Writing in first person point of view can be one of the most engaging and rewarding narrative viewpoints. This perspective allows the reader to 'see' the main character's world in a way that the third-person perspective doesn't allow.
In this point of view, 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 told from the narrator's viewpoint. Stories written from the first person point of view will use pronouns such as 'I' and 'we'.
When writing a novel, you must choose which narrative viewpoint will work best for you and your book. Though your instinct might be to use a third-person point of view, it is always worth considering is a first-person point of view is a better option for your story.
In this article, you'll learn about first person point of view. You'll discover the strengths and weaknesses of a first-person point of view and find out when it best fits your next writing project. In addition, you will discover then first-person perspective is a better choice than third person point of view.
Table of Contents
What is Narrative Viewpoint?
To fully understand the first-person point of view, we must first look at the narrative viewpoint in general.
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 how 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 the 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'.
There are three common types of narrative viewpoints:
First-person uses the pronouns: I, me, my, mine, myself, we, our, ours, ourselves. The second person uses - you, your, yours, and yourself. Third person point of view uses - she, her, hers, herself, he, him, his, himself, they, them, themselves, their, theirs.
This means a first-person narrator will use words like 'I,' 'me,' and 'mine.'
Third person point of view is the most common choice for writers. If you are interested in third person point of view, you can find out more here.
If you would like to learn more about the specifics of all different points of view, this extensive article called Mastering Point Of View In Writing: A Comprehensive Guide will prove to be an effective resource.
What is First Person Point of View?
In the first person point of view, the narrator is a character within the story, and the story is told from that character's perspective.
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 told from the narrator's viewpoint. Stories written from the first person point of view will use pronouns such as 'I' and 'we'. You can see from the extract above that 'I' is used several times.
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 point of view.
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.
The simple three-word opening sentence, Call me Ishmael, clearly indicates this is a work written from a first-person point of view.
Advantages and Disadvantages of First Person Point of View
There are advantages and disadvantages to writing from a first-person point of view.
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 the first person point of view 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 the narrator heavily influences. In many of the best novels written in the first person point of view, a further element is created by making the narrator unreliable. In short, this means that the narrator cannot be trusted. The information 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 presenting the world to the reader through their internal lens. However, in many cases, the narrator openly lies with the first-person point of view, telling the reader what they want them to know. 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 point of view. Throughout the book, the reader sees the world filtered through a killer's mind.
Look at this example to see how the writer is using first person point of view 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 point of view to withhold vital information from the reader, limiting the available knowledge. This is common in specific genres, such as detective fiction and horror. One 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 at the climax of the story.
Types of First Person Point of View
First-person point of view can be written in several forms. It is possible to use an interior monologue, in which the narrator tells the reader their thoughts. Some writers, such as Albert Camus, use a dramatic monologue approach, where the narrator interacts with others to a limited extent. The final type is an explicit voice, where words, actions, and 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 narrator's thoughts.
The reader must also consider why the story is being told. For example, if the words are being written down, 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 relates 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 on a limited number of characters. The focus tends to be on the narrator's internal landscape and is often more about how a character feels and thinks rather than broader actions and events.
This means that the most successful novels in this viewpoint are those in which the narrator is the central character.
First-person point of view is less commonly used than third person.
Stories that involve many characters across multiple locations often need better choices for this viewpoint, which is why genres such as epic fantasy tend to use a third-person viewpoint.
It is possible to tell a 'bigger' story using a first-person viewpoint but with multiple characters. This approach sees the story 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.
When making a choice between using first person's point of view and third person point of view, you must have a deep understanding of the type of story you are trying to tell. If you are looking at telling a story with a tight focus on a single character, with lots of internal dialogue, then first-person point of view will be a good choice. However, if your story involves many characters, then third-person point of view might be a better option.
Criticism of First-Person Viewpoint
While the first-person viewpoint can be a powerful tool for storytelling, it is not without its criticisms. One of the main criticisms of the first-person viewpoint is that it can be limiting for the reader, as they only get to see and experience the events of the story through the eyes of one character. This means that they may not get the full picture of what is happening in the story and may miss important details or perspectives.
