The answer is because first-person is a specialty tool that first time writers treat as a general-purpose one. I wouldn’t claim to be an authority on the subject, but if asked by a first time writer about the subject, I would say to avoid the first-person perspective like the plague.
I should note that I am only talking about single-perspective, first-person writing, that is writing in the first person and from the perspective of only a single main character. It is perfectly possible – although in my experience unusual – to write a multiple-perspective, first-person novel. K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series is written in this way, for example. Multiple-perspective, first-person writing is another animal entirely, preferable I think to single-perspective, first-person writing in most cases, and having advantages and disadvantages versus multiple-perspective, third-person writing.
Whew. Carrying on.
The first and biggest problem that I find with the first-person perspective is that it is an obstacle to generating tension. In almost any novel, whether it be Harry Potter, or Stephen King, there needs to be tension in the story. The protagonists need to struggle against the antagonists, and the conclusion needs to seem truly up in the air to keep the reader in suspense. First-person perspective, however, hinders the effort to create tension in a narrative by eliminating all other perspectives except the point of view perspective. Therefore, the interactions between characters can only be seen through the eyes of a single character, which means that events which may have context in the author’s mind seem like flat happenstance to the reader. One of the easiest ways to create tension, is to have one character know something that another character doesn’t, such as that the former character is plotting something against the latter. With the third-person perspective, this is easily accomplished simply by describing the two characters thoughts and feelings, like so:
As their hands shook, Matt felt good about the meeting with Jamie. Their deal for the oil rights of the Gardner plot had the potential to create a lasting partnership, he thought. Maybe, they’d even become friends.
Jamie smiled in satisfaction as Matt shook on the deal. The plan had worked perfectly. With Matt’s backing, drilling could begin, and then Jamie would find what he’d been so long searching for. Once he’d found it, he wouldn’t need Matt anymore…
If we adopt a single-perspective, first-person view, however, we run into problems:
As I shook Jamie’s hand, I began to feel an upwelling of pride. I’d done it, finally. The plot would be ours, and all the riches that flowed from it, too.
…And that’s all we can do. We can’t show Jamie’s perspective, because of our choice to adopt a single-perspective, first-person narrative. So the tension created by what the audience knows – that Jamie has deeper, darker plans and will eventually betray Matt – can’t exist. Of course, we could always try something like this:
As I shook Jamie’s hand, I began to feel an upwelling of pride. I’d done it, finally. The plot would be ours, and all the riches that flowed from it, too. Still, the look in Jamie’s eye was unsettling. Was he planning to betray me?
We’ve traded one problem for another. Now the audience suspects Jamie is planning to betray Matt, but Matt knows it, too. Plus, Jamie is apparently so guileless that Matt could see right through him. In other words, much as the author may want us to feel that Matt’s in danger, we don’t. Matt seems perfectly equipped to handle Jamie’s treachery. This could potentially bloom into a bigger problem later, too: What happens when Jamie puts his plan to remove Matt into action? Does Matt notice, like he noticed Jamie’s look? He can’t, or that defuses the conflict. Does Matt not notice, and if so why, when he could see through Jamie so easily before? Now Matt seems railroaded by the author, or worse, just incompetent and not worth rooting for.
We could, of course, try another method:
As I shook Jamie’s hand, I began to feel an upwelling of pride. I’d done it, finally. The plot would be ours, and all the riches that flowed from it, too. Suddenly, I was struck by a magnificent vision: I was standing there, reaping the rewards of the oil rig, living a life of luxury, and then darkness came. I saw Jamie, a knife behind his back, and a darkness at his feet. He was laughing, cackling madly, his voice echoing in my head.
When I came too, Jamie was helping me off the ground, a concerned look on his face. “You all right, buddy? It seems like you had a little fit, there,” he said. “Yeah, I’m OK. Must be the heat.” But I wondered: was it?
Here we’ve given our author a mystical vision whose sole purpose is to compensate for our narrative style choice. Besides that being a little hokey just by itself, this scene is hardly an improvement over the previous. At the very least, Matt does not seem to posses the ability to see right through Jamie’s every move, but now he does seem to have supernatural author-granted magic powers of prophecy. This is convenient for the author, as it allows him to create tension at very specific moments, without writing himself into a corner later by giving the protagonist a persistent advantage over the antagonist.
