On casual observation of student’s work, it seems that first-person point-of-view is the perspective that comes most easily to the beginning writer. It’s not that it is easier or better than third-person, but that it is more a natural perspective, I think. It’s personal, and we’re used to telling stories about ourselves, so it comes to people more readily than third.
The problem with first-person, though, is that description of the narrator is that much more difficult because we have to rely on self-observations. Telling stories from first-person might be more natural, but how often do we make observations about ourselves? I mean, what’s to observe? We’re all perfect, right?
Well, that’s what we like to think.
Anyway, back to the point—getting to know the narrator in a first-person account can be difficult. In third-person, the narrator can give us all sorts of physical and emotional descriptions of characters, but the first-person narrator has to turn those observations in on him/herself. And that’s not as easy as it seems. Sometimes we take shortcuts such as the narrator observing him/herself in a mirror or something. That can be useful, if not slightly obvious. But still, it is better than the alternative, which is avoiding the description all together. Unfortunately, I see this all too often.
Sometimes, you can get away with this lack of information. Either it works as part of the construct of the story, or it just doesn’t matter too much. But often, lacking those details will hurt your characterization and plotting. Not to be obvious, but I will: the problem with missing these details is that it leaves it entirely up to the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. As I said, sometimes this is fine; most times it is not.
If there is no indication otherwise, a reader will naturally and automatically assign the narrator/main character with whatever attributes he/she knows about the author. Sometimes, all that is known is a name, but an author’s name alone can often give all sorts of wrong information about a main character. For example, I find that I often write in first-person when my protagonist is female (for the record, my male protagonists usually get the third-person treatment). Can you see a potential issue if I write a story in first-person with a female protagonist if I don’t make it immediately clear that she is, in fact, female?
If you said that my readers would likely see this person as a male, then give yourself a cookie, because that is what would happen. But I see this all the time: I’m reading a first-person story I ostensibly think is about a man, only to find out late in the proceedings that he is actually a she (or vice-versa). It may come as a surprise, but changing a character’s gender can dramatically impact both the way a story plays out and the way a reader reacts to it.
So if you find yourself writing a story in first-person, be sure to be aware what details you are revealing about your narrator/protagonist. You might find that the details you see in your head are not showing up on the page. And if they aren’t on the page, then your story is probably suffering.