. The appropriate time to include the I heard or I saw is when the fact of the POV’s character seeing or hearing needs reinforcement for some reason. As in, he hadn’t seen anything up to that point or she actually saw it rather than imagined it. Otherwise the sensory attribution is unnecessary. We are already looking through the character’s eyes and listening through his ears.

    Which makes the additional point that the very nature of the descriptive narrative in first person (or close third) should reflect the things that this character, as opposed to the writer or some nebulous “other”, would notice. This is a great way to deepen characterization.

    Carol

  8. Charleson 20 Jun 2008 at 3:20 pm

    Carol,

    Which makes the additional point that the very nature of the descriptive narrative in first person (or close third) should reflect the things that this character, as opposed to the writer or some nebulous “other”, would notice. This is a great way to deepen characterization.

    This is something I am consciously working on layering into my POV narrative (tight 3rd person). It makes sense that people — if for no other reason other than based upon what job they have, or what societal status they have — will each notice different things about the same setting.

    I used to try and describe a place in detail so the reader could envision clearly the setting. But after a while I realized this wasn’t really all that important. The reader will fill in on their own what I leave out based upon their own preconceived notions of what such a setting would look like.

    I now like to layer the description of an important place. Odds are more than one of my POV characters will have a chapter in this setting and they each will notice something different.

    Where one might notice the architecture, the other might notice potential escape routes, or how light or dark the place might be.

    I imagine if a group of us went to Manhattan and went up to the top of the Empire State Building we would each end up describing not only the place itself but our reaction to it, and each would be different.

  9. Carol Bergon 20 Jun 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Charles,

    Exactly so.

    Carol

  10. CE Murphyon 23 Jun 2008 at 7:10 am

    But why not just “I grumbled?” Is anyone else there?

    that’s one I fix aaaaaaaaalllllllllll thhheeeeeeeee tiiiiiiiiiiiiime in the Walker Papers. Even though I’m aware of it, I still type it, and then later when I’m doing edits I’m all ARGH BAD WRITER YOU KNOW BETTER. :)

    -Catie

  11. lyssabitson 25 Jun 2008 at 2:00 pm

    Oh man, this is timely, as I just read a trilogy written in first person that DROVE ME CRAZY with the way the author kept overusing certain self-referential phrases. I swear, if I had to read one more iteration of a phrase referring to “my mind” or “my body” I was gonna lose it. The story was pretty entertaining, but the repetitive phrasing was nails on the chalkboard.

  12. Kate Elliotton 26 Jun 2008 at 3:43 pm

    Excellent post, Carol.

    I am twiddling on the side with a novel in first person–my first–and it’s a challenge to avoid I I I I.

    btw, we should make a date for Denvention!

    Alis

  13. Carol Bergon 29 Jun 2008 at 12:18 pm

    Kate Elliott wrote:

    I am twiddling on the side with a novel in first person–my first–and it’s a challenge to avoid I I I I.

    I really enjoy sitting right inside a character’s skull. When I twiddle with third-person stories on the side, I always end up feeling about five miles out of town.

    btw, we should make a date for Denvention!

    Indeed, so! It would be great to see you.

    Carol

  14. Matthew R. Milsonon 08 Jul 2008 at 9:53 am

    What an excellent article.

    A few months ago I started work on my third novel, and decided to write it from a first person perspective, but ended up changing that rather quickly. This was partly because of the very topic of this article, as I felt the writing was becoming dull with the overuse of the word ‘I’. But another obstacle that I found to be limiting with the first person perspective was the inability to give the reader information outside of the main character’s knowledge. I grew concerned that I would not be able to adequately hold the reader’s interest or create a sense of worry for the main character by breaking away from their storyline for short periods of time. Perhaps a good topic for a future post. :)

    Matthew

  15. Carol Bergon 08 Jul 2008 at 11:17 am

    Good idea, Matthew. Stay tuned…

    Carol

  16. Jenne Johnsonon 13 Aug 2008 at 3:18 pm

    Incorrect: “He argued with Jim, Slim, Tim, and myself.”
    Correct: “He argued with Jim, Slim, Tim, and me.”

    I feel I am jumping on the bandwagon a little late, but the inncorect use of I, me and myself in a sentence always drives me crazy (esp. when I hear it coming out of my own mouth!).

    But here is a fail-safe way to check. Try the sentence without the other people
    “He argued with….myself” – now it is obviously wrong.
    “He argued with….me” – correct.

    Mostly people confuse “me” and “I”, when not using them at the beginning of a sentence.

    Jenne

  17. Terryon 13 Aug 2008 at 5:01 pm

    I wish a lot of writers paid attention to the way first person works, it’s just ironic that even the best intentioned can even fall into the same trap. >_<

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