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My protagonist had a traumatic experience that means she keeps her distance from men. Sometimes, if she genuinely feels in danger, all her actions will be calculated and thought-through. However, most of the time she subconsciously makes herself move to the other side of a table, stand and walk to a window, go and sit next to her female friend in order to distance herself from a man. She subconsciously notices when a man is too close without realising she has noticed. But how do I write this in first person?

First of all, what are key phrases I can use? Saying something like, "His steps led him closer toward me and I backed away," makes it sound too much like a conscious action.

Secondly, what are key words that I can use? "I glanced at him and moved further around the table," to me just feels far too aware.

Am I wrong? Do these examples actually sound fine? If not, how else should I describe these encounters, which happen frequently.

2 Answers 2

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If it's something that is being done unconsciously, then the first-person narrator probably wouldn't realize she's doing it, until she had already done it, or someone else pointed it out.

Two quick examples:

Example 1

I sat down next to Bethany.

Bethany shook her head, "You're doing it again."

"What?"

Bethany nodded to where Eric sat, an empty seat to each side. "You walked around like four seats to sit here," she whispered.

"Oh," I said. Eric was still on the phone call. It didn't seem like he had noticed.

Example 2

"So, any news on the gummy bear shipment?" Eric asked.

I looked up. He had stayed by the door, while I had wandered to the window. It was my trama again.

Note: in the second example, you'd probably need a better name than trauma but, that's how I'd do it.

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  • Those are great examples! And yes, I agree: In a first person narrative, we cannot directly show something that the viewpoint character is unaware of. We can only show its effects. If we want to make the reader aware of something that the character is unaware of, this is easier done in third person narration, which allows narrator commentary. [continuded in next comment]
    – Ben
    Apr 6 at 7:16
  • [contd.] In first person narration, if we just show the effects (as you did in your second example), without another character providing an interpretation (as in your first example), the danger is that the reader will not register such barely perceptible hints or come to a different interpretation (e.g. that the viewpoint character is distracted and just didn't notice that she walked past the man).
    – Ben
    Apr 6 at 7:20
  • Ok so the action is noticed after it's been done either by herself or by someone pointing it out - cool! Would the reader be able to interpret the reason why or the action themselves by using these examples? So instead of me writing, "I frowned; my trauma was playing up again," they would notice all of the subconscious movements without me making a point of it and gradually pick up it's because she doesn't like going near men? Apr 6 at 9:51
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    @BubbleQueen "Would the reader be able to interpret the reason why or the action themselves by using these examples?" The reader might come to the interpretation that you intended or to another one. When you want to direct readers in a certain way, you need to tell them. If you just show them something, everyone will have their own ideas why it happened. That's just like in real life, where people disagree about how things should be understood. But you can let your character come to a specific conclusion at the end and thus tell your readers how to interpret your narrative in retrospect.
    – Ben
    Apr 6 at 11:25
  • I wouldn't say that you always have to bring the trauma up, you should most of the time, but after a while the reader might get tired of it, and just little hints here and there could help with the characterization. I'll edit the second example to add it, though. Apr 6 at 14:16
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If you're after a key phrase, something like "without thinking" or "I found that..." might work. And attributing actions to parts of the body will emphasise lack of conscious thought:

Without thinking, I found my feet had taken two steps backward as George approached me.

or

My hands had picked up the curiosity box and opened it. I don't know how.

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    So the idea is that the viewpoint character becomes aware immediately after their action. That is a good idea, but doesn't work if the character needs to remain unaware for longer.
    – Ben
    Apr 6 at 9:39

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