First-Person Narrative: How to Make It All About Me, Me, Me
First-person narrative has been going strong for centuries. From Jane Eyre to Pizza Girl , first-person novels have a way of bringing readers inside the skin of fictional characters. (Gross. But also cool.)
It’s no wonder this point of view is so enticing for writers and readers alike. It’s an invitation to pretend all the way … to imagine the story as if it really were happening to you.
Or, at the very least, as if it were happening to someone you know. It’s like this character is at your kitchen table, eating all your banana bread and telling you about that time they discovered their crush’s secret wife in the attic.
But is first-person narrative always the best approach? What are the potential pitfalls? And how can you be sure you’re getting the most out of this potent Point of View (POV)?
You’ll find all those pros and cons and whys and hows right here.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is a First-Person Narrative?
A first-person narrative is what we call a story that is told by a character within the story. You recognize it immediately by the use of first-person pronouns (I, me, we, us) in the narration.
Now, there are a few subcategories of first-person narrative that are worth knowing.
First-Person Central – This is when your narrator is the protagonist—the character your story is actually about. I don’t have any real stats to back this up, but I’m going to say this is the most common style of first-person narrative. Examples: Jane Eyre , The Hunger Games , The Hate U Give
First-Person Peripheral – In this first-person narrative, the narrator is a side character. We see the story through their point-of-view, but they’re not the protagonist. Example: The Great Gatsby
First-Person Omniscient – This one can be tough to pull off. In this approach, the narrator is able to expand beyond their own POV and tell you what everyone in the story is thinking and feeling. This requires you to give your narrator some kind of superhuman perspective. Examples: The Book Thief (narrated by Death), The Lovely Bones (narrated by a character who has died)
First-Person Epistolary – This is a fun style of storytelling where your narrator tells their story through letters, diaries, emails, blogs, or text messages. I still remember discovering this method when I read Dear Mr. Crenshaw as a child. It blew my absolute mind. Other examples include The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Frankenstein , which contains both central and peripheral first-person narration. Whoa.
That’s right; not all these categories are mutually exclusive. You want to try writing a first-person peripheral omniscient epistolary narrative? You definitely could.
Now, is that the right approach for your novel ?
Only you can say for sure.
Why Use First-Person Narrative?
This particular style of storytelling comes with a unique set of pros and pitfalls.
In the pros column, first-person narration creates a deeper feeling of intimacy for the reader. They’re privy to a character’s inner-most thoughts, feelings, fears, flaws , and motivations . Sure, you can convey these same details through third-person narration. But it feels more intimate when the character is sharing this insight themselves.
On that note, this approach can be a great choice when your goal is to write a character-driven novel. While you can use any POV to tell a character-driven story, it’s straight-up unavoidable in first person. That is, it’s unavoidable if you write a first-person narrative well .
A first-person narrative also gives you the opportunity to play with credibility and doubt. When you tell a story directly through a character’s eyes, readers feel like they’re getting eyewitness news. At the same time, they’re reading a biased account, informed by your character’s limited perspective and preconceptions.
This brings me to the fourth pro: limited viewpoint. Unless you’re writing in first-person omniscient, you can only tell your story through the lens of one character. This means your character’s misperceptions are your reader’s misperceptions. Your audience is truly traveling this arc with your character, and that can be pretty awesome.
It can also be challenging to do well, and that’s probably the biggest con of writing a first-person narrative. It takes practice to stay inside one character’s head, and you may find that your particular story needs multiple viewpoints.
(Side note: if you want to do multiple first-person viewpoints, you can do that by shifting perspectives between chapters or scenes. Just make sure your reader knows who’s talking to them.)
How to Use a First-Person Narrative Effectively
So how do you write a first-person narrative well?
Here are some best practices to get you started.
Establish a Clear Voice and Tone
While everything you write should have a clear voice and tone regardless of POV, it’s especially important in a first-person narrative. Voice and tone create the sense that your character is a real person. They also make your prose more interesting to read.
Quick primer: Voice is how your character talks and tone is their attitude about the story they’re telling.
Just be sure to choose a voice that won’t get under your reader’s skin after four pages. Avoid cartoony or stereotypical dialects and vocabulary.
Are you writing in past tense or present tense? Whichever you choose, keep your tenses consistent throughout the story and be aware that the tense influences the way your character tells their story.
In a past-tense, first-person narrative, the narrator has had time to reflect on the story they’re telling. That will affect their tone, their ability to remember the story accurately, and the way they choose to tell the story.
Has your character found peace and wisdom because of this story? Do they hold any resentment? Could they be putting any kind of spin on the story to get the reader on their side?
Meanwhile, if you’re writing in present tense, your narrator is reacting to everything in real time. They’re likely to relay an emotional experience that’s more raw and honest. Their perspective is more limited because they haven’t had the chance to reflect on the experiences of other characters. On that note:
Learn How to Tell a Full Story With Limited Knowledge
There are two areas where this limited viewpoint thing gets tricky, especially for new writers.
One is communicating what other characters are thinking and feeling. Now, this challenge comes with a hidden benefit. It gives you an opportunity to work on your “show, don’t tell” skills. Your POV character may not be able to say what’s going on inside another character, but they can tell you about:
- Pursed lips
- Eyes searching the room
- Maniacal shrieking
- Someone taking twenty minutes to pick a sandwich
It’s also okay for your character to state generally that someone is angry or devastated if they can back it up with concrete details.
What you want to avoid is head-hopping, which is when your narration volunteers specific details about the inner world of non-POV characters. For example, “My story reminded Muffy of the day her dog died.”
The other tricky area is self-awareness. We human beings are not always the best at defining our own fears, weaknesses, and demons. And often, your character’s failure to recognize or acknowledge these things are key to their character arc . You need to give them space to learn about themselves.
This means there may be moments when your narrator knows they’re mad but they don’t know why. Or they think they know why but they’re wrong.
Don’t let your narrator tell your reader anything they wouldn’t know themselves.
When writing a first-person narrative, it can be easy to fall into the trap of reporting what happened instead of showing what happened.
“I heard an unhinged laugh on the other side of the door. I felt terrified. I walked to the door, anyway.”
This super boring passage is super boring because there are a lot of filter words—words that create distance between the reader and the story.
Compare “I heard an unhinged laugh on the other side of the door,” and, “An unhinged laugh rang out from the other side of the door.”
The first tells the reader that it happened to the narrator. The second invites the reader to hear the laugh themselves.
Another way to avoid loading your novel with dry reporting is to use the narrator’s senses in describing a scene. What does it smell like in this room? Does their mouth taste sour from this morning’s coffee? What does terror feel like in their body?
These tricks make your reader feel like they’re living this moment with your character and like they truly know the narrator.
And for them to know your narrator…
You Have to Know Your Narrator
Comprehensive character development is especially important if you plan to write a first-person narrative. You need to know how this character thinks, how they talk, and how they see the world.
Fortunately, we have a ton of resources at Dabble to help you with this. Check out the articles on character development in DabbleU. Download our character development worksheet. Workshop character ideas with your community in the Story Craft Café .
If you’re using Dabble to write your book, keep your character ideas, images, and inspiration organized in Dabble’s Story Notes features.
Don’t have the Dabble writing tool? Not a problem. You can try it free for fourteen days by signing up here . No credit card needed.