However, the vision now means that our main character is a prophet of some sort, and sets the expectation that more visions will follow, and also that this story is the sort that will contain things like visions, magic, and other fantasy elements. This is not such a problem for something already in a fantasy setting, but if it is used in a setting that involves little or no fantasy, it’s inappropriate. Also, if it is used in an urban fantasy setting before the big reveal that “magic/monsters/myths are real”, it spoils the surprise a little bit.
In addition, we have the same problem as before: The character is still aware of the possibility of treachery ahead. He may choose not to believe the vision, but he still has received that information, and him choosing not to believe the vision can also create further problems for the story. The audience will usually trust the contents of a vision like this, recognizing it subconsciously or consciously for what it is: The author speaking. Therefore, if the audience sees the protagonist choose not to trust the vision, even if it’s justified, it feels wrong, and doesn’t build as much tension as it should.
More significantly, both of these options miss out on a major mechanic to build tension and suspense in a story: Putting a competent protagonist into circumstances beyond his control or capability. Most of the time, the audience wants to read stories about competent, talented protagonists who represent a special kind of character. We want to read about Luke Skywalker, who can use the force to move objects with his mind, and who has a laser sword. We want to read about Harry Potter, who is a wizard with magical abilities we can only dream of. We want to read about Indiana Jones and Batman, who are both ordinary people but whom possess extraordinary talents and intellects.
It’s not that we never want to read about the struggles of a disabled or disadvantaged person – those stories can be great too, but for most fiction a protagonist with something special, something extra, is what excites us the most. Beyond superpowers or awesome talents, readers like main characters that are competent and intelligent, and so we should be careful about denying them either competence or intelligence, and we should never accidentally do so.
All this is to say that, if we have a competent, intelligent main character who perhaps has some magic or superpower, or talent to go along with that, we need a special kind of villain to act as his counterpart. Some of you may have heard the first rule of fan-fiction: You can’t make Frodo a Jedi without giving Sauron the Death Star. This is a short way of saying that the protagonist should face very poor odds in his struggle against the antagonist, which can be simply done by making the antagonist much stronger or smarter or better equipped than the protagonist is.
One of the most compelling ways to give the antagonist this advantage, though, is to put him several moves ahead on the chessboard, and then to hide all his pieces from the protagonist. If the antagonist is better prepared, more informed, more in his element, and more in control of the situation than the protagonist, this generates some of the best and most believable conflict in a story.
Which brings us back to the problem with first-person perspective: How do you let the audience know that the antagonist is better prepared, more informed, more in his element, and more in control of the situation than the protagonist? If you are confined to a single perspective, it’s tough – almost impossible. Having the protagonist catch on via intuition or a mystical vision ruins the advantage – now the protagonist does not face such bad odds, if he is given the ability to see through the villain so easily.
With third person perspective, this is easy: You simply write a chapter or two from another perspective that reveals or hints at the villain’s plans. This doesn’t have to be from the villain’s perspective – maybe it’s from the perspective of one of his underlings, who will later become sympathetic to the protagonist and change sides in a surprise rescue during the hero’s darkest hour.
The weaker dynamic between the protagonist and villain is just one obvious downside to the single-perspective first-person narrative style; the same sort of drawback would also manifest in virtually any inter-character interaction. Two rival characters on the same side, for example, may feel more flat and their relationship less compelling if the audience can see only one side of the story. Two lovers may feel more like a hero and his prize than two real people who have rich, complex emotions regarding one another. Multi-character relationships can also become more flat; the point-of-view character automatically has more value as the narrator, and the limitations of his perspective may prevent him from recognizing the full depth of his compatriots. The reverse may also be true, where the author tries to make the point-of-view character so understanding and knowing of all his friends that he feels unrealistic or even becomes a Mary Sue, especially if romance is added to the equation.
This is not to say that all works written in the single-perspective, first-person narrative style are bad, or that this style has no advantages or conceivable purpose versus the other choices. Rather, the point is that this style is often a poor choice for the first-time writer, and is a much more specific tool than how it often seems to be used. I have seen many, many first novels which would be substantially improved if only the narrative style were changed from single-perspective, first-person to multiple-perspective, third-person.
Finally, I’d say to anyone reading this who has already written a draft of a novel in the single-perspective, first-person narrative style, why not switch to a multiple-perspective, first-person narrative style? Maybe create a second draft with added scenes from the perspective of other characters, and remove band-aid tensioning elements like visions or intuition, replacing them with tension built through scenes showing developments happening absent of the main character.
If anyone actually does this, let me know how it goes. I’d love to hear about it!