Character writing Narration Writing advice

How to start a story in first person: 8 pointers

There is no single ‘right’ approach to how to start a story in first person. That being said, there are several ways to start a story using first person point of view and hook readers from the start. Here are 8 pointers for beginning a book in first person:

There is no single ‘right’ approach to how to start a story in first person. That being said, there are several ways to start a story using first person point of view and hook readers from the start. Here are 8 pointers for beginning a book in first person:

  1. Perfect your character introductions: Make the reader care
  2. How to start a story in first person: Begin with revealing actions
  3. Don’t tell the reader everything at once
  4. Make your protagonist’s voice identifiable from the start
  5. Make your protagonist’s voice active
  6. Make your main character confide in the reader
  7. Eliminate filter words and let the reader see through your protagonist’s eyes
  8. Introduce secondary characters via your first person narrator early on

To expand on these pointers:

1: Perfect your character introduction: Make the reader care

Many novels now considered classics open with character introductions in first person. This type of opening, where the protagonist extends a friendly hand to the reader, can be very effective. Consider the opening of Dickens’ David Copperfield:

‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.’

As far as introductions go, this is very matter-of-fact. Dickens doesn’t create a particularly strong emotional connection with the character right away. What Dickens does do, though, is create intrigue in the reader about David. We want to know whether he turns out to be the hero he refers to or not.

In subsequent paragraphs, Dickens adds details that make us care about his main character more:

‘I was a posthumous child. My father’s eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it. There is something strange to me, even now, in the reflection that he never saw me; and something stranger yet in the shadowy remembrance that I have of my first childish associations with his white grave-stone in the churchyard, and of the indefinable compassion I used to feel for it lying out alone there in the dark night, when our little parlour was warm and bright with fire and candle, and the doors of our house were—almost cruelly, it seemed to me sometimes—bolted and locked against it.’

Dickens makes us want to know the outcome of the story, then proceeds to make us empathize with his narrator through his story of loss.

Making the reader care doesn’t necessarily mean making the reader feel sorry for your character: Readers can just as easily dislike your cunning anti-hero or feel in two minds. The most important thing is to make readers care, whether about your character or the outcome of a situation they announce.

Besides making the reader care, there are other ways to make your first-person story opening enticing:

2: How to start a story in first person: Begin with revealing actions

Beginning with character actions is another useful device for drawing the reader in immediately. Instead of your character describing a memory or past experience, begin with your character doing something.

Think about the type of action your story opens with. To create immediate interest, try actions that:

  • Create suspense or foreboding (E.g. ‘I lift the body as carefully as I can – no inexplicable bruises – and move slowly towards the edge of the boat.’)
  • Create empathetic curiosity (E.g. ‘I hold it together until the last person passes through the airport terminal and break down only once i’m in the relative privacy of the car park.’)

Showing your main character in either a state of high emotion or in a process of perplexing activity teases the reader with a sense of there being much more to the story and promises the reader that more will be revealed.

3: Don’t tell the reader everything at once

Part of what makes the example openings above fairly effective is how little they give away about the first person narrator’s circumstances. For the first, the reader might ask ‘Whose body?’ or ‘Is the protagonist a killer disposing of the body or is the situation more complicated?’

This is an important element of how to start a story in first person: Leave some of the most interesting tidbits about your character for later. When we meet someone for the first time, it’s overwhelming if they tell us every minute detail about themselves. The same goes for your characters – a little mystery keeps us wanting to find out more.

How to start a first person story - infographic | Now Novel
Pin or save this image for a reminder of ways to make your first person opening strong.

4: Make your character’s voice identifiable from the start

Many writers make the mistake of making their first person narrators’ voices too similar to their own. Characters that feel like stand-ins for the author feel flat and one-dimensional. Instead, make your character distinctive from the outset. Do this with:

  • Personality: Is your character mostly optimistic or negative? Poetic in the language they use or plain-speaking?
  • Language: Does your character use lots of expletives or not? are they wordy or do they get to the point quickly?

Some other methods for making your first person narrator’s voice distinctive:

  • Choose 4 or 5 words that your character likes to use and make a note of them. They could be adjectives they use most often for things they like or dislike (e.g. ‘fantastic’ or ‘weird’), for example
  • As Jackie Cangro at Loft Literary reminds, it’s useful to think about tone. What is the tone of your character’s self-expression like overall? Do they come across as comical or serious, anxious or mellow? Sarcastic or sincere?