Just do what you have to do to make your first-person narrative shine.
Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.
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First Person Point of View: Character-Driven Narration
First person point of view is when a story is told from a character’s own perspective using the pronoun ‘I,’ or more unusually, from a collective perspective using the plural pronoun “we.” The narrator interprets events in their own voice, giving the reader direct access to their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. This POV is common in fiction as it involves the reader directly in the story and allows authors to accomplish powerful characterization.
An example of first person POV could look something like this: “ I feared what might greet me as I entered the kitchen.”
First person has remained a popular POV since the novel was invented, and it’s something all authors should try to master. That’s why we’ve created this guide to reveal the power of first person point of view.
First person creates an immersive experience
One of the main benefits of first person POV is that it creates intimacy. For Tracy Gold , Reedsy editor and Adjunct Professor of Composition at the University of Baltimore, writing in first person brings the reader closer to the narrator:
“With first person, the writer or reader becomes the character as they get deeper into the story, and that's the kind of immersive experience that makes me love a book.”
First person narration can create a sense of trust with the reader, pulling them into the story by evoking empathy. It feels like the story is being told to you by a confidant, which makes you care more about the protagonist and their struggles.
A great example of the immersiveness of first person POV can be found in Dickens’ classic Great Expectations, famously about a young boy born into poverty. Since Dickens was writing for a primarily middle class audience, using the first person viewpoint was his way of getting the readers to relate more to his protagonist.
I give Pirrip as my father’s name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister, – Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones.
— Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
This passage, told in Pip’s voice, immediately puts the reader into his shoes. They must process the casual tragedy of Pip’s short life through his eyes and feel the same loss he does. The readers of Dickens’s time would now more likely empathize with the main character even though they likely haven’t met a blacksmith before, let alone been a close relation to one.
The intimacy of first person is why it’s such a popular viewpoint and some of that feeling is fostered by the story being told in the POV character’s unique voice.
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Character voices are at the forefront
The plot of a novel may fade from our memories over time, but we’ll always remember the characters and how they made us feel. This is even more true of first person perspective, where the protagonist tells us their story in their own words. Every line is filtered through their motivations , vices, and worldviews while in other POVs the only opportunity you get for this kind of filtering is through dialogue. The main character can come to life on the page as we are in their head through every moment of the journey.
A particularly illuminating example of how first person POV can establish character voice is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn — a novel in which a young boy recounts his adventures on the Mississippi River, together with a runaway slave.
Tom’s most well now, and got his bullet around his neck as a watch-guard for a watch, and is always seeing what time it is, and so there ain’t nothing more to write about, and I’m rotten glad of it, because if I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it, and ain’t a going to no more. But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I’ve been there before.
— The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
From this excerpt, we can clearly hear the childlike spirit that is characteristic of Huck. His voice also echoes the time and place the story takes place in, giving us further insight into the kind of world he inhabits. This is ultimately what makes him such a memorable character and the driving force behind this beloved novel.
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Though a character’s unique voice isn’t always so benign. Sometimes, when a story is filtered entirely through one person, we might not get an unbiased version of events.
Unreliable narrators create intrigue
First person narratives often excel at establishing intrigue by posing questions about the true nature of the narrator — are they representing an objective truth or are they pulling the wool over our overly trusting eyes?
As mentioned before, first person narrators are limited by their own personal understanding, biases, and motivations. They can easily become unreliable narrators , turning the concept of honesty and trust on its head. An unreliable narrator will make you wonder if they’re telling you the full story or leaving out details that completely alter what we’re seeing. This can be extra exciting if you only find out they’re unreliable partway through.
For example, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s subtly dystopian novel, Never Let Me Go , we follow a group of students at Hailsham, a fictional English boarding school. Ishiguro uses the first person point of view to play with the concept of reliable and unreliable narration through an exploration of memory.
My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year. That’ll make it almost exactly twelve years. Now I know my being a carer so long isn’t necessarily because they think I’m fantastic at what I do.
— Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
In this passage, Kathy reveals that she’s become privy to new knowledge that has changed her perception of the past. But she’s not telling us what that knowledge entails. By slowly letting more doubt creep into the story, Ishiguro explores the fickle nature of memory, creating a creeping sense that there’s more to Hailsham than meets the eye. Readers will start to question not only the picture that Kathy paints, but their own ability to separate truth from reality.
An unreliable narrator not only creates an intriguing reading experience that challenges the reader to put the puzzle together themselves, but also highlights a first person narrator’s inherent subjectivity, though there are ways to bypass that even with first person narration.
Non-protagonist narrators can offer a different perspective
While unreliable narrators can lead to some juicy plot twists , in some cases a story can be made clearer from an outside perspective, which is where first person omniscient and outsider narrators come in.
First person omniscient is when a first-person narrator is privy to the thoughts, actions, and motivations of other characters. Much like a journalist, they’re simply our eyes on the ground and can recount the events of the story with the benefit of hindsight. While they might not know exactly what the protagonist was thinking at the time, they have access to information that an observer wouldn’t.
Most outsider narrators use the regular first person POV. Since they’re not personally part of the main conflict, they may be free from some of the biases first person narrators are subject to. We’re still getting the intimate character experience while getting an outside view of important characters and events. Some would call that the best of both worlds.
A classic example of the outsider narrator is To Kill a Mockingbird, which takes place in the American South in the 1930s and recounts the trial of a Black man accused of raping a white woman. The story is narrated by a woman called Scout, looking back on the experiences of her 6-year-old self during the time of the trial.
I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson. If General Jackson hadn’t run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn’t? We were far too old to settle an argument with a fist-fight, so we consulted Atticus. Our father said we were both right.
— To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Young Scout is central to the novel: any impressions the readers have are filtered through her eyes. However, the real drama unfolds in the courtroom and the world of the adults — a world she will only understand when she herself is grown up. Here we see how much Scout respects and values the opinion of her father, Atticus, which hints at how he will serve as the story’s moral compass, even when others in the town turn against him.
First person offers a straightforward way to introduce important characters and information, but this ease can be a double-edged sword.
Exposition in first person is tough to get right
When a character is directly relating a story, it becomes far too easy to fall into the trap of “telling” rather than “showing,” especially when it comes to exposition. This poses a challenge to the writer who chooses the first person POV, the classic example being how to introduce your narrator.
Sure, the POV character could just say what color their eyes are and some key personality traits they believe they have, but that will come across as unrealistic and shoehorned into the rest of the narrative. There are a few different ways to seamlessly include exposition in your story and avoid the dreaded infodump.
Using dialogue to drip feed the reader important information is common — as is using the narrator's voice to get across personality. Self-description can also be sprinkled throughout instead of being listed in a paragraph.
James Baldwin’s short story, “Sonny’s Blues”, provides us with a great example of how descriptions of other characters can also reveal a lot about the narrator. It follows the reunion between the unnamed narrator and his estranged brother, Sonny, as they try to rekindle their relationship after Sonny’s addiction lands him in prison.
When he was about as old as the boys in my classes his face had been bright and open, there was a lot of copper in it; and he’d had wonderfully direct brown eyes, and a great gentleness and privacy. I wondered what he looked like now. He had been picked up, the evening before, in a raid on an apartment downtown, for peddling and using heroin.
