In first-person viewpoint, the narrator is a character within the story, and the story is told from that character's perspective. You can see that this story is being told from the viewpoint of the narrator. Stories written from the first-person viewpoint will use pronouns such as 'I' and 'we'. You can see from the extract above that 'I' is used on several occasions.
When writing a novel, you will have to choose which narrative viewpoint will work best for you and your book. In this article, you'll learn about first-person narrative viewpoint. You'll discover the strengths and weaknesses of a first-person narrative viewpoint and find out when it best fits your next writing project.
What is Narrative Viewpoint?
To fully understand first-person narrative viewpoint, we must first look at narrative viewpoint in general.
In fact, we must take one step further back and consider narration as a whole.
Wikipedia describes narration as 'the use of a written or spoken commentary to convey a story to an audience'. [source]
In other words, it is the way a story is told to the reader.
Narration is split into three elements:
- Narrative point of view: the grammatical person used by the narrator to refer to the character being narrated.
- Narrative tense: the consistent use of the grammatical tense of either past or present.
- Narrative techniques: methods of conveying the story.
Of these three elements, it is Narrative point of view that interests us.
The person who tells a story is known as the narrator; this might be a character in the story, but it might also be a separate 'voice' independent of the other characters.
The narrative viewpoint is determined by 'who' tells the story and 'how the story is told'.
What is First Person Viewpoint?
In the first-person viewpoint, the narrator is a character within the story, and the story is told from that character's perspective.
For example, look at the extract below from Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, this is written from a first-person viewpoint.
You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly—Tom's Aunt Polly, she is—and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.
You can see that this story is being told from the viewpoint of the narrator. Stories written from the first-person viewpoint will use pronouns such as 'I' and 'we'. You can see from the extract above that 'I' is used on several occasions.
The following example is the opening paragraph from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. You can see that the use of 'my' in the opening sentence indicates this is written from a first-person viewpoint.
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.
Perhaps one of the most famous opening lines, from one of the most famous novels, comes from Herman Melville's Moby Dick,
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time tozz get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
You can see the simple three-word opening sentence, Call me Ishmael, clearly indicates this is a work written from a first-person viewpoint.
Advantages and Disadvantages of First Person Viewpoint
There are advantages and disadvantages to writing from a first-person viewpoint.
The main advantage is that the viewpoint presents the reader with the narrator's mind's eye view of the fictional world. This means that the writer can provide the reader with a direct insight into the thoughts and feelings of the main character/narrator. It also means that the 'gap' between the narrator and the reader is almost non-existent. The reader can know and understand everything the narrator knows and understands. Therefore, if the narrator is sad, the reader can see this through the narrator's thoughts.
This advantage is also a disadvantage since the reader is limited to the same view of the world as held by the narrator. The reader is only able to understand what the narrator understands. The reader can only see and experience what the narrator sees and experiences. Therefore, if the character is in a room, and there is a noise outside the room, the reader cannot know what made the noise until the narrator finds out.
Storytelling in first-person viewpoint is often narrow in scope, focusing on the internal dialogue of one character.
This limited knowledge of the world has been used to significant effect by many writers.
Since the narrator and reader are so closely related, it is possible to tell a story that is heavily influenced by the narrator. In many of the best novels written in first-person viewpoint, a further element is created by making the narrator unreliable. In short, this means that the narrator cannot be trusted. The information that is being passed to the reader has, in some way, been altered by the narrator.
In some cases, this might be that the narrator is not openly lying, but, instead, presenting the world to the reader through their own internal lens. However, it many cases, the narrator is openly lying with the first-person narrator, telling the reader what they want them to know. This means the reader is forced to trust the narrator's version of the world.
In the novel American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, the main character is a psychopathic high-flyer banker that kills for pleasure. It is written from a first-person viewpoint. Throughout the book, the reader is given a view of the world filtered through a killer's mind.
Look at this example to see how the writer is using first-person viewpoint to influence the reader:
Outside this cab, on the sidewalks, black and bloated pigeons fight over scraps of hot dogs in front of a Gray's Papaya while transvestites idly look on and a police car cruises silently the wrong way down a one-way street and the sky is low and gray and in a cab that's stopped in traffic across from this one, a guy who looks a lot like Luis Carruthers waves over at Timothy and when Timothy doesn't return the wave the guy—slicked-back hair, suspenders, horn-rimmed glasses—realizes it's not who he thought it was and looks back at his copy of USA Today. Panning down to the sidewalk there's an ugly old homeless bag lady holding a whip and she cracks it at the pigeons who ignore it as they continue to peck and fight hungrily over the remains of the hot dogs and the police car disappears into an underground parking lot.
It is also possible that the writer will use the first-person viewpoint to withhold vital information from the reader, limiting the available knowledge. This is common in specific genres, such as detective fiction and horror. One very famous example of this approach is Iain Banks's excellent novel The Wasp Factory. In this story, key plot points are unknown to the narrator/main character, and therefore the reader. The result is a shocking revelation in the climax of the story.
Types of First Person Viewpoint
First-person viewpoint can be written in several forms. It is possible to use an interior monologue, in which the narrator is telling the reader their thoughts. Some writers, such as Albert Camus, use a dramatic monologue approach, where the narrator is interacting with other people to a limited extent. The final type is an explicit voice, where words and actions, as well as thoughts, are described. We saw this above in *Huckleberry Finn*.
It is also essential to consider how the story is being told. The narrator might be writing it down (and we, the reader, are reading these words), the narrator may be speaking the words, and we are 'listening', or it might be that the words are the thoughts of the narrator.
The reader must also consider why the story is being told. For example, if the words are being written down, then why is the narrator doing this, and who was the intended reader? Are the words part of a diary, always meant to be private, or are they a letter with a known recipient? The way the first-person narrator is relating the story will affect the language used, the length of sentences, the tone of voice, and many other things. For example, a story presented as a secret diary should be presented differently than a public statement.
Types of Story
First-person viewpoint lends itself to telling 'small' stories based around a limited number of characters. The focus tends to be on the internal landscape of the narrator and is often more about how a character feels and thinks, rather than broader actions and events.
This means that the most successful first-person viewpoint novels are those in which the narrator is the central character.
Stories that involve a large number of characters, across multiple locations, are often poor choices for first-person viewpoints, which is why genres such as epic fantasy tend to use a third-person viewpoint.
It is possible to tell a 'bigger' story using first-person viewpoint, but with multiple characters. This approach sees the story told in first-person but by two or three different characters. This is a more modern approach to writing but can be very effective. One of the most well-executed examples of this approach is Caroline Smailes' The Drowning of Arthur Braxton.
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