Writing in the first person point of view is something that anyone instinctively knows how to do: from our earliest childhood memories, we normally drew scenes with ourselves as the main character. And the earliest essays we wrote in grade school were usually about “My Family” or “What I Did Over Summer Vacation.”
Because the first person point of view can be instinctive, we need to be intentional at learning how to get it down pat. Just because you know how to write from your perspective doesn’t mean you automatically know how to use this skill effectively.
Defining First Person Point of View
In writing, point of view refers to the perspective that writers use to tell a story. The first person point of view tells the story from the perspective of the author or narrator. Because of that, it uses first person pronouns like “I,” “we,” “my,” “mine,” “our,” and “ours.”
Second person point of view, on the other hand, tells the story while addressing the reader directly. It uses second-person pronouns “you,” “your,” and “yours.”
The third person limited point of view tells the story from the perspective of one of the characters, while the third person omniscient point of view tells it from the perspective of an outside narrator that sees everything that’s going on.
These different perspectives can greatly impact the way a story is received by readers, so choosing the right point of view is an important early step in writing fiction.
Advantages of the First Person Point of View
A writer can make good use of the first person point of view because it has the following advantages:
It can captivate your audience.
Because the narrator is someone who’s actually in the action, writing in first person can captivate your readers more.
It’s easier for first-time authors.
Writing in the first person is considered easier for first-time authors because you can write based on what you know.
When you write in the first person, no one is going to blame you for not knowing everything; after all, the narrator you’re writing as does not know everything, either. This makes it relatively less complicated to research compared to writing in third person point of view.
First person point of view brings readers closer to the character.
Because the reader gets to see and hear everything the narrator does, he can also feel or react to events as the narrator does. This makes for a more compelling and relatable read.
Sometimes, when a writer uses the first person POV well, the reader may even feel as though he is the main character and experiences everything that happens as though he were truly in the story.
For nonfiction, it can lend credibility to the writing.
If the writer is telling about his own experience, the readers can feel assured that he knows what he’s talking about, compared with his telling about what other people told him about the subject.
How Do You Write First Person?
If you want to write in the first person point of view, these tips will help you:
1. Study first person POV in other books.
The best way to get a feel for how a first person POV works is to study bestselling books that use this perspective effectively. Some examples to help you get started are:
- Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
- Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
- The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
2. Decide which tense to use.
The beauty of writing in first person is that you have greater freedom as far as which tense you wish to use: you can use the present tense, because the narrator might be talking about things in the present; you can also choose to use the past tense to talk about things that happened in the past, or a mixture of both.
3. Give your narrator character.
Think of your narrator as a real person or as a full-fledged character in your book that you need to flesh out. You might consider making a detailed character profile, so that you can imagine what their voice would sound like in a realistic way.
4. Limit tags.
When writing in first person, you don’t need to use tags like “I heard” or “I saw.” Instead, just describe whatever it is that the narrator is experiencing, and it will also become the reader’s experience.
For example, compare the following:
- I saw the lightning flash through the window and heard the roaring thunder.
- Lightning flashed through the window and the thunder roared.
The first sentence tells you what the narrator saw and heard; the second sentence puts you right into the scene where the lightning and thunder happened.
Because the reader already knows that the narrator is the one telling us everything that’s happening, you don’t need to explain that every sentence is his thoughts or perspective.
5. Consider using a narrator who may not be fully reliable.
An unreliable narrator is one whom the reader suspects does not tell the full story. The narrator may not be intentionally untruthful, but their withholding of certain information adds to the mystery. It also shows a bit of their own personality or character.
However, this only works for fiction. For nonfiction, you must be 100% reliable, or you will lose your reader’s trust.
6. Don’t italicize the narrator’s thoughts.
When writing fiction, people’s thoughts are usually written in italics to differentiate them from the narrative and dialogue. But when using first person, everything is actually already filtered through the narrator’s thoughts. This makes the italics almost redundant. Compare the examples below:
- The sky looked clear and the sun was shining. Who says it’s going to rain? I thought.
- The sky looked clear and the sun was shining. Who says it’s going to rain?
Because the reader already knows it’s the narrator speaking, you can skip italicizing his thoughts.
7. Leave multiple first-person narrators for later.
Although first person is one of the easier points of view to write, the use of multiple first-person narrators is a whole different story.
One of the biggest challenges for this is how to make sure that each narrator has a distinct voice. If you can’t do this, you will end up with several first-person narrators who cannot be distinguished from one another.
Instead, first make sure that you’re able to give your characters a distinctive voice. By then you can look into using multiple first-person narrators.