— "Sonny's Blues', James Baldwin
In this passage, we sense the affection our narrator feels for Sonny. The way he describes him as a younger man is full of love. However, the fact that he doesn’t know what he currently looks like reveals the conflict between them, though he never outright states that they haven’t spoken in years.
There you have it — the power of first person point of view. If you’re looking for something completely different, check out our next post about the controversial (but always intriguing) second person viewpoint!
Sasha Anderson says:
31/05/2020 – 11:21
Isn't there a bit in The Great Gatsby where Nick tells us all about Gatsby's past? (It's a while since I read it so may be misremembering). Would that count as omniscient, or something else?
↪️ Franzie replied:
31/08/2020 – 01:39
Nevermind. I realized it's Second Person POV. Looking forward to know more from it on the succeeding lessons. :)
31/08/2020 – 01:35
What do you call the POV wherein the person is talking to one of the characters. Is there such? For example: [ I felt nervous the moment our eyes met. "Hey, how are you?" you asked and I froze upon hearing your voice.] Something like that. Is this recommended? I plan my story to have a two POVs: FIRST PERSON and this kind of POV. Basically it's like a story within a story so there's a shifting of approach, thus I think it's okay to use as long as I know how to control it and it's not too much. But I will definitely not use this kind of POV for a whole novel. I am just curious on its purpose in a holistic view.
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First Person Point of View: A Beginner's Guide to Character-Driven Narration
Understanding first person point of view, defining first person, advantages and disadvantages, creating a strong narrator, voice and tone, believability and authenticity, immersing readers in the narrative, descriptive language, show, don't tell, handling dialogue and interaction, writing dialogue, portraying other characters, overcoming challenges of first person pov, maintaining consistency, avoiding info dumps, popular books in first person pov, the catcher in the rye, to kill a mockingbird, the great gatsby.
Writing a story can be an exciting journey, and one of the key decisions you'll make is choosing the right point of view. Opting for a first person point of view can create a captivating, intimate experience for your readers. In this beginner's guide, we'll explore the ins and outs of character-driven narration to help you create an engaging story from the first person perspective.
Before diving into the techniques of writing in first person point of view, it's essential to understand what it is and its advantages and disadvantages.
First person point of view is a storytelling approach that uses the pronouns "I," "me," "we," and "us" to narrate the story. The narrator is either the story's protagonist or a character close to the protagonist. This perspective allows readers to see the world through the character's eyes, experiencing their thoughts, emotions, and actions directly.
When using first person point of view, consider the following pros and cons:
- Advantages : First person narration can create an intimate connection between the reader and the protagonist, making it easier to evoke empathy. It also provides a unique voice and allows for a deeper exploration of the character's emotions and thoughts.
- Disadvantages : Limited to the narrator's perspective, first person narration may restrict the scope of the story. It can also be challenging to convey information the protagonist doesn't know or share other characters' thoughts and feelings without making the narrative feel forced.
With these considerations in mind, you can decide whether first person point of view is the best choice for your story, and then you can learn how to create a strong narrator, immerse readers in the narrative, handle dialogue and interaction, and overcome challenges specific to first person POV.
When writing in first person point of view, your narrator is the heart of your story. To create a strong and engaging narrator, focus on developing their voice and tone, while also ensuring believability and authenticity.
A distinct voice is crucial for a compelling first person narrative. Consider these tips to develop your narrator's voice and tone:
- Personality : Reflect the character's personality in their narration, using language and expressions that are consistent with their background, age, education, and experiences.
- Variety : Mix up sentence structures and lengths to make the narration more engaging. Don't be afraid to use dashes, colons, or semicolons for variety.
- Emotion : Convey the character's emotions through their voice, showcasing their feelings and reactions to different situations.
For a first person narrative to resonate, readers need to believe in the narrator. Keep these suggestions in mind to create a relatable and authentic character:
- Consistency : Ensure that the character's voice, actions, and emotions remain consistent throughout the story to maintain credibility.
- Flaws : Give your narrator imperfections, as no one is perfect. A flawed character is more relatable and engaging.
- Internal Conflicts : Explore the character's internal struggles, which can add depth and complexity to the narrative.
With a strong narrator, you'll have a solid foundation to immerse readers in your first person narrative. The next step is to focus on the language and details that bring the story to life.
To fully engage readers in a first person point of view narrative, you'll need to use descriptive language and "show, don't tell" techniques. Let's explore how to achieve this immersion for your audience.
Using vivid and detailed language helps readers visualize the story and feel connected to the narrator's experiences. Keep these tips in mind for incorporating descriptive language:
- Sensory Details : Describe sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures to paint a vivid picture of the setting and emotions.
- Specificity : Be specific in your descriptions, using concrete details and examples rather than vague or generic phrases.
- Figurative Language : Employ similes, metaphors, and other figurative language to add depth and interest to your descriptions.
"Show, don't tell" is a classic writing principle that encourages writers to reveal information through actions, emotions, and experiences, rather than simply telling readers what happened. Follow these guidelines to effectively use this technique in your first person narrative:
- Action : Use action to reveal character traits and emotions, showing how the narrator reacts and responds in different situations.
- Internal Thoughts : Share the narrator's thoughts and feelings, allowing readers to understand their motivations and emotions on a deeper level.
- Subtext : Convey information through subtle hints and implications, encouraging readers to deduce meaning from context and inference.
By incorporating descriptive language and "show, don't tell" techniques, you'll create an immersive first person narrative that captivates your readers and keeps them engaged until the very end.
Dialogue and character interactions are essential components of any story, especially in first person point of view narratives. Let's explore how to effectively manage dialogue and portray other characters in your narrative.
Dialogue can bring your story to life by showcasing your characters' personalities, emotions, and relationships. Keep these tips in mind when writing dialogue in first person point of view:
- Natural Speech : Write dialogue that sounds like real conversations, using informal language, contractions, and sentence fragments as appropriate.
- Character Voice : Give each character a distinct voice, considering their background, age, and personality when crafting their dialogue.
- Pacing : Use dialogue to maintain story pace, breaking up lengthy descriptions or internal monologues with conversations between characters.
In a first person narrative, the reader only experiences other characters through the eyes of the narrator. To effectively portray these characters, consider the following:
- Biases : Remember that the narrator's perspective may be biased or unreliable, so other characters' actions and motivations should be portrayed through this lens.
- Body Language : Describe characters' body language and facial expressions to help convey emotions and reactions without directly stating them.
- Relationships : Develop relationships between the narrator and other characters, using dialogue and shared experiences to reveal their connections and histories.
By crafting engaging dialogue and realistically portraying other characters, you'll create a dynamic and believable first person point of view narrative that draws readers into your story.
While first person point of view offers many advantages, it also presents unique challenges for writers. Let's discuss some common issues and how to tackle them effectively.
Consistency is crucial in first person narratives to maintain the reader's trust and immersion in the story. Here are some tips to help you stay consistent:
- Narrator's Voice : Keep the narrator's voice and tone consistent throughout the story, reflecting their personality and emotions in every scene.
- Timeline : Ensure that the sequence of events remains logical and clear, avoiding any confusing jumps in time or inconsistencies in the plot.
