Writing in 1st Person Point of View

Almost all fiction books are written in either third or first person point of view. But when it comes to picking one for your own story, how do you choose which one to use? What are the differences between them? How does the point of view affect the story?

Choosing a point of view is an important decision. Although they seem similar at first, the two points of view can greatly change the style and tone of your story. So take some time and care to pick the one that makes the most sense for the story you want to tell.

If third person varies narrative distance between multiple characters, first person point of view, in contrast, gets the reader extremely close to the narrating character(s).

Check out this article to learn more about third person point of view.

Contents

  1. The Difference Between First and Third Person
  2. Types of First Person POV
  3. Why Choose First Person?
  4. Limitations of First Person POV
  5. Choosing Between First and Third Person

The Difference Between Third and First Person Point of View

The narrating character becomes the lens through which the reader views the events of the story, allowing them to explore deeper aspects of the character’s personality beyond what it outwardly apparent.

This creates an immediate emotional connection between the reader and the main character, but it can also be very limiting.

As the author, you’ll have to get creative when it comes to sharing information that is outside of a character’s immediate thoughts and feelings in any given moment.

Take a look at the following two passages, written from two different points of view:

“I've been kept waiting. The appointment was for half an hour ago, and I'm still here, sitting in the reception room flicking through Vogue, thinking about getting up and walking out. I know doctors' appointments run over, but therapists? Films have always led me to believe that they kick you out the moment your thirty minutes are up. I suppose Hollywood isn't really talking about the kind of therapist you get referred to on the National Health Service. I'm just about to go up to the receptionist to tell her that I've waited long enough, I'm leaving, when the doctor's office door swings open and this very tall, lanky man emerges, looking apologetic and holding out his hand to me.” – Paula Hawkins, The Girl On the Train

“Mrs. Richardson stood on the tree lawn, clutching the neck of her pale-blue robe closed. Although it was already afternoon, she had still been asleep when the smoke detectors had sounded. She had gone to bed late, and had slept in on purpose, telling herself she deserved it after a rather difficult day. The night before, she had watched from an upstairs window as a car had finally pulled up in front of the house. The driveway was long and circular, a deep horseshoe arc bending from the curb to the front door and back—so the street was a good hundred feet away, too far for her to see clearly, and even in May, at eight o’clock it was almost dark, besides. But she had recognized the small tan Volkswagen of her tenant, Mia, its headlights shining. The passenger door opened and a slender figure emerged, leaving the door ajar: Mia’s teenage daughter, Pearl.” – Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere

Immediately, you probably notice how different the tone feels between the two excerpts. While they are both describing a woman engaged in some solitary activity, the first excerpt—written in first person point of view—feels much closer and more intimate than the second.

While the second excerpt allows you to get a bigger picture of the moment, the first lets you into the deep thoughts and feelings of the main character.

You feel her frustration at being kept waiting, her opinions and perceptions about therapists, and her description of events and characters as they appear to her.

Overall, the second excerpt gives you an overall picture of the scene in your head, but the first gives you more insight on the attitude and perception of the main character.

 

Types of First Person Point of View

     1. From the main character’s perspective

The most common form of first person point of view is written from the perspective of the protagonist. This is when the main character recounts the story directly to a reader.

This point of view allows the reader to understand the story from the main character’s thoughts and feelings. This creates an intense emotional connection between the character and the reader, because they are influenced by this character’s perspective.

Remember: all narrator’s are biased to some extent. When telling a story using this perspective, your character will probably interpret things differently than they really are.

You can show this to readers through differentiating a character’s voice and actions. When you do this, you’re creating some level of an unreliable narrator, which means your reader cannot objectively believe everything that the narrating character is telling them.

Here’s an example from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

“And yet I still act sometimes like I was only about twelve. Everybody says that, especially my father. It’s partly true, too, but it isn’t all true. People always think something’s all true. I don’t give a damn, except that I get bored sometimes when people tell me to act my age. Sometimes I act a lot older than I am – I really do – but people never notice it. People never notice anything.”

     2. From the perspective of a peripheral narrator

If you want your reader to learn about your main character through someone else’s eyes, you can use a peripheral narrator.

Your peripheral narrator conveys the story to the reader, but the narrator himself is not the focus. It’s almost like third person, but your narrator is a character themselves rather than a completely objective observer, therefore they are telling the story from their point of view and the reader is limited to their subjective perception.

This type of first person is great when you want to leave some air of mystery surrounding your main character, but you still want a first-person account of events from a strong narrative voice.

Here’s an example from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

“Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.”

     3. Past tense

Once you decide which perspective you want to tell your story, you’ll decide whether you want to write it in present or past tense.

If you’re writing in past tense, it means you’ll be telling the reader about a story that already happened. This allows the narrator or main character to reflect on their past selves and foreshadow what’s to come.

Past tense is by far the most common tense in fiction and therefore the most comfortable for readers. It’s best to go with this one unless you have a strong reason for using present tense.

