Writing In First-Person: Effective Tips, Tricks And Benefits

First-person point of view, or first-person narrator, is a style of writing that creates a personal connection between the reader and the character. Writing in first-person narrative puts the reader right there in the action, told by a character who is experiencing it in the story. Although third person is classically the most popular point of view to write fiction in, first-person perspective is gaining traction, and you see it more and more often in bestselling works.

First Person Meaning

First-person narration offers the reader an intimate seat for the telling of a story. A first-person narrator tells the story directly to the reader, and it has an effect that a third-person point of view simply can’t offer. The first-person perspective gives the reader a glimpse into the character’s head so that we can understand the thoughts, internal monologue, feelings, and opinions of the character. First-person narrators in stories often pull the reader in faster and make that connection to the reader on a deeper level.

The Difference Between Writing in First-Person Perspective and Third-Person

Think of it like this: first-person POV is like being told a story by a friend. Third-person POV is like watching a movie. You care about what happens in either instance, but you’re more invested in listening to a friend’s telling of a personal experience than you are in finding out whether Keanu Reeves is going to save the day. If he does, great. If he doesn’t, you didn’t have an emotional connection to the character the way you did to the person sharing a story with you.

In first-person POV, you experience the story through the main character’s eyes. First-person writing means that a particular character in the story takes us along with him/her, and we see what the character sees, hear what the character thinks and feels, and are entirely immersed in the character and their own story.

On the other hand, third-person narration tells us what happened to the characters, but not usually in a personal and immersive way. It’s a retelling of events that occurred, told by someone who was not there themselves or by someone not connected to the story. So we don’t get the feelings, thoughts, fears, and hopes of any certain character.

Instead, we get mostly facts. While it makes for informative reading and can still be immersive, it’s far less personal. It also takes the reader much longer to connect to the characters when the story is told in third person point of view.

Why Is Point of View Important?

The point of view is important as a writer because it allows you to decide how to reader comprehends and absorbs the story. Point of view is often used to relay thoughts, experiences, emotions and motive. For instance, in the first-person point of view, the reader have more access to the inner thoughts of the narrator when compared to the third-person narrative.

Using the wrong point of view can potentially ruin a story, as it might deliver raw turning points, mediocre backstories, or unbelievable plot twists. Be deliberate about considering which point of view is most appropriate for your story because each complements a different style, genre, or tone.

How to Start a First-Person Story

A first-person story does not need to conform to any rigid writing process. Just like chefs can always decide to tweak the ingredients within their recipe, writers can always write and revise based on their discoveries, realizations, or preferences. However, it is often easier to utilize proven strategies and simply add a personal touch to them. Here are the best ways to start a first-person story:

  • Make the narrator’s voice distinct from the rest of the characters. It helps the readers recognize who is experiencing the story, whose point of view the narration is coming from, and how reliable this point of view is. Writers use active voice in writing first-person stories to make the reader feel the action or movement as the events unfold.
  • Ensure that other characters are also introduced at the beginning of the story so that the audience will understand the plot as it unravels. 
  • You can also use the style wherein a narrator introduces a controversy or shares a secret at the start. It creates a thrill for the reader as they begin questioning the narrator’s logic or hypothesizing what will occur next.
  • Another style is to present the narrator in the middle of something. Such as, the narrator witnessing an accident at the start of the story.

An Unreliable Narrator

Often in the past tense, the first-person point of view is a story told by one character. In a first-person story, the reader is not only recounting the events that took place and how the situation was resolved, but they are also sharing their own opinions with the reader. When opinion is a part of the narrative, then you have an unreliable narrator, but many times, a passionate narrator.

Although the reader is getting the story straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, and the narrator is often the most important character, be mindful as a writer that you have to stay on the narrator’s level of education and experience in life. Therefore, there is plenty that the narrator can be wrong about.

For example, your character may be a young man and experiencing complicated relationships with several characters. Due to the lack of maturity and life experiences that someone very young may have, their interpretation of events may be wrong or drastically different than other people’s would be. This makes the narrator unreliable.

On the same token, you may have a narrator who, while very interesting, has only an eighth-grade education, therefore, has a lot of trouble with things like logic, problem-solving, and other skills that you are taught in high school. Think of ways that your character may be fallible before you start writing.

Writing In First-person

Unlike second-person point of view, a first-person narrative isn’t directed exclusively at the reader or the audience. It’s more like a diary entry. The character/narrator reveals her feelings, thoughts, and opinions as though there is no one there to witness or judge it. Therefore, the narrator can be wrong.

They can decide to hate another character because they assume they have done something, and in sharing those feelings, the reader also dislikes that other character. Later in the story, however, the reader may find out that the narrator had it all wrong and that the person they disliked was simply misunderstood.

Fiction writers often mislead the reader with the first-person point of view so that they can shock or surprise the reader. This helps to throw the reader off track of the plot so that a story isn’t too predictable. Just like no person is perfect, no first-person narrator is perfect, either.

Plural First-Person and First-Person Singular

When you read a story told in the first-person point of view, you may notice that sometimes it’s not just one person who is being represented as the narrator. Sometimes the narrator is a part of a group. Other characters may join in at points or take over and become narrators. Often separated by parts of a story, the character’s thoughts about the plot can finish up at some point, only to switch to the antagonist or a secondary character stepping into the role of narrator to give the reader their own version of what occurred.