5: Make your protagonist’s voice active

Compare passive voice and active voice:

‘I was led to the hilltop house and told by my guide to wait while he disappeared around the side.’

Compare this to:

‘I followed my guide to the hilltop house. “Wait,” he said, disappearing around the side.’

In the second, active voice example, we have more of a sense of the first person narrator acting in his world as opposed to just being moved around in it. We have a stronger sense of the character as a real person who has choices and can make decisions of his own free will. We see the experience from his immediate perspective.

6: Have your first person character confide in the reader

One way to start a book in first person effectively is to make your narrator take the reader into her confidence. Secrets and intimate revelations create curiosity. As readers, being let into the narrator’s confidence makes us feel party to (and even complicit in) something important. Whether your narrator confides a misdeed in the reader or shares an intimate fact about their history (like David does in the opening pages of David Copperfield), this act makes the reader invest in the story by making the reader feel privy to privileged information.

7: Eliminate filter words and let the reader see through your protagonist’s eyes

Filter words are words that place the reader at one remove to seeing and experiencing what the character is seeing and experiencing. For example, a character might say ‘I saw that the building had started to collapse’. Instead, however, you could simply make your first person narrator say ‘the building had started to collapse’.

Ruthanne Reid has an excellent piece on filter words over at The Write Practice. Says Reid:

‘Filter words can be difficult to see at first, but once you catch them, it becomes second nature. “I heard the music start up, tinny and spooky and weird,” vs. “The music started up, tinny and spooky and weird.” One is outside, watching him listen; the other is inside his head, hearing it with him.

“I saw the dog, brown and shaggy.” You’re watching the character see the dog. “The dog was brown and shaggy.” Now you’re seeing what the character sees, and there is no space between you and the character.’

Reid does also make the important point that filter words aren’t always bad. Reid’s example of an acceptable use is the sentence ‘I see the shelves, and I see the counter, but I don’t see the scissors’. This is describing the act of seeing explicitly – you could write ‘The shelves are there and the counter but not the scissors’, but the former question conveys the character’s frustration at not finding what she’s looking for better. There is a keener sense of the character’s eyes roving over the counter.

Make sure that you aren’t unintentionally placing your reader at one remove to your first person character’s observations and experiences, right from the start of your novel.

8: Introduce secondary characters via your first person narrator early on

Just because you’re starting your story with your main character’s first person perspective doesn’t mean the focus has to be on them alone. Create intrigue by having your protagonist refer to a secondary character in your opening. Having your main character mention a cast member of your novel who is yet to appear will keep readers anticipating developments in your story and new entrances and exits.

Create a blueprint for your novel so you can find the voice of your first person narrator easier. Use the Now Novel process to start or finish writing a book.

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.

58 replies on “How to start a story in first person: 8 pointers”

This article has great advice for people like me who prefer to write in first person. I have a big problem with info-dumping when writing first person. I’m going to endeavor to keep back details so I don’t overwhelm readers.

Thanks so much, Jess. Info dumps can be tempting! You really have to trust in the reader’s intelligence, I’d say.

I’m a bit curious, I am attempting to start a suspense/drama novel with the first chapter Introducing the main character in a drunken, somber state, and I’m just unsure about even the first sentence. Your post has helped me think about moving more into the future of the book, but I’m stuck on the first few words.

I found out through re-reading that post that I didn’t actually ask you a question, so, What do you think would be a viable way to begin a novel with the guidelines above? The first person aspect is making it difficult for me, but I believe writing in the first person will be the best way to convey the message I plan to send.

Hi Delbert,

Thanks for reading and asking this. It’s difficult to say, not knowing more about the character in question. Is their disposition cynical and grumpy or cheerful and optimistic? What is the effect of liquor on their temperament, do they become frivolous and carefree or depressed and despondent? I think starting with a keen understanding of your character’s mental state at the opening will guide you towards first words. Other things to consider are what you want the opening scenario to be – why has your character gotten into this state, for example? Think about the cause and effect behind the action first.

Hope that helps!

This is extremely helpful! Thank you so much but I have a question. Do you recommend writing in the present tense or past, when writing in the first person?