- Perspective : Remember that the narrator can only share their own experiences and thoughts, so avoid revealing information they couldn't possibly know.
Excessive exposition or "info dumps" can disrupt the flow of your story and disengage readers. To avoid this issue in first person point of view narratives, consider the following approaches:
- Dialogue : Use conversations between characters to reveal backstory or important information in a natural and engaging way.
- Internal Monologue : Allow the narrator to reflect on their past experiences and thoughts, providing context and insight without overwhelming readers with details.
- Gradual Discovery : Reveal information slowly throughout the narrative, allowing readers to piece together the story and maintain their interest.
By addressing these challenges, you'll create a captivating first person point of view narrative that keeps readers hooked from start to finish.
First person point of view has been used to great effect in many classic and contemporary novels. Let's explore a few notable examples that showcase the power of character-driven narration.
J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is a prime example of first person narration, told through the perspective of the protagonist, Holden Caulfield. The novel delves into Holden's thoughts and feelings as he navigates a tumultuous period in his life, giving readers a raw and intimate look at his struggles with mental health, identity, and the challenges of growing up.
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by Scout Finch, a young girl living in the racially divided American South during the 1930s. Through Scout's eyes, readers witness the injustice and prejudice that pervade her community, as well as the moral growth of the characters as they confront these issues. The first person point of view allows readers to experience the events of the story alongside Scout, deepening the novel's emotional impact.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby employs first person narration through the character of Nick Carraway. As an observer and participant in the story, Nick offers a unique perspective on the glamorous yet ultimately tragic lives of the novel's characters. The first person point of view provides readers with a sense of intimacy and immediacy, making the events of the story feel both vivid and authentic.
These beloved novels demonstrate the potential of first person point of view to create compelling, immersive narratives that resonate with readers. By applying the techniques discussed in this guide, you can harness the power of character-driven storytelling in your own writing.
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First person narrative: 7 tips for writing great narrators
Telling a story using mainly first person narrative has both pros and cons. Here are 7 steps to creating a great ‘I’ narrator, but first:
- Post author By Jordan
- 57 Comments on First person narrative: 7 tips for writing great narrators
The pros and cons of writing a novel in first person
The benefit of telling a story in first person is that readers discover the voice and psychology of a character as expressed directly by the character. This gives immediacy, the sense of ‘being there’. The pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ in the third person make the reader more conscious of the narrating voice. It stands a little more apart from the characters whose stories are told.
On the minus side, first person narration can restrict your readers’ access to the inner worlds of your other characters. The story is narrated from a single person’s perspective, with all the limitations that fixed perspective involves. There are ways to get around this however (you can use multiple first person narrators to tell your story, for example). If your narrating ‘I’ character is an anti-hero, keep in mind that some readers may also balk at being asked to see through the eyes of an unpleasant or unethical person. This is why it’s often wise to give anti-hero’s some likeable qualities (just as it is wise to give likeable protagonists flaws ).
Regardless of the strengths and drawbacks of first person narrators, it’s crucial to write compelling, effective ones. Here are 7 ways to do this:
1. Evoke the senses, not only the narrator’s inner world
Writing a novel or story in the first person makes it tempting to let your narrator dwell on their thoughts and feelings extensively. Often characters can feel lacking if all the focus is on their mental and emotional processes, though. Have your character describe not only thoughts but also sights, sounds, smells and tastes where appropriate. When you use a first person narrator, ask:
- What senses are strongest in this particular character and what does that say about them?
- How can I give the reader a greater sense of an embodied narrator and not just a disembodied, storytelling ‘I’?
Remember to ground your narrator’s observations in the material world. Because this will add colour and depth to your story.
Focusing on all aspects of your narrating ‘I’ character’s experience, physical and otherwise, is one way to write a great narrator. It is also important to let readers see through your narrator’s eyes actively:
2. Avoid overusing words that place distance between the narrator and your reader
Because the narrator uses the first person ‘I’ (and sometimes the plural ‘we’) to tell the bulk of the story in first person narration, you may be tempted to begin sentences with ‘I’ a lot. Take this sentence for example:
‘I saw that the door was closed and I heard a faint scratching noise coming from within the house. I thought it sounded like someone trying to dig a tunnel out.’
The words ‘I saw’, ‘I heard’ and ‘I thought’ all place the reader at one remove to the unfolding events. The reader isn’t seeing, hearing or thinking these things through the narrator. The reader is being told about the narrator’s experiences. The scene could be more vivid if the narrator didn’t ‘report’ her or his experience. The snippet could be rewritten as follows:
‘The door was closed and a faint scratching noise came from within the house. It sounded like someone trying to dig a tunnel out, I thought.’
The reader is placed at the scene, seeing the door and hearing the scratching. The intrusive ‘I’ can come later in the sentence or only in a subsequent paragraph. Ruthanne Reid, writing for The Write Practice , discusses these ‘filter words’ that can place distance between readers and the experiences of the first person narrator. It should be said that in some cases you might want this distance for creative reasons. You might want the reader to not see the scene so vividly in their mind’s eye. Yet become conscious, at least, of how you use filter words (such as ‘I saw that x was so’) and remember to be sparing with them, particularly if you want readers to experience a scene through your narrator’s eyes.
One way to make your narrator great and to let the reader see what they see:
3. Avoid merely reporting in first person narrative
A first person narrator gets to share her lived experience and take the reader along with her through every surprise, challenge or victory. Describing things that happen to your narrator in passive voice is a common mistake. You may want to emphasize your character’s passive response to a specific situation, so there are exceptions. However, compare:
‘As I was trying the door to the house, a sudden voice behind me told me it was locked.’
As a reader, you’re not placed in the scene, trying the handle and hearing the voice.
A stronger alternative:
‘The handle turned but the door would not budge. ‘It’s locked.’ I spun round, surprised by this sudden voice.’
This is stronger because speaking voices appearing in the text give readers a sense of immediacy, of the present moment in which the action unfolds.
Need help getting POV right?
Get constructive feedback:
The Editor’s Blog describes the difference between the first kind of first person narration and the second as the difference between ‘exposition’ (setting the story up and telling the reader the sequence of events) and ‘scene’ (the actual unfolding action as experienced by characters).
Now that we have some clarity about the things to avoid when writing first person narrative, here are four ways to ensure you use first person narrative well:
4. Use either expository or scene narration for the right reasons
The truth is that sometimes you will need to put the reader in a scene with your ‘I’ narrator, and at other times you will need your narrator to simply retell events as a report back. Use the impersonal, ‘I did this and then that happened’ narration for:
- Narrating transitions between scenes (e.g. ‘After I found the mysterious house I was a little spooked. I returned home and…’)
- Catching the reader up on important backstory that doesn’t require its own scenes (e.g. ‘I was born on a smallholding just south of the border. We moved around a lot ’til I was 14.’)
Remember that your narrator should express herself with all the variety of language that real people use:
5. Vary the way your narrator expresses feelings, thoughts and experiences
This might seem obvious, but many beginning writers in particular make this mistake. If your character is a sensitive or emotional type, they might describe feelings often throughout your story. But avoid repetitive descriptions:
‘I felt perturbed by the scratching sound that came from within the house. I felt more anxious still when I tried the door and it was locked’.