For example, if the main character is not present for a key event, the reader will not get to see what happened and may have to rely on the main character's interpretation of the event. This can be frustrating for the reader and can make it difficult for them to fully understand and engage with the story.
Additionally, the main character may not always be the most reliable narrator. They may have their own biases, prejudices, or agendas that influence their perception of events and how they are presented to the reader. This can make it difficult for the reader to determine what is really happening in the story and can even lead to misunderstandings or misinterpreting the events of the story.
One example of a novel that grapples with the issue of unreliable narrators is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In this novel, the main character, Nick Carraway, is a biased and unreliable narrator, which contributes to the reader's difficulty in understanding the true nature of the other characters and events in the story.
Here are some resources for further reading on the first-person viewpoint in novels:
- "First Person Narrative: Advantages and Disadvantages" by Jane Campion for Writers Write: https://www.writerswrite.com/first-person-narrative-advantages-and-disadvantages/
- "First Person Point of View: Definition and Examples" by William Gipson for The Write Practice: https://thewritepractice.com/first-person-point-of-view/
- "The Pros and Cons of First Person Point of View" by J.M. Northup for The Writing Cooperative: https://writingcooperative.com/the-pros-and-cons-of-first-person-point-of-view-b1f5864fc9f7
- "The Power of the First Person Point of View" by K.M. Weiland for Helping Writers Become Authors: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/power-first-person-point-view/
- "The Art of Fiction" by John Gardner - This book is a classic guide to the craft of fiction writing and includes a chapter on the use of the first-person viewpoint in novels.
- "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft" by Stephen King - In this memoir, bestselling author Stephen King shares his thoughts on the writing process and offers advice on how to craft compelling stories. The book includes a section on the use of the first-person viewpoint in storytelling.
- "The First Person: How to Write a Memoir" by Benjamin Maurer - This book is a guide to writing memoirs and personal essays using the first-person viewpoint. It includes tips on how to craft a compelling narrative and how to create a strong connection with the reader.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are some frequently asked questions that will provide you more information.
How do I know if first person point of view is right for my story?
Deciding whether or not to use first person point of view in your writing depends on a number of factors, such as the type of story you're telling, the genre you're working in, and your personal writing style. To determine whether first person point of view is the right choice for your story, consider experimenting with different narrative techniques and getting feedback from beta readers or an editor.
How can I make my first person narrative more compelling?
There are several strategies you can use to make your first person narrative more compelling, such as developing a strong and authentic narrator, using sensory details and vivid language to immerse the reader in the story, and creating tension and conflict to drive the narrative forward. It can also be helpful to work with a beta reader or editor to get feedback on your writing and identify areas for improvement.
What are some common mistakes to avoid when writing in first person?
Some common mistakes to avoid when writing in first person include overusing first person pronouns, failing to establish the narrator's voice and perspective, using first person as a crutch instead of developing a strong plot and characters, and neglecting to revise and edit your writing for clarity and consistency. It can be helpful to work with a beta reader or editor to identify these and other common mistakes in your writing.
First-person point of view is a narrative perspective in which the narrator is a character within the story, and the story is told from their perspective using pronouns such as "I" and "we." This perspective allows the reader to experience the story and the world of the main character in a way that the third-person perspective does not. When writing a novel, it is important to consider which narrative viewpoint will work best for the story. Although the third-person point of view is the most common choice for writers, the first-person point of view can also be a strong and effective option.
There are three common types of narrative viewpoints: first person, second person, and third person. First person point of view uses the pronouns "I," "me," "my," "mine," "myself," "we," "our," "ours," and "ourselves." Second person point of view uses the pronouns "you," "your," "yours," and "yourself." Third person point of view uses the pronouns "she," "her," "hers," "herself," "he," "him," "his," "himself," "they," "them," "themselves," "their," and "theirs."