Narration Point of view

First person narrative: 7 tips for writing great narrators

Telling a story using mainly first person narrative has both pros and cons. Here are 7 steps to creating a great ‘I’ narrator, but first:

Telling a story using mainly first person narrative has both pros and cons. Here are 7 steps to creating a great ‘I’ narrator, but first:

The pros and cons of writing a novel in first person

The benefit of telling a story in first person is that readers discover the voice and psychology of a character as expressed directly by the character. This gives immediacy, the sense of ‘being there’. The pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ in the third person make the reader more conscious of the narrating voice. It stands a little more apart from the characters whose stories are told.

On the minus side, first person narration can restrict your readers’ access to the inner worlds of your other characters. The story is narrated from a single person’s perspective, with all the limitations that fixed perspective involves. There are ways to get around this however (you can use multiple first person narrators to tell your story, for example). If your narrating ‘I’ character is an anti-hero, keep in mind that some readers may also balk at being asked to see through the eyes of an unpleasant or unethical person. This is why it’s often wise to give anti-hero’s some likeable qualities (just as it is wise to give likeable protagonists flaws).

Regardless of the strengths and drawbacks of first person narrators, it’s crucial to write compelling, effective ones. Here are 7 ways to do this:

1. Evoke the senses, not only the narrator’s inner world

Writing a novel or story in the first person makes it tempting to let your narrator dwell on their thoughts and feelings extensively. Often characters can feel lacking if all the focus is on their mental and emotional processes, though. Have your character describe not only thoughts but also sights, sounds, smells and tastes where appropriate. When you use a first person narrator, ask:

  • What senses are strongest in this particular character and what does that say about them?
  • How can I give the reader a greater sense of an embodied narrator and not just a disembodied, storytelling ‘I’?

Remember to ground your narrator’s observations in the material world. Because this will add colour and depth to your story.

Focusing on all aspects of your narrating ‘I’ character’s experience, physical and otherwise, is one way to write a great narrator. It is also important to let readers see through your narrator’s eyes actively:

2. Avoid overusing words that place distance between the narrator and your reader

a house for a story setting

Because the narrator uses the first person ‘I’ (and sometimes the plural ‘we’) to tell the bulk of the story in first person narration, you may be tempted to begin sentences with ‘I’ a lot. Take this sentence for example:

‘I saw that the door was closed and I heard a faint scratching noise coming from within the house. I thought it sounded like someone trying to dig a tunnel out.’

The words ‘I saw’, ‘I heard’ and ‘I thought’ all place the reader at one remove to the unfolding events. The reader isn’t seeing, hearing or thinking these things through the narrator. The reader is being told about the narrator’s experiences. The scene could be more vivid if the narrator didn’t ‘report’ her or his experience. The snippet could be rewritten as follows:

‘The door was closed and a faint scratching noise came from within the house. It sounded like someone trying to dig a tunnel out, I thought.’

The reader is placed at the scene, seeing the door and hearing the scratching. The intrusive ‘I’ can come later in the sentence or only in a subsequent paragraph. Ruthanne Reid, writing for The Write Practice, discusses these ‘filter words’ that can place distance between readers and the experiences of the first person narrator. It should be said that in some cases you might want this distance for creative reasons. You might want the reader to not see the scene so vividly in their mind’s eye. Yet become conscious, at least, of how you use filter words (such as ‘I saw that x was so’) and remember to be sparing with them, particularly if you want readers to experience a scene through your narrator’s eyes.

One way to make your narrator great and to let the reader see what they see:

3. Avoid merely reporting in first person narrative

A first person narrator gets to share her lived experience and take the reader along with her through every surprise, challenge or victory. Describing things that happen to your narrator in passive voice is a common mistake. You may want to emphasize your character’s passive response to a specific situation, so there are exceptions. However, compare:

‘As I was trying the door to the house, a sudden voice behind me told me it was locked.’

As a reader, you’re not placed in the scene, trying the handle and hearing the voice.

A stronger alternative:

‘The handle turned but the door would not budge.
‘It’s locked.’
I spun round, surprised by this sudden voice.’

This is stronger because speaking voices appearing in the text give readers a sense of immediacy, of the present moment in which the action unfolds.

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The Editor’s Blog describes the difference between the first kind of first person narration and the second as the difference between ‘exposition’ (setting the story up and telling the reader the sequence of events) and ‘scene’ (the actual unfolding action as experienced by characters).