Instead of repeating ‘I felt’, vary descriptions with words such as ‘my’, articles (‘a’ or ‘the’) and other alternatives. The previous example could be rewritten as:
‘My sense of foreboding grew as I noticed a scratching sound coming from within the house. Fear surged when I tried the door and found it locked.’
Maintaining variety in your first person narrator’s self-expression is important because it increases the sense that the character is real. It also helps to prevent repetitive word choice from distracting the reader and rather lets the reader stay immersed in your unfolding story.
To write a great first person narrator, also make sure that the narrator’s voice is consistent with what the reader knows or learns about the narrator:
6. Make the narrating voice consistent with the narrator’s backstory
One common trap with writing first person stories is that the narrator sounds a lot like the voice of the author, pegged onto a series of events. To give your narrator real personality, make sure that their voice is consistent with what you tell the reader about their backstory and ongoing development.
Pay attention to:
- Background: Where is your character from? Think about things like accent, regional slang or idioms that they would likely use
- Class: What is your narrator’s level of education and economic privilege? How might this impact on elements such as vocabulary and whether they use formal vs. informal speech predominantly?
- Personality: Is your narrating ‘I’ a character who is brash and coarse? Or elegant and refined?
Make sure that your ‘I’ narrator uses language in way that is fitting with her background, class and personality. If you’re writing about a poor 14-year-old girl who runs away from home, these details of her life story should feel compatible with the words she uses to tell her story.
To really hone your skill at writing first person narration:
7. Learn from how the greats use first person narrative:
As with any aspect of craft you want to develop, it’s always a good idea to take notes from the writing of your favourite authors. Many novels widely taught as classics use the intimacy of first person narration. From Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (‘Call me Ishmael’, says the narrator at the start) to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird , examples of the above suggestions can be found.
Harper Lee’s first person narrator doesn’t open Mockingbird with ‘I thought’, ‘I felt’ or ‘I saw’. The novel begins:
‘When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football again were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.’
Some thoughts on this opening and why it is an example of effective first person narration:
- The opening fits the character of the narrator, Scout (her compassion towards and focus on others emerges as well as the importance of family in her life)
- The narrator asserts a strong voice but does so without over-relying on ‘I’
- The narrator’s process of remembering is set up from the start, continuing throughout the novel as she recalls social inclusions and exclusions in her hometown
Similarly, when reading a new novel written in first person make notes on how the narrator expresses herself and why this is (or isn’t) fitting for her characterization and story. Conscious observation will continuously improve your own narration skills .
Come read how Now Novel’s members use first person narrative and share your own writing for constructive feedback from others .
- Strong first person narrative: Engaging narrators
- Writing third person limited POV: Tips and examples
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- Tags first person , narration , POV
Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.
57 replies on “First person narrative: 7 tips for writing great narrators”
Excellent! My WIP is written in the first person, and keeping a consistent voice has been a struggle. These tips will definitely help. Thank you as always! 🙂
It’s a pleasure, Adrian. I’m glad you found some value in the suggestions. Great posts on your writing blog, keep them coming.
Great points, which I’ll share with my creative writing class. I prefer first person, reading it as well as writing it.
Thank you for the kind words. I hope your creative writing class enjoys reading it. First person does have an engaging immediacy.
This was a great Blog! Thank you for sharing.
But to add to anyone interested, the filter you should look at in your draft are like these: I see/look/hear/think/feel/seem/touch/watch/wonder/can/decide/sound/realize And like Miss Bridget said, you don’t have to delete them all the time.
this may be a really stupid question but I have yet to find someone who can explain and illustrate the diff between active and passive voice…help
Hi MC – it is a tricky one. Think of it this way: In active voice, the subject of the sentence ‘acts’ on the verb. So ‘The boy kicks the ball’ is in the active voice because the boy is acting on the ball. The same sentence in passive voice would be ‘The ball is kicked by the boy.’ Here, the ball is the subject and the action of kicking is something that passively happens to the ball. Hope that helps!
great blog! thanks for sharing
Thanks, FP! It’s a pleasure, thanks for reading.
thanks for the tips. I’m a beginner writer and was definitely wondering about the expository vs. scene dilemma.
It’s a pleasure, I’m glad you found this helpful.
Writing in the 1st person: Question; the 1st person character dialogue in a novel [telling of the story; separated by chapter topic and purpose] … Chapters that do not have the 1st person’s character in the storyline [i.e. a different time and/or a location]… is that permitted? If so, how should it be formatted? [Italics?] I was told it was not allowed! It would seem strange not to be able to describe 3rd person characters in conversations in other locations, time periods, and time zones without the 1st person being involved..Any, guidance on the rules would be much appreciated…
I don’t see why you can’t have a multi-character novel with other secondary characters’ parts in alternating chapters. Let clarity and cohesion be your guides. If, for example, the story shifts to a different time and place, preface that specific chapter with a title or subtitle identifying the time and place (e.g. ‘Paris, 1972’). That way the reader will know they’ve entered a different time frame or arc. Provided you don’t get the reader completely lost and signpost major shifts enough, there are no set-in-stone rules.
Thanks Bridget… Randy Ingermanson wrote back. and offered …”There are no rules. Fiction is about giving the reader a powerful emotional experience. You do whatever it takes to make that happen. That’s not a rule, that’s a meta-rule.”
That seems to be the general consensus out there… My 1st book was in written the 1st person and I used a WEB Griffin technique of sub-headings defining the changes in the people, places, and time… comments were very positive.
Thanks again for the feedback… much appreciated. Bill http://billfortin.com
OK, so I knew it had to be done – removing all the excess ‘I’ from my yarn. Nothing prepared me for the task. Nothing prepared me for the shame of the ‘I’ excess that needed to be excised.And it all came about almost accidentally. Dissatisfied with the start of my story, I – pardon me – revised the first three pages, reduced them to two. Then I sat back and wondered why those two pages were so much better than the three they were tested against. 90% of the ‘I’s’ had been removed. [Blame / credit Stephen King] From 11, the text now contains only two ‘I’s’ – one belonging to the narrator, one to the antagonist. 90% of ‘I’s’ removed – so much more reader friendly 🙂
i wish you could help me write my novel and i would split whatever earnings that comes with it. That would be so clutch.
Hi Cambrielle! You can get free feedback and help from other members in our online writing groups. You can join here: https://www.nownovel.com/users/sign_up . Good luck with your novel 🙂
I could help you. I’m a freelance writer
What would you suggest for a story where the narrator isn’t the main character? I’m working on a story that is a hybrid of first and third person. I took inspiration for the writing style from World War Z. Do you have any suggestions on stories similar to this? Thank you!
Thank you for asking. Third person may work best in this instance, as the narrator’s ‘I’ wouldn’t be there to make them seem more involved in the narrative. Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is interesting from this perspective as the story is narrated by the boys who live opposite from the sisters who are the main characters in the story.
I just have to say that the first-person narrative (and its sense of immediacy) probably works better in present tense. I write everything in present tense now. First-person is something else again. The biggest danger is blathering on and on like you’re writing a letter home to Mom. Being self-indulgent in first person is the biggest curse. If a lot of other stuff is going on, first person doesn’t work well. If your story is about someone in grave peril who’s running for one’s life, then first person should be great.
