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
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.
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.
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
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.