Plural First-Person Words

When the narrator is part of a group, it’s common to see words such as us, we, and our. This sort of narration may include the thoughts and feelings of other characters, as relayed by the actual narrator, due to the fact that they were in a group together, and the character who is narrating is acting in a spokesperson capacity for other members of the group.

One of the best modern examples of this is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. This novel is told by a group of boys who all lived near each other. A string of five suicides occur in their neighborhood, and the boys collectively share the role of narrator in telling the audience their own experience through each set of eyes. Each of the boys shares an intimate view, and this form of writing in first-person can be tricky.

Singular First-Person Words

Singular first-person is the most simple form of first-person writing. Words such as: I, me, and mine are used to speak about the narrator exclusively. This usually makes for a more personal story because the narrator relates only their feelings, thoughts, and opinions, so the reader is compelled to care more about just one character’s voice than having to juggle that of several.

One excellent example of this is the short story, The Body. In this story, a group of boys set out on a trek to see a dead body. Driven by morbid curiosity, the group of boys learns a lot about each other and themselves in this story, but it is told through the eyes of just one of the boys. Commonly employed when a group of characters shares the role of the protagonist, one person is chosen to be the narrator so that who makes it, and the futures of the other characters remains a mystery to the reader.

Tips for Writing in First-Person

Now that we’ve explained what first-person narration is, we can move on to the practice of writing in first-person. Writing a story through an observer’s point of view is often much simpler, which is why so many novels and short stories are written in third-person narration. However, sometimes the best route to go is to make the story personal and really connect to the reader right from the beginning in first-person point of view.

The following are tips that you can use as guidelines to help you improve your writing in first-person.

1. Stay in the Character’s Voice

When you use words like “I” and “mine” in your short story or novel, it’s easy to stop telling the story in the narrator’s voice and start telling the story from your own. The desired effect is to stay in character throughout the story, so you have to be careful when you write first person.

It’s a lot like role play. The stronger the character is, the more background information you give the reader about the character, and the more memorable and unique the character is, the easier it will be to stay true to the narrator’s voice rather than your own as the author.

For example, if you are writing a first-person story, and the main character, your narrator, is from New York, but you, as the author, was born and raised in Mississippi, you need to be sure to give the character a strong enough persona so that you don’t have a “Yankee” character saying things like, “Bless your heart” and “Y’all,” like they do in the South. Be sure to keep to the speech patterns and behavior of the character telling the story, and don’t drift back to your own speech patterns or experiences.

Writing In First-person

2. First-Person Peripheral Vs. First-Person Character

Decide which of the different characters in your story should be your narrator. Usually, in first-person narratives, the story is told from the protagonist’s point of view. This is because the protagonist is the character the reader is supposed to connect with or root for when the conflict occurs. It’s easier to tell the story through this character’s eyes to build that connection early on.

First-person peripheral, however, is when the narrator is telling you what happened to the main character or protagonist through their own eyes. Think of it as a sort of eyewitness account. The storyteller is someone who saw the story unfold and is now repeating it. This can be a more complicated sort of story to write.

Notable examples of this are: Ishmael in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In both of these books, the narrator is not the main character and isn’t really a significantly interesting character. They just happened to be there, so they are telling the story.

3. Avoid Filter Words

This term refers to the use of phrases such as, “And then I reached down and picked up my car keys, opened the front door, walked to my car, got in, started the vehicle, and backed out of the driveway, on my way to work.”

In the above example, the narrator tells the reader what they did, step by step, and it reads more like a manual than it does a piece of literary fiction. It works much better to say, “I went to work.” When we make the mistake as writers to describe every action of the narrator, simply because the action is being performed, the story’s flow is affected, and the reader may lose interest quickly.

The reader can assume that to go to work, the narrator had to grab his keys, go to the car, get in it, and leave his house. The reader doesn’t need to be told the steps involved in each action to understand the action. Avoid words that describe things so vividly.

4. Don’t Forget Supporting Characters

First-person narration can make it easy to simply tell the story of one person and only casually mention other people in the story. It is important to include supporting characters so that the story is more full and entertaining, and engaging for the reader. Add dialogue and relationships to the story, and create a circle of characters for your narrator to interact with. Otherwise, the work will appear as though we’re reading a diary rather than a story.

This is important today more than ever, as first-person narration is gaining popularity in genre fiction. Readers will quickly move on to a story of someone else’s that reads more like a story and features more characters if you have just one character who is going through the story.

You can give your narrator a strong voice, and you can focus on that one main character’s experience, but don’t focus so much that this one person makes the other characters seem flat or uninvolved. Telling a story seen from the narrator’s eyes doesn’t mean leaving out all the other characters.

First-Person Story Example

To give you a vivid experience of what it feels like to read a first-person story, here is an example:

I sat by myself at the old oak tree and wondered if this was it. Had everything I’d ever worked towards all come to nothing? What had my life become? I knew that after chatting to Dianne today that there would be no going back. I guess I had it good for a while there. I didn’t think that they would catch on that quickly though. I mean technically had I really done anything wrong? I didn’t mean for Nick to get hurt during the process… oh man what was going to happen to me now?

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