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What Is First Person Point Of View in Writing?
In writing, the first person point of view uses the pronouns “I,” “me,” “we,” and “us,” in order to tell a story from the narrator’s perspective. The storyteller in a first-person narrative is either the protagonist relaying their experiences or a peripheral character telling the protagonist’s story.
What Are the Types of First Person Point of View in Writing?
The role the narrator plays in a story determines the type of first-person point of view. The elements of a story—like genre—can help determine who is best suited to serve as narrator and which first-person voice to use.
- First-person central. In first-person central, the narrator is also the protagonist at the heart of the plot. Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace employs first-person central point of view. The story is based on a historical event: a double murder that occurred in 1843 in which a manservant was tried and hanged for the murder of his employer. Grace Marks, a maid, was tried and imprisoned as his accessory. The novel is told in through Grace’s point of view as she speaks to the doctor hired to exonerate her.
- First-person peripheral. In first-person peripheral, the narrator is a witness to the story but she or he is not the main character. In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald created the character of Nick, a friend of the protagonist, Jay Gatsby. Nick tells the story of Gatsby trying to win the love of Nick’s cousin, Daisy. Telling the story this way keeps the focus on the protagonist but also creates some distance, so the reader is not privy to their thoughts or feelings. This deliberately keeps Gatsby as a mysterious character and enables Nick to tell the story with a slant, drawing on his experience with Gatsby and his opinion of him to color the narration.
3 Reasons to Write in First Person Point of View
When you’re writing a story, you have several narrative voices to choose from. Giving the protagonist or someone close to them the narrative reins has its advantages. A first-person narrator gives the reader a front row seat to the story. It also:
- Gives a story credibility. First-person point of view builds a rapport with readers by sharing a personal story directly with them. Bringing the reader in close like this makes a story—and storyteller—credible. From the opening line of Herman Melville’s epic sea tale, Moby Dick, the reader is on a first-name basis with the narrator: “Call me Ishmael.” This familiarity creates a relationship with the narrator, leading the readers to believe that what they are about to hear is a true story. When a writer breaks that narrative trust by leading readers astray—either through a narrator who deliberately lies or a characteristic of the narrator that compromises their credibility—the narrator becomes unreliable.
- Expresses an opinion. A narrator tells a story through a lens filtered by their opinions. In the first person point of view, the use of the pronoun “I” establishes a sense of familiarity between reader and narrator, allowing the writer to subtly influence the reader by telling a story with a bias. Scout is the six-year-old narrator in To Kill A Mockingbird and the story is told with the innocence and naiveté of a child’s world view. The author, Harper Lee, had several characters to choose from, but telling this story about race in the American South through this young character’s eyes forces the reader to examine and question the inequalities of race in the same way that Scout does.
- Builds intrigue. First person perspective limits a reader’s access to information. They only know and experience what the narrator does. This is an effective tool for creating suspense and building intrigue in stories, particularly in thrillers or mysteries. For example, John Watson is the narrator In almost all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Keeping Holmes, the protagonist, at arm’s length makes him more interesting, but it also allows the reader to be just as surprised as Watson when Holmes finally cracks a case. Readers tend to identify with characters who are learning like they are.
5 Tips For Writing in First Person
Once you’ve decided to write your story in the first person, use these tips to guide your narrative voice.
- Write an opening like Melville. Let the reader know you’re using a first-person perspective right away as Melville did in the opening line of Moby Dick with “Call me Ishmael.” Introduce the character and narrative voice within the first two paragraphs to create a bond with your readers from the start.
- Be descriptive. In the first person, avoid phrases that keep the reader in the narrator’s brain—for example, “I thought,” or “I felt.” While one of the advantages of first person is to know what the narrator is thinking, don’t get stuck in their head. We also want to see through their eyes so use visual language to show the reader around their world.
- Stay in character. When using the pronoun “I,” it’s easy to slip out of your character’s voice and into your own as the author. When you’re writing, stay true to your narrator’s perspective.
- Mix it up. Starting every line with “I” can become repetitive; vary your sentences by illustrating thoughts or feelings. Instead of writing “I felt tired walking through the deep snow”, try “the mountain was buried in snow, making every step feel like a mile.”
- Create a strong narrator. Make your first-person narrator an interesting character to make the story really work. Give them a solid backstory that influences their perspective.
Learn more about narrative point of view with Margaret Atwood.