Examples of First Person POV in Literature
Some of the best written works in literature are written in the first person. The question remains as to whether these books would have been as effective if they had been written, say, in third person. These include:
Example #1. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Nothing can describe the confusion of thought which I felt when I sank into the water; for though I swam very well, yet I could not deliver myself from the waves so as to draw breath, till that wave having driven me, or rather carried me, a vast way on towards the shore, and having spent itself, went back, and left me upon the land almost dry, but half dead with the water I took in. I had so much presence of mind, as well as breath left, that seeing myself nearer the mainland than I expected, I got upon my feet, and endeavoured to make on towards the land as fast as I could before another wave should return and take me up again; but I soon found it was impossible to avoid it; for I saw the sea come after me as high as a great hill, and as furious as an enemy, which I had no means or strength to contend with: my business was to hold my breath, and raise myself upon the water if I could; and so, by swimming, to preserve my breathing, and pilot myself towards the shore, if possible, my greatest concern now being that the sea, as it would carry me a great way towards the shore when it came on, might not carry me back again with it when it gave back towards the sea.
This excerpt gives us a very vivid picture of what Robinson Crusoe experience as his ship was wrecked. If this had been written in third person, it may not have carried the same power.
Example #2. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
I saw no sign of the girl in the plantation. When I got out, through the sandhills, on to the beach, there she was, in her little straw bonnet, and her plain grey cloak that she always wore to hide her deformed shoulder as much as might be—there she was, all alone, looking out on the quicksand and the sea.
She started when I came up with her, and turned her head away from me. Not looking me in the face being another of the proceedings, which, as head of the servants, I never allow, on principle, to pass without inquiry—I turned her round my way, and saw that she was crying. My bandanna handkerchief—one of six beauties given to me by my lady—was handy in my pocket. I took it out, and I said to Rosanna, “Come and sit down, my dear, on the slope of the beach along with me. I’ll dry your eyes for you first, and then I’ll make so bold as to ask what you have been crying about.”
Collins effectively uses the first person in all the different parts of his mystery novel: each part telling the story from the perspective of one of the characters. In this excerpt, Gabriel Betteredge, the trusted servant, is describing his encounter with Rosanna Spearman, who eventually becomes a suspect in stealing the Moonstone.
The use of the first person gives us an important glimpse that can help us decide whether or not to suspect her, as the other people in the story do.
Example #3. Me and My Little Brain by John D. Fitzgerald
I couldn’t help feeling a sense of great power after Tom was gone from Adenville. I knew I only had a little brain compared with Tom’s great brain. But I believed I’d learned enough from my brother to outsmart any kid in town. I knew I wasn’t a genius like Tom when it came to putting one over on Papa or Mamma and other adults in town. But my brother had taught me that adults are pretty dumb, and a kid who uses his head can fool them most of the time. The time had come for me to take over where Tom had left off.
This is the third book in The Great Brain series, all of which are told from the perspective of J.D., who is the author himself writing from his memories of adventures with his older brother Tom. It adds humor to see Tom’s swindlings unfold from the eyes of the gullible younger brother.
Example #4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Bessie answered not; but ere long, addressing me, she said—“You ought to be aware, Miss, that you are under obligations to Mrs. Reed: she keeps you: if she were to turn you off, you would have to go to the poorhouse.”
I had nothing to say to these words: they were not new to me: my very first recollections of existence included hints of the same kind. This reproach of my dependence had become a vague sing-song in my ear: very painful and crushing, but only half intelligible.
Jane Eyre’s first-person account lets us experience the injustices of her childhood as though we were the ones going through them.
Is Writing in First Person POV bad?
It’s not necessarily “bad” to write in the first person POV, but it does come with its own challenges, and requires careful skill to be executed well.
When you want to describe events or scenes with more detail than what your main character would know himself. Because you are telling the story from his eyes, you have to restrict yourself or else the writing will not seem realistic.
Perhaps a good question to ask yourself is: is this the best way to tell the story? Or will throwing in another person’s perspective make it come more alive? If so, consider shifting to third person limited or third person omniscient POV.
Writing in First Person POV
Writing in first person POV may be considered an easier option, especially if your main character is someone very much like yourself!
But you still need to challenge yourself: unless all your main characters are actually yourself, you need to learn to write authentically in the different voices of your chosen narrator.
Do you have a favorite example of a story told in the first person? Share it with us in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like:
- Second Person Point of View: How to Place Your Reader in the Action
- Point of View Explained: Writing POV Correctly Can Save Your Story
- How to Write Fiction from Multiple Viewpoints: Picking the Right Point of View
- What Is Creative Nonfiction? Definitions, Examples, and Guidelines
- Developmental Editing: What to Look For and How to Find the Right Editor - September 20, 2020
- How to Write a Mystery: 9 Tips for an Exciting Page-Turner - September 20, 2020
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