Hi Maya – thank you! It really depends on your preference. The first person in the present tense is particularly effective for unfolding, suspenseful action. For example, compare ‘I heard a knock at the door. Silence. Then three more, more insistent’ to ‘I hear a knock at the door. Silence. Three more, insistent.’ The second really places the reader in the unfolding action. Both have their uses. If your story deals a lot with memory and past events, recollected, past tense would likely make more sense.

Hi! I am writing about a 600 year old martial artist type, set in a purely original fantasy world. She dies and is sent back in time and reverted to her younger self. This is my first attempt at a story and I’m really unsure how to proceed. I plan to publish it chapter by chapter which only adds to the complexity. How can I properly describe all the rules and such that govern the world, without bogging the reader down in exposition? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what I’m stuck with as it all just seems like an insurmountable wall at this point.

Hi there, somehow your query didn’t ping a notification. World building is often challenging. Make the rules emerge in tandem with the story and you’ll avoid said bogging.

If, for example, you want to describe the political system governing your world, have a scene where you show how this system impacts on the life of a central character. Some world building you can do with narration too, of course. It depends on your genre. Many epic fantasies have lengthy prologues that give exposition. I’d say read an author like Terry Pratchett whose prologue-based world-building is imaginative and colourful enough to not feel like an info dump, even though it essentially is straightforward telling and showing on the workings of Discworld. Good luck!

I started writing a first person story but I just can’t seem figure out a way to introduce the character’s name. Which ways would you recommend introducing the character’s name?

An easy way would be to introduce a secondary character and have them call the narrator by name in conversation. Maybe something quirky like:

Lunch was pretty much the only time I got to hang out with my best friend Heather at school ever since I joined the volleyball team. She slid into the seat next to me and bumped my shoulder with hers, grinning as she said, “hey, Savannah! What’d you bring today?”

And then have your character react.

Good suggestion, Sierra. You can do it this way icee. You could even pull a Melville and have your narrator introduce themselves directly (Melville opens Moby Dick ‘Call me Ishmael.’)

Sometimes it’s a good idea to take a step back at this stage and return to brainstorming and outlining, Toni. Coming up with ideas while looking at the bird’s eye view of your story is sometimes easier than writing it from inside a detailed location or character scenario. Creating timelines for characters and their arcs is also a useful exercise.

Would it have a better impact to say something like “He grabs my wrist and insists that i stay.” or “‘Please don’t go’ he pleads as he grabs my wrist.”? In other words is it better to directly quote the character or to just imply what they say like its an action. (i hope this makes sense)

The second one makes better sense, as it says in the instructions, you want the reader to see everything thru their eyes.

Great question, Lindsay. Giving the character’s voice and actual words in the second example is more precise, and there’s an interesting tension between the politeness of the words (his ‘please’) and the forthrightness, even aggression, of grabbing the other character’s wrist. I second Raina!

im very young and in middle school and im trying to write a story about a girl who hears voices and even after this i am haveing trouble starting the story everthing i put does not seem right any sugestings i really need help. i used to have a friend who was better at me at this and helped me but we no loger talk becuase i have moved

Hi Layla. Thanks for sharing this challenge! You could start a number of ways:
1. With the words of one of the voices your character hears, particularly if they’re intriguing, ominous or otherwise surprising!
2. With a description of your main character doing something that suggests she hears voices (e.g. Perhaps she has a music player she turns up louder and louder, suggesting she’s trying to drown out the sound of the voices she hears).

These are just two examples – think about actions or scenes that could introduce the challenge she’s facing. You can do it 🙂

I am currently attempting to write a first person book based on my personal experiences of receiving a prenatal diagnosis and life after bringing home my baby with medical complexities and special needs. I am having struggles with knowing at what point I should begin – the diagnosis, birth, climax, or current time. I am also having struggles with including my name and/or short personal bio without losing the readers interest. Can you give me a few tips? I have blogged my journey but this is much more complicated to write.

Hi Swood, I hope your first person account of your postnatal experiences is already well underway.

Diagnosis would make a good dramatic starting point. You could also start with unfolding events and then circle back to the day, but starting with diagnosis I would say creates uncertainty and tension from the outset, roping your reader in.

Regarding including a personal bio, this is the sort of thing you can include in the book’s front matter rather than having to include it in the story itself. Other than that you could include autobiographical details wherever relevant to the unfolding narrative. If you need scene-specific feedback, I’d suggest sharing an extract in the free critique forum on Now Novel (this requires sign-up, however).

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