Great comment, Adam. I agree with you re: self-indulgent first person being a pain (then again, it can have certain dramatic effects, e.g. Humbert Humbert’s narcissistic pomposity that comes across in Lolita precisely due to this in part). Thank you for sharing your perspective!
I’ll have to check out Lolita (the book, not the movie) again. It’s been a while.
It’s a disturbing read but an excellent use of unreliable narrator.
These tips did help a decent amount, but I am still unsure about something. Since I’m not that strong at writing stories in present tense, I usually write them in past tense. With my story, the protagonist describes in past tense instead of present, sort of like the protagonist had already lived through it and is now telling the story again. Since I am still early on, would it be wise to go back and edit the first few chapters to present tense, or keep it the same?
Hi LusciousBerri, thank you for your question. If it’s a first-person narrator using past tense, that should be fine (there’s no reason why they have to use present tense that I can discern from your question. Please feel free to ask anything else!
I wrote a story about five hundred pages. I submitted it to a writers contest and was told it stunk and they couldn’t get past the first twenty pages. But this was good because they were right. I started out in the present, went to the past and back to the present. This confused the reader. So now it begins leaving out the first part in the present. However, my concern is I used first person based on my own experience and it worked but I would have chapters where I was not present. My fellow writers said this was some form of cheating because the first person would not know this. It just worked for me, but if there is something wrong with this I would like advice so I can re write it in a total narrative voice. What is your viewpoint. Thanks
Hi James, Happy New Year! Thank you for sharing this.
I can see why some readers may struggle with a narrative which centres the first person POV first and then abandons this viewpoint to share another POV, however only if the chapters you described (‘chapters where I was not present’) were supposed to still be about your main character’s experiences.
As the reader pointed out, the first-person narrator preceding this section would not have a detailed understanding of events or scenes they were not present for, unless they had some sort of record (video/audio/another person’s account), omnisciet powers, etc.
However, if you simply shifted to another first-person narrator’s POV (and made this shift clear), it shouldn’t be an issue.
Many authors mix multiple first-person narrators effectively. To understand how effective multiple first-person narrators can be, I often recommend reading Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying which has more than 10 different narrators despite being novella-length (and it’s always clear who’s narrating).
It’s very difficult to advise on this properly without reading the story in question, as viewpoint is easier to talk about with full reading of the narration being discussed, to see where and why it becomes confusing. I’d recommend a manuscript evaluation as this would provide actionable feedback (you can find out more about our editing services here) .
Otherwise, I’d recommend writing the entire story in your single first-person narrator’s POV for simplicity’s sake. However you proceed, make sure any shifts to or away from a narrator are indicated clearly so the reader isn’t left wondering who’s telling the story. I hope this helps!
I have never written in first person narrative but am interested to give it a try. My question is how do you introduce events crucial to the plot if your character doesn’t witness them? For example, your protagonist leaves a shop and then the shop keeper makes a call about his visit. Thanks!
Hi Mrs Clare, thank you for sharing that. It’s great you’re willing and curious to try new things.
I would suggest either a POV switch to the shop keeper (with a clear scene break and signal in narration that the viewpoint has changed), or else to show the effects of said call (for example, if the shop keeper were to tip someone off about the visit, and your protagonist is alarmed when that person knows about their visit – i.e. exploit your first-person narrator’s ignorance of certain events and have them happen ‘out of frame’ or ‘offscreen’ to add mystery/suspense).
In this scenario, you may want to weigh using first person against the greater ease of moving between viewpoints in third person limited. In this case, the narrator is already a little more removed from the action, so it would not be as jarring as a sudden switch from one POV in first person to another.
I hope this helps!
Thanks for this article. I’m starting my first novel and have decided to go with a very familiar form of first person, almost conversational, similar to a journal. I’m curious if this is a mistake? Secondly, are there any good tips for not becoming too self-indulgent when writing in this style? Just how much confidence can an audience take before it becomes arrogance? Thanks in advance.
Hi Ari, a conversational first-person voice is lovely and accessible in most cases, so it’s unlikely it’s a mistake. If your narrator is supremely confident, I’d suggest perhaps giving them a struggle or flaw or two that are relatable. For example you could gradually reveal a tough situation which made them have to develop said confidence (so that the reader then understands the narrator’s confidence and its genesis). Ultimately empathy on the reader’s part grows out of understanding, out of seeing the cause and effect underneath behaviours. I hope this helps!
Hi Jodan, thanks for the article
I am writing something in first person perspective. same issues, how do I write something that I wasn’t not present. a third person’s feeling, accident. as such.
Hi Hong, thank you for your question. It’s a little difficult to parse what you’re asking due to the double negative (wasn’t not) and the phrasing. If you’re asking how you present a third person’s experiences within first person there are a few options:
- The third party in question could tell your 1st person narrator what happened in dialogue or your main narrator could share what they heard about the events via narration
- Your 1st person narrator could guess/surmise what happened based on their limited knowledge of events
- If it requires a detail description of the scene, you could have multiple first person narrators and have the situation described (an accident or other event through a new viewpoint, switching back to the first viewpoint when necessary
I hope this answers your question! Feel free to mail us at help at now novel dot com should you have further questions.
Thank you very much
[…] 7 Narrative Tips for First Person Narrators […]
In First person present tense, is it correct to italicise a character’s thoughts, or to use I think after an italicised thought.
Hi Michael, thank you for asking. I had to think about this. I would say you don’t need to use italics at all since a thought in first person present tense would be occurring in the same time as narration and in the same pronouns. Compare:
He was running late for court. This isn’t going to help my appeal , he thought.
I’m running late for court. This isn’t going to help my appeal …
If you’re still having trouble, feel free to email us your example paragraph at help at now novel dot com for feedback. You can also get feedback from our member community in our critique groups .
Hey Jordan, thanks for your article! It was great to read ? I wrote and published some Italian novels (my native language) using the first person POV (multiple POVs), and now I’m trying to write my first novel in English. Of course, the first step to writing something in any languages is to read, and I’m trying to adapt my writing style to the English language (for example, in Italian, the subject is very often not explicit).
I hope you don’t mind answering some questions:
1. In the novel I’m writing, I have two different POVs, the same person with two different personalities. In Italian, the style is completely different (one personality is a psychopath, the other is an actor), I’m trying to do the same in English. I’m using different tones (the psychopath says something like: “I wear my special gloves carefully, and she is so beautiful. *It must be her!* Where is my thin rope? Right, it’s in the back pocket of my jeans. *It’s not her.* I tight vigorously the ends of the noose around her neck, enjoying the sight of her life slipping away like a dewdrop upon a leaf under the burst of a morning breeze”, while the actor is more relaxed: “ There are few things in my life worse than this empty house during the night. Rooms are too big, ceils too high, and floors smell of loneliness”. English is not my first language, and I know it’s hard to judge from a few sentences, but, as a reader, is it clear that those two sentences are from different characters?
2. The psychopath style is more “here and now”, and I know this may be a silly question, but is it ok to use a progressive tense?
3. I’m critically reading a lot in this period, but I’m struggling a bit to find some thriller written in first person POV in the present tense. Do you have any suggestions?
Thank you for your feedback, I’m glad you found this helpful. Thank you for your interesting questions, too.