Now that we have some clarity about the things to avoid when writing first person narrative, here are four ways to ensure you use first person narrative well:

4. Use either expository or scene narration for the right reasons

The truth is that sometimes you will need to put the reader in a scene with your ‘I’ narrator, and at other times you will need your narrator to simply retell events as a report back. Use the impersonal, ‘I did this and then that happened’ narration for:

  • Narrating transitions between scenes (e.g. ‘After I found the mysterious house I was a little spooked. I returned home and…’)
  • Catching the reader up on important backstory that doesn’t require its own scenes (e.g. ‘I was born on a smallholding just south of the border. We moved around a lot ’til I was 14.’)

Remember that your narrator should express herself with all the variety of language that real people use:

5. Vary the way your narrator expresses feelings, thoughts and experiences

This might seem obvious, but many beginning writers in particular make this mistake. If your character is a sensitive or emotional type, they might describe feelings often throughout your story. But avoid repetitive descriptions:

‘I felt perturbed by the scratching sound that came from within the house. I felt more anxious still when I tried the door and it was locked’.

Instead of repeating ‘I felt’, vary descriptions with words such as ‘my’, articles (‘a’ or ‘the’) and other alternatives. The previous example could be rewritten as:

‘My sense of foreboding grew as I noticed a scratching sound coming from within the house. Fear surged when I tried the door and found it locked.’

Maintaining variety in your first person narrator’s self-expression is important because it increases the sense that the character is real. It also helps to prevent repetitive word choice from distracting the reader and rather lets the reader stay immersed in your unfolding story.

To write a great first person narrator, also make sure that the narrator’s voice is consistent with what the reader knows or learns about the narrator:

6. Make the narrating voice consistent with the narrator’s backstory

first person narrative - where is the narrator from

One common trap with writing first person stories is that the narrator sounds a lot like the voice of the author, pegged onto a series of events. To give your narrator real personality, make sure that their voice is consistent with what you tell the reader about their backstory and ongoing development.

Pay attention to:

  • Background: Where is your character from? Think about things like accent, regional slang or idioms that they would likely use
  • Class: What is your narrator’s level of education and economic privilege? How might this impact on elements such as vocabulary and whether they use formal vs. informal speech predominantly?
  • Personality: Is your narrating ‘I’ a character who is brash and coarse? Or elegant and refined?

Make sure that your ‘I’ narrator uses language in way that is fitting with her background, class and personality. If you’re writing about a poor 14-year-old girl who runs away from home, these details of her life story should feel compatible with the words she uses to tell her story.

To really hone your skill at writing first person narration:

7. Learn from how the greats use first person narrative:

As with any aspect of craft you want to develop, it’s always a good idea to take notes from the writing of your favourite authors. Many novels widely taught as classics use the intimacy of first person narration. From Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (‘Call me Ishmael’, says the narrator at the start) to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, examples of the above suggestions can be found.

Harper Lee’s first person narrator doesn’t open Mockingbird with ‘I thought’, ‘I felt’ or ‘I saw’. The novel begins:

‘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 again were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.’

Some thoughts on this opening and why it is an example of effective first person narration:

  • The opening fits the character of the narrator, Scout (her compassion towards and focus on others emerges as well as the importance of family in her life)
  • The narrator asserts a strong voice but does so without over-relying on ‘I’
  • The narrator’s process of remembering is set up from the start, continuing throughout the novel as she recalls social inclusions and exclusions in her hometown

Similarly, when reading a new novel written in first person make notes on how the narrator expresses herself and why this is (or isn’t) fitting for her characterization and story. Conscious observation will continuously improve your own narration skills.

Come read how Now Novel’s members use first person narrative and share your own writing for constructive feedback from others.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

57 replies on “First person narrative: 7 tips for writing great narrators”

That’s great that you’re pursuing writing already, Rachel. Good luck with fulfilling your ambitions 🙂

‘The door was closed and a faint scratching noise came from within the house. It sounded like someone trying to dig a tunnel out, I thought.’

This would be better as:

‘The door was closed and a faint scratching noise came from within the house, like someone trying to dig a tunnel out.’


Hi Tom, this would be splitting hairs but you could argue that. Or, ‘The door was closed and a faint scratching noise came from within the house, as though someone was trying to dig a tunnel out.’ Technically ‘it sounded like someone’ is good because one is comparing a noun to a noun or noun phrase, which is when one would ordinarily use ‘like’. ‘As though’ is preferred when the comparison is followed by a clause, e.g. ‘It rained all day, as though the ark was being hauled out of storage.’ Hope this helps!

