The use of first person and present tense together has been a strongly debated topic in the writing world. Some writers/readers are strongly against it, and others prefer it over all other POVs and tenses.
It seems that the main argument for first present is that it’s intense. First person keeps the readers close while present keeps them on their toes. The combination of the two makes for a unique experience for the reader.
One downside of this intensity–it can mentally exhaust readers, especially those who aren’t accustomed to first present. I’ve started several books and not finished them simply because the first person POV and present tense was taking my attention off the story, and I had to work to get back into it.
Another complaint against first present is how narcissistic it can seem. It can begin to feel like the narrator is showing you around his or her house while narrating every. Single. Thing. They. Do.
“I pick up my brush and run it through my long brown hair. I put the brush down and go into the kitchen. I make myself a sandwich and eat it. I am reminded of how my father used to make sandwiches for me.”
That’s not to say that first person present shouldn’t ever be used. Like most things, there’s a time and place. Here’s my take on when and how it should be used–
First vs. Third Person
This is widely a matter of preference. I prefer to have my suspense novels in first person and my thrillers in third. The close, on-your-toes, I’m-not-really-sure-what’s-going-on nature of first person adds suspense to the novel.
In thrillers, however, the emphasis is weighed more heavily on the action side rather than on the suspense. There’s probably not going to be as many elements of mystery as there is in suspense novels because thrillers are so fast-paced. The reader needs to know exactly what’s going on; there’s no time to slow down and speculate as to who the killer is. The limited point of view could hurt the story.
As to the problem of seeming narcissistic, that can be fixed by focusing less on your main character and focusing more on his or her surroundings. Try to take out as many “I” pronouns as you can. I know that sounds like you’re making the voice passive, but in reality, you’re getting deeper into the character’s head to see things from his or her POV. That’s good.
Let’s rearrange the example I used above.
“My hair frizzes when the brush touches it, popping with static. I put the brush down and go into the kitchen to make a sandwich. The first bite is a tangy mixture of pickles and peanut butter. Dad used to make me sandwiches like this when I was five.”
See how taking out several of the “I” pronouns makes it seem less narcissistic? Magic.
Present vs. Past Tense
Here’s my opinion.
Present is for poetry. Past is for stories.
Okay, but I’ve read many good books in present tense where I actually liked it in present tense. What made the difference?
These books focused heavily on themes, symbolism, and other elements that are also elements of poetry. Several were allegories. A book that focuses heavily on plot and more on entertainment than on enlightening the human race (like adventure/action novels) might do better in past tense. It’s just more natural for stories.
Again, point of view and tense are both largely matters of preference. However, I do believe that there are circumstances in which one story would do better than another with a certain POV and tense. Don’t just pick a POV and tense because it’s popular. Make sure it fits your genre and story.
I’ve also read a few stories that didn’t follow the rules I set up here and were better off for it. Very few, admittedly, but they exist. The authors took command of the POV and tense and made the POV and tense add to their stories rather than distract from them.
That said, if you think first person present fits your story, go for it! I’ll be rooting for you louder than anyone else.