For 1), I would say the first voice does have an indulgent, flowery quality that would perhaps fit a psychopathic POV (it brings to mind the flowery language of Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita , another sociopathic character). You are right that it is difficult to advise well based on short extracts, but the simpler, descriptive language of the actor that is less flowery and ‘insincere’ -sounding does create a different voice.
2) I would say the element that makes his voice read more unstable is more so the scattered quality and the personification of his rope. It is fine to use the progressive tense provided events in the same timeline use the same tense. Tecnically ‘I wear…’ is simple present, ‘I am wearing…’ would be progressive.
3) I am drawing a blank for a good example I can recommend, but One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus has a respectable 4/5 rating on Goodreads and is a YA Mystery/Thriller written in first-person.
I hope this helps! Good luck with your book further. Please feel free to chat to us in the Now Novel writing groups and get feedback on your tense usage there, too. You can read more about how our feedback system works here .
[…] don’t worry! We know the essential strategies that will help you write a credible first-person narrator who also happens to be a great storyteller […]
Thanks, i hope too be the youngest novelist ever
That’s great that you’re pursuing writing already, Rachel. Good luck with fulfilling your ambitions 🙂
‘The door was closed and a faint scratching noise came from within the house. It sounded like someone trying to dig a tunnel out, I thought.’
This would be better as:
‘The door was closed and a faint scratching noise came from within the house, like someone trying to dig a tunnel out.’
Hi Tom, this would be splitting hairs but you could argue that. Or, ‘The door was closed and a faint scratching noise came from within the house, as though someone was trying to dig a tunnel out.’ Technically ‘it sounded like someone’ is good because one is comparing a noun to a noun or noun phrase, which is when one would ordinarily use ‘like’. ‘As though’ is preferred when the comparison is followed by a clause, e.g. ‘It rained all day, as though the ark was being hauled out of storage.’ Hope this helps!
[…] “The benefit of telling a story in first person is that readers discover the voice and psychology of a character as expressed directly by the character. This gives immediacy, the sense of ‘being there’. … On the minus side, first person narration can restrict your readers’ access to the inner worlds of your other characters.” Now Novel […]
[…] “The benefit of telling a story in first person is that readers discover the voice and psychology of a character as expressed directly by the character. This gives immediacy, the sense of ‘being there’. … On the minus side, first person narration can restrict your readers’ access to the inner worlds of your other characters.” Now Novel […]
Okay i must admit this was good ( if not great ) and really helpfull. I’m 13 years old and i wan’t to write a novel. But i’m just afraid! maybe when i try to self publish my novel ‘to many rhymes,’ they may say i’m too young. Or should i just continue with the idea writing the first draft?
Hi Liam, thank you for your feedback. What would make it great? I’m curious what you’d have liked it to include as these articles can always be improved. It’s great that you want to write a novel at 13 already. Carry on with your idea and don’t worry what people say about your age. Many first novels aren’t published, it’s true, but the process itself is excellent practice – each project a stepping stone to greater knowledge and understanding of how to tell a story. Go for it.
“Thankyou for the encouraging me.”
but i was wondering, can i start my novel with the first person point of view, and switch it into the third person point of view once i reach the first chapter?
That is my biggest problem right now. Do you maybe have something that can show me how i can switch from point of view to point of view?
Hi Liam, to be honest that could be quite confusing for the reader if it’s the same viewpoint narrator. What is the reason you want to have that switch? Generally it’s best to switch person type over a scene break or chapter break, provided that there’s a reason to mix persons. It’s much more common in a multi-viewpoint work for each viewpoint character to be in the same person (multiple first-person or multiple third-person narrators). Provided it’s clear who’s narrating at any given point, you could be more experimental. But it’s important to know the rules before you break them.
I didn’t create a clear sentence up there but to move on. The novel i’m working on ‘too many rhymes’ is a big deal to me ’cause it’s my first. Do you think this is a great opening scene to go with? It was raining in the middle of the night. A horrific scene was set before me back when i was six years old. i was crying, standing by the stairs staring at them. She was in pain, she was helplessly lying on the floor, blood coming out of her mouth as well as her stomatch, she was crying. “what do you want from me,” she cried out. His wore a black mask that covered his face, a long black coat and a pair of black boots.He was standing in front of her, smacking, a sword clutched in his right hand. “oh you know what i want darling. Infact you are what i wan’t,” he answerd her. He then turned his head at me. My heart hamered. “Oh you have a son?” he asked, smiling at me. He then stalked towards me and gazed at my mom. I couldn’t run i was completely frozen. He pointed his sword at me. “d… Don’t hurt my son,” she stumered, begging the man. The man stretched his sword up in the sky… I killed him! I told my best friend the story, she wants to know how i did it, how i killed him. Well i can’t tell her. It would be safe if it stays a mystrey. me and my mother are the only ones who know how i did it. Or maybe how it happened.
Hi Liam, no problem. This has some good elements, such as mystery and a good sense of tone and mood. I’d start with a few questions: – The man says ‘you are what I want’ but he’s also described as ‘smacking’ the woman. Maybe his statement of what he wants could reflect this violence. What is his motivation, why is he hurting the woman? – Does the scene need to be this visceral and violent (e.g. ‘blood coming out of her mouth as well as her stomach’)? If you start at 100 in intensity, it doesn’t give much higher of a peak to reach. If the mother figure wasn’t already injured, or the man’s wishes/desires were more mysterious, would this maybe make the story opening more teasing/intrigue-building?
I like the revelation that the narrator killed the man (and that he doesn’t reveal exactly how he did it) – this creates mystery. At the same time, I think you could end this segment before that revelation and possibly reveal it later, so that some of the dramatic content is deferred until the reader has gotten to know your characters more.
There are some minor spag issues (such as ‘stumered’ for ‘stammered’). I’d recommend joining our critique groups where you can get further feedback to develop what you have so far. Hope this was helpful!
Helpful! I think you’re good at the novel writing business! I understand what you said. And I’m not going to start with 100 % of intensity, and I think it would be better if the woman wasn’t injured. Thank you for your feedback. And do you think the narrator killing the man can create a story? Or do I have to find another element that could support the story?
I’m glad I could help, Liam. I think that is an intriguing plot point, definitely. Yet also brainstorm (or discover in drafting) the consequences of that act as therein lies the story, too. Where does it go from there?
Jordan ! I was wondering if you could help me out by giving a few tips, I’m currently writing a story in first person and I would like your opinion on a certain section.
Hi Jackson, if you join our free writing community you can get constructive feedback on story segments from other members (and weekly editorial feedback is included with our The Process membership ). Why not join up and get trading crits? If you have any first-person POV questions I’d be happy to try and answer them 🙂
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First Person Point of View: Definition and Examples
The first person point of view is a powerful writing style that allows authors to tell their stories through the eyes of a character. With a strong narrative voice, first person storytelling can evoke powerful emotions, create relatable characters, and forge a deep connection between the reader and the narrative. This article will explore the benefits and challenges of first person point of view writing, provide tips for mastering this perspective, and showcase its impact on storytelling. For more on point of view check out our article on Story Grid’s NARRATIVE PATH and the THIRD PERSON POINT OF VIEW .