Here’s an example of first person, past tense from Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief:

“The dynamic train guard duo made their way back to the mother, the girl, and the small male corpse. I clearly remember that my breath was loud that day. I’m surprised the guards didn’t notice me as they walked by. The world was sagging now, under the weight of all that snow.”

     4. Present tense

Writing a story in present tense—as though the events are taking place as they’re being read—creates a sense of immediacy for the reader.

This tense is common for stories told through diary entries, video tapes, or another format that would normally be written in present tense.

Present tense is also common for stories that have more action than introspection. Because the narrator’s thoughts can’t be influenced by time and reflection, the story will have a more stream-of-consciousness effect.

Here’s an example from Andy Weir’s The Martian, which is told from a series of journal entries:

“I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now. For the record…I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, ‘Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.’”

 

Why Choose First Person?

     1. Emotional connection

By and large, the biggest advantage to writing in first person point of view is the emotional connection you can create between your main character and readers.

Because the reader gets an inside look into the character’s thoughts and feelings, they immediately feel immersed in the story and as though they are a part of it, rather than an outside observer.

This emotional connection allows you to tell a more character-driven story, that is to say, a story that is influenced more by a character’s experience than outside action.

     2. Unreliable narrators

As mentioned earlier, an unreliable narrator is one where the reader cannot objectively believe everything that the narrating character is telling them.

Because all people are biased, every story told in first person point of view is, to some extent, unreliable. The character’s narration is always skewing the reader’s interpretation of an event. But the level to which this plays into the story is up to you.

Unreliable narrators bring a new dynamic to a story, because although a reader feels very connected to this character, they are skeptical as to what they can and cannot believe.

     3. Unique or interesting perspective

If you choose to write a story in first person, your character needs to have a captivating voice and point of view.

This makes a story all the more interesting—because the reader gets to experience a story told by someone who is living a life very different from their own.

Whether your main character is an astronaut, someone living with a disease, a person with a severe mental illness, or someone living in a different era…all of these are unique perspectives that make a story all the more interesting for a reader.

 

Limitations of Writing in First Person Point of View

     1. Strong, consistent character voice

If you choose to write in first person point of view, you will take on the challenge of implementing a character’s voice throughout the story rather than your own author voice.

This requires careful consideration, because not only does this character’s voice need to be interesting, it has to remain consistent.

Your character’s age, profession, gender, class, era, ethnicity, and education all must come into play here.

While this is a great exercise in expanding your writing skills, it’s not an easy feat. You must know your character inside and out and be able to write in their words—not your own. 

     2. Limited worldview and perspectives

Unlike third person, first person point of view does not allow for mediation from the author.

The reader can only know what the narrating character sees, hears, and knows, so it’s much more difficult to insert commentary, descriptions, themes, and other aspects of a story.

You should also take care to limit your narrating characters. Too many perspective changes will only confuse the reader.

Not to mention, it makes the task of creating many unique voices much more difficult for you as the author.

If you find yourself needing more than a few perspectives to tell your story, consider using third person point of view. It will be much easier to switch between characters without the reader forgetting who is who.

     3. Harder to show rather than tell

If you’ve read any writing advice, you’ve probably heard the saying “show don’t tell.” This piece of advice stresses the importance of showing the reader what is happening rather than simply telling them, which makes for a much more interesting and engaging story.

Because writing in first person point of view is so narrative focused, it’s much easier to fall into telling rather than showing.

You’ll probably find yourself struggling to write sentences that don’t begin with “I.” So it will take some time and care to focus on varying your sentences.

For example, instead of saying “I was hungry,” you could say, “When I smelled the plate of food he placed in front of me, my stomach gurgled.”

First person point of view also makes it much more difficult to write descriptions that don’t feel forced.

You don’t want to write anything like the old cliché of having your main character look into a mirror and describe what they look like. It’s unrealistic and immediately pulls your reader out of the story.

Instead, utilize dialogue as much as you can. It will be your biggest ally in revealing descriptions and information that aren’t easily incorporated in a character’s narration.

For example, instead of saying “I looked in the mirror and saw my hair was now bluntly cut right below my jaw,” try something like, “He looked at me for less than a second before he said ‘Did you cut your hair?’”

 

Choosing Between Third and First Person Point of View

When it comes to third and first person point of view, one is not more popular or marketable than another. Readers equally love and enjoy both, so choose the one that fits the demands of your story.

If you’re still unsure, think through the following questions and see if the answer becomes more clear:

  1. Does your main character or narrator have a unique perspective or worldview?
  2. Is it important for your reader to feel an immediate emotional connection to your protagonist?
  3. Do your character’s views drive the story rather than external action? Are the character’s innermost thoughts essential to the story?
  4. Could your story benefit from an unreliable narrator?
  5. Can you tell your story without outside commentary or a mediating, objective perspective?

If you answered yes to most or all of those questions, you should probably write your book in first person point of view.

If you’re still unsure, check out this in-depth article on writing in third person point of view.

To learn more about points of view and many other topics that can help you write, edit, publish, and market your book, make sure to check out the Author Learning Center’s expansive library of exclusive articles, author interviews, and webinars.

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