[…] “The benefit of telling a story in first person is that readers discover the voice and psychology of a character as expressed directly by the character. This gives immediacy, the sense of ‘being there’. … On the minus side, first person narration can restrict your readers’ access to the inner worlds of your other characters.” Now Novel […]

[…] “The benefit of telling a story in first person is that readers discover the voice and psychology of a character as expressed directly by the character. This gives immediacy, the sense of ‘being there’. … On the minus side, first person narration can restrict your readers’ access to the inner worlds of your other characters.” Now Novel […]

Okay i must admit this was good ( if not great ) and really helpfull. I’m 13 years old and i wan’t to write a novel. But i’m just afraid! maybe when i try to self publish my novel ‘to many rhymes,’ they may say i’m too young. Or should i just continue with the idea writing the first draft?

Hi Liam, thank you for your feedback. What would make it great? I’m curious what you’d have liked it to include as these articles can always be improved. It’s great that you want to write a novel at 13 already. Carry on with your idea and don’t worry what people say about your age. Many first novels aren’t published, it’s true, but the process itself is excellent practice – each project a stepping stone to greater knowledge and understanding of how to tell a story. Go for it.

“Thankyou for the encouraging me.”

but i was wondering, can i start my novel with the first person point of view, and switch it into the third person point of view once i reach the first chapter?

That is my biggest problem right now. Do you maybe have something that can show me how i can switch from point of view to point of view?

Hi Liam, to be honest that could be quite confusing for the reader if it’s the same viewpoint narrator. What is the reason you want to have that switch? Generally it’s best to switch person type over a scene break or chapter break, provided that there’s a reason to mix persons. It’s much more common in a multi-viewpoint work for each viewpoint character to be in the same person (multiple first-person or multiple third-person narrators). Provided it’s clear who’s narrating at any given point, you could be more experimental. But it’s important to know the rules before you break them.

I didn’t create a clear sentence up there but to move on. The novel i’m working on ‘too many rhymes’ is a big deal to me ’cause it’s my first. Do you think this is a great opening scene to go with?
It was raining in the middle of the night. A horrific scene was set before me back when i was six years old. i was crying, standing by the stairs staring at them. She was in pain, she was helplessly lying on the floor, blood coming out of her mouth as well as her stomatch, she was crying.
“what do you want from me,” she cried out.
His wore a black mask that covered his face, a long black coat and a pair of black boots.He was standing in front of her, smacking, a sword clutched in his right hand.
“oh you know what i want darling. Infact you are what i wan’t,” he answerd her. He then turned his head at me. My heart hamered.
“Oh you have a son?” he asked, smiling at me. He then stalked towards me and gazed at my mom. I couldn’t run i was completely frozen. He pointed his sword at me.
“d… Don’t hurt my son,” she stumered, begging the man. The man stretched his sword up in the sky… I killed him! I told my best friend the story, she wants to know how i did it, how i killed him. Well i can’t tell her. It would be safe if it stays a mystrey. me and my mother are the only ones who know how i did it. Or maybe how it happened.

Hi Liam, no problem. This has some good elements, such as mystery and a good sense of tone and mood. I’d start with a few questions:
– The man says ‘you are what I want’ but he’s also described as ‘smacking’ the woman. Maybe his statement of what he wants could reflect this violence. What is his motivation, why is he hurting the woman?
– Does the scene need to be this visceral and violent (e.g. ‘blood coming out of her mouth as well as her stomach’)? If you start at 100 in intensity, it doesn’t give much higher of a peak to reach. If the mother figure wasn’t already injured, or the man’s wishes/desires were more mysterious, would this maybe make the story opening more teasing/intrigue-building?

I like the revelation that the narrator killed the man (and that he doesn’t reveal exactly how he did it) – this creates mystery. At the same time, I think you could end this segment before that revelation and possibly reveal it later, so that some of the dramatic content is deferred until the reader has gotten to know your characters more.

There are some minor spag issues (such as ‘stumered’ for ‘stammered’). I’d recommend joining our critique groups where you can get further feedback to develop what you have so far. Hope this was helpful!

Helpful! I think you’re good at the novel writing business! I understand what you said. And I’m not going to start with 100 % of intensity, and I think it would be better if the woman wasn’t injured. Thank you for your feedback. And do you think the narrator killing the man can create a story? Or do I have to find another element that could support the story?

I’m glad I could help, Liam. I think that is an intriguing plot point, definitely. Yet also brainstorm (or discover in drafting) the consequences of that act as therein lies the story, too. Where does it go from there?

Hi Jackson, if you join our free writing community you can get constructive feedback on story segments from other members (and weekly editorial feedback is included with our The Process membership). Why not join up and get trading crits? If you have any first-person POV questions I’d be happy to try and answer them 🙂

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