Why Choose First Person Point of View
The first person point of view is an incredibly popular choice for writers across various genres, from literary fiction to memoirs and beyond. Some of the reasons writers might opt for this perspective include the following:
1. Intimacy and Connection
One of the most significant benefits of first person point of view writing is the intimacy it creates between the reader and the narrator. By allowing the reader to experience the story through the eyes and emotions of a character, the narrative becomes more personal and relatable. This connection can make readers feel more invested in the story and more empathetic towards the protagonist.
2. Character Development
First person perspective is an excellent tool for delving into a character’s psyche, motivations, and emotions. By giving readers a front-row seat to the character’s thoughts and feelings, writers can create complex, multi-dimensional narrative that resonates with readers long after they’ve finished the book.
3. Authenticity and Immediacy
Writing in the first person point of view can lend a sense of authenticity and immediacy to your story. This perspective allows the narrator to share their thoughts, emotions, and experiences in real-time, making the narrative feel more grounded and believable.
Challenges of First Person Point of View
Despite its many benefits, first person point of view writing can also pose challenges for authors. Some of these challenges include the following:
1. Limited Perspective
One of the most significant limitations of first person point of view is its inherently restricted perspective. Since the reader can only access the narrator’s thoughts and experiences, they’re unable to see the full picture of what’s happening in the story. This limited perspective can sometimes make it difficult for writers to reveal essential plot points or explore the thoughts and motivations of other characters.
2. Reliability and Bias
First person narrators are, by nature, subjective and potentially unreliable. This can be both a strength and a weakness in storytelling. On the one hand, an unreliable narrator can create suspense and intrigue, leaving readers questioning the truth of the narrative. On the other hand, an overly biased or untrustworthy narrator can alienate readers and undermine the story’s credibility.
3. Overuse of “I”
Writing in first person point of view can lead to an overuse of the pronoun “I,” which can become repetitive and tiresome for readers. Writers must find ways to vary their sentence structure and avoid falling into this trap.
Tips for Mastering First Person Point of View
1. develop a strong narrative voice.
A compelling narrative voice is essential for first person point of view writing. Consider your character’s background, personality, and goals when crafting their voice. Make sure their voice is consistent throughout the story because point of view slips can be jarring for readers.
2. Balance Inner Thoughts and External Action
While the first person perspective lends itself to introspection, it’s essential to balance the character’s inner thoughts with external action. Too much introspection can slow the pace of the story, which is the bigger concern. Too much action can leave readers feeling disconnected from the character. Finding the right proportion will keep readers engaged and invested in the story.
3. Show, Don’t Tell
Showing and telling is a related concern. While it may be tempting to rely on the narrator’s thoughts to explain the story through “telling,” it’s crucial to “show” readers what’s happening through vivid descriptions of carefully chosen details. This allows readers to experience the story alongside the characters, making it more immersive and engaging.
4. Enlist Supporting Characters
Even though the first person point of view focuses on the narrator’s perspective, supporting characters still play a vital role in the story. Use dialogue and interactions with other characters to reveal additional information about the narrator and the world they inhabit (CONTEXT). This can help enrich the story and provide a more comprehensive understanding of the protagonist’s experiences.
5. Experiment with Unreliable Narrators
Embracing the potential unreliability of a first person narrator can add depth and intrigue to your story. By subtly hinting at the narrator’s bias or gaps in their understanding, you can create an atmosphere of suspense and keep readers guessing until the very end.
6. Vary Your Sentence Structure
To avoid the overuse of “I” as a sentence opener and maintain the reader’s interest, vary your sentence structure by incorporating different sentence lengths and styles. This can help create a more dynamic and engaging narrative.
First Person Point of View in Different Genres
The first person point of view is versatile and can be used effectively in different genres. Here are just a few examples of how this perspective can enhance different types of stories.
1. Literary Fiction
In literary fiction, first person point of view can be used to explore complex themes, ideas, and emotions through a character’s subjective experiences. This perspective can provide a deeper understanding of human nature and the human condition.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The novel is told from the perspective of Nick Carraway, who becomes involved with the mysterious, wealthy Jay Gatsby and his circle of friends and acquaintances. “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”
2. Mystery and Thriller
First person perspective can add tension and suspense to mystery and thriller novels, as the reader is limited to the protagonist’s knowledge and experiences. This can create an atmosphere of uncertainty and anticipation, as readers eagerly await the story’s resolution.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
In this story, Nick and Amy share their own versions of events that lead to and followed Amy’s disappearance.
“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.”
“Tra and la! I am smiling a big adopted-orphan smile as I write this. I am embarrassed at how happy I am, like some Technicolor comic of a teenage girl talking on the phone with my hair in a ponytail, the bubble above my head saying: I met a boy!”
3. Memoirs and Autobiographies
Memoirs and autobiographies naturally lend themselves to first person point of view, as they are personal accounts of an individual’s life experiences. This perspective allows readers to connect with the author on a deeper level and gain insight into their thoughts, feelings, and motivations. Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett
Patchett tells the story of her relationship with her friend Lucy Grealy.
“As I sat in the audience, watching, I believed we had something in common even though I wrote short stories. People liked my work but had trouble remembering me. I was often confused with another writer names Anne who was in one of my classes, and with a girl named Corinna who lived downstairs from me. Unlike Lucy, I had a tendency to blur into other people.”
4. Young Adult Fiction
First person point of view is prevalent in young adult fiction, as it allows readers to closely identify with the protagonist’s emotions and experiences. This perspective can be particularly effective in capturing the unique challenges, insecurities, and triumphs of adolescence.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Katniss Everdeen narrates her experience representing District 12 in the titular games.
“In the fall, a few brave souls sneak into the woods to harvest apples. But always in sight of the Meadow. Always close enough to run back to the safety of District 12 if trouble arises. “District Twelve. Where you can starve to death in safety,” I mutter. Then I glance quickly over my shoulder. Even here, even in the middle of nowhere, you worry someone might overhear you.”
Other Examples of First Person Point of View
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee The story is told from the perspective of young Scout Finch, who narrates her experiences growing up in the American South during the 1930s. “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.”
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë This classic novel is narrated by the protagonist, Jane Eyre, who recounts her life from childhood to adulthood, including her love for Mr. Rochester. “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question. I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.”
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath The story is told from the perspective of Esther Greenwood, a young woman experiencing a mental breakdown as she navigates the challenges of her personal and professional life. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers—goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive along your nerves.”
How can this benefit your writing today?
The first person point of view is a powerful and versatile writing technique that can bring your story to life in a unique and intimate way with engaging narratives that resonate with readers across different genres. By understanding the challenges of first person writing and using the tips provided in this article, you can craft compelling stories that showcase the power of this distinctive narrative voice. Whether you’re a seasoned writer or just beginning, writing from the first person perspective can unlock new possibilities and help you level up your craft.
Run an experiment. Change the existing point of view in a passage from a story. You could use a paragraph from a story you love or a sample from your own work in progress. Consider what needs to change (beyond the pronouns) to make the shift. For example, context details and the way they are expressed depends on the point of view. Identify what’s lost and what’s gained by altering the perspective. How does the new version change where you focus the reader’s attention? Choose another example and run the experiment again.
This is just the start of what you can learn about point of view. Dig deeper by exploring Story Grid’s Narrative Path.
Point of View: Why Narrative Device Can Make or Break Your Story by Leslie Watts
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