First person narrative: 7 tips for writing great narrators

First person narrative: 7 tips for writing great narrators

First person narrative - how to write 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:

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.

38 Replies to “First person narrative: 7 tips for writing great narrators”

  1. I just have to say that the first-person narrative (and its sense of immediacy) probably works better in present tense. I write everything in present tense now. First-person is something else again. The biggest danger is blathering on and on like you’re writing a letter home to Mom. Being self-indulgent in first person is the biggest curse. If a lot of other stuff is going on, first person doesn’t work well. If your story is about someone in grave peril who’s running for one’s life, then first person should be great.

    1. Great comment, Adam. I agree with you re: self-indulgent first person being a pain (then again, it can have certain dramatic effects, e.g. Humbert Humbert’s narcissistic pomposity that comes across in Lolita precisely due to this in part). Thank you for sharing your perspective!

  2. These tips did help a decent amount, but I am still unsure about something. Since I’m not that strong at writing stories in present tense, I usually write them in past tense. With my story, the protagonist describes in past tense instead of present, sort of like the protagonist had already lived through it and is now telling the story again. Since I am still early on, would it be wise to go back and edit the first few chapters to present tense, or keep it the same?

    1. Hi LusciousBerri, thank you for your question. If it’s a first-person narrator using past tense, that should be fine (there’s no reason why they have to use present tense that I can discern from your question. Please feel free to ask anything else!

  3. I wrote a story about five hundred pages. I submitted it to a writers contest and was told it stunk and they couldn’t get past the first twenty pages. But this was good because they were right. I started out in the present, went to the past and back to the present. This confused the reader. So now it begins leaving out the first part in the present. However, my concern is I used first person based on my own experience and it worked but I would have chapters where I was not present. My fellow writers said this was some form of cheating because the first person would not know this. It just worked for me, but if there is something wrong with this I would like advice so I can re write it in a total narrative voice. What is your viewpoint. Thanks

    1. Hi James, Happy New Year! Thank you for sharing this.

      I can see why some readers may struggle with a narrative which centres the first person POV first and then abandons this viewpoint to share another POV, however only if the chapters you described (‘chapters where I was not present’) were supposed to still be about your main character’s experiences.

      As the reader pointed out, the first-person narrator preceding this section would not have a detailed understanding of events or scenes they were not present for, unless they had some sort of record (video/audio/another person’s account), omnisciet powers, etc.

      However, if you simply shifted to another first-person narrator’s POV (and made this shift clear), it shouldn’t be an issue.

      Many authors mix multiple first-person narrators effectively. To understand how effective multiple first-person narrators can be, I often recommend reading Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying which has more than 10 different narrators despite being novella-length (and it’s always clear who’s narrating).

      It’s very difficult to advise on this properly without reading the story in question, as viewpoint is easier to talk about with full reading of the narration being discussed, to see where and why it becomes confusing. I’d recommend a manuscript evaluation as this would provide actionable feedback (you can find out more about our editing services here).

      Otherwise, I’d recommend writing the entire story in your single first-person narrator’s POV for simplicity’s sake. However you proceed, make sure any shifts to or away from a narrator are indicated clearly so the reader isn’t left wondering who’s telling the story. I hope this helps!

  4. I have never written in first person narrative but am interested to give it a try. My question is how do you introduce events crucial to the plot if your character doesn’t witness them? For example, your protagonist leaves a shop and then the shop keeper makes a call about his visit. Thanks!

    1. Hi Mrs Clare, thank you for sharing that. It’s great you’re willing and curious to try new things.

      I would suggest either a POV switch to the shop keeper (with a clear scene break and signal in narration that the viewpoint has changed), or else to show the effects of said call (for example, if the shop keeper were to tip someone off about the visit, and your protagonist is alarmed when that person knows about their visit – i.e. exploit your first-person narrator’s ignorance of certain events and have them happen ‘out of frame’ or ‘offscreen’ to add mystery/suspense).

      In this scenario, you may want to weigh using first person against the greater ease of moving between viewpoints in third person limited. In this case, the narrator is already a little more removed from the action, so it would not be as jarring as a sudden switch from one POV in first person to another.

      I hope this helps!

  5. Thanks for this article. I’m starting my first novel and have decided to go with a very familiar form of first person, almost conversational, similar to a journal. I’m curious if this is a mistake? Secondly, are there any good tips for not becoming too self-indulgent when writing in this style? Just how much confidence can an audience take before it becomes arrogance? Thanks in advance.

    1. Hi Ari, a conversational first-person voice is lovely and accessible in most cases, so it’s unlikely it’s a mistake. If your narrator is supremely confident, I’d suggest perhaps giving them a struggle or flaw or two that are relatable. For example you could gradually reveal a tough situation which made them have to develop said confidence (so that the reader then understands the narrator’s confidence and its genesis). Ultimately empathy on the reader’s part grows out of understanding, out of seeing the cause and effect underneath behaviours. I hope this helps!

  6. Hi Jodan, thanks for the article

    I am writing something in first person perspective. same issues, how do I write something that I wasn’t not present. a third person’s feeling, accident. as such.

    thanks
    Hong

    1. Hi Hong, thank you for your question. It’s a little difficult to parse what you’re asking due to the double negative (wasn’t not) and the phrasing. If you’re asking how you present a third person’s experiences within first person there are a few options:

      • The third party in question could tell your 1st person narrator what happened in dialogue or your main narrator could share what they heard about the events via narration
      • Your 1st person narrator could guess/surmise what happened based on their limited knowledge of events
      • If it requires a detail description of the scene, you could have multiple first person narrators and have the situation described (an accident or other event through a new viewpoint, switching back to the first viewpoint when necessary

      I hope this answers your question! Feel free to mail us at help at now novel dot com should you have further questions.

  7. In First person present tense, is it correct to italicise a character’s thoughts, or to use I think after an italicised thought.

    1. Hi Michael, thank you for asking. I had to think about this. I would say you don’t need to use italics at all since a thought in first person present tense would be occurring in the same time as narration and in the same pronouns. Compare:

      He was running late for court. This isn’t going to help my appeal, he thought.

      Vs:

      I’m running late for court. This isn’t going to help my appeal …

      If you’re still having trouble, feel free to email us your example paragraph at help at now novel dot com for feedback. You can also get feedback from our member community in our critique groups.

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