First Person Point of View: Character-Driven Narration
First person point of view is when a story is told from a character’s own perspective using the pronoun ‘I,’ or more unusually, from a collective perspective using the plural pronoun “we.” The narrator interprets events in their own voice, giving the reader direct access to their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. This POV is common in fiction as it involves the reader directly in the story and allows authors to accomplish powerful characterization.
An example of first person POV could look something like this: “I feared what might greet me as I entered the kitchen.”
First person has remained a popular POV since the novel was invented, and it’s something all authors should try to master. That’s why we’ve created this guide to reveal the power of first person point of view.
First person creates an immersive experience
One of the main benefits of first person POV is that it creates intimacy. For Tracy Gold, Reedsy editor and Adjunct Professor of Composition at the University of Baltimore, writing in first person brings the reader closer to the narrator:
“With first person, the writer or reader becomes the character as they get deeper into the story, and that's the kind of immersive experience that makes me love a book.”
First person narration can create a sense of trust with the reader, pulling them into the story by evoking empathy. It feels like the story is being told to you by a confidant, which makes you care more about the protagonist and their struggles.
A great example of the immersiveness of first person POV can be found in Dickens’ classic Great Expectations, famously about a young boy born into poverty. Since Dickens was writing for a primarily middle class audience, using the first person viewpoint was his way of getting the readers to relate more to his protagonist.
I give Pirrip as my father’s name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister, – Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones.
— Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
This passage, told in Pip’s voice, immediately puts the reader into his shoes. They must process the casual tragedy of Pip’s short life through his eyes and feel the same loss he does. The readers of Dickens’s time would now more likely empathize with the main character even though they likely haven’t met a blacksmith before, let alone been a close relation to one.
The intimacy of first person is why it’s such a popular viewpoint and some of that feeling is fostered by the story being told in the POV character’s unique voice.
Character voices are at the forefront
The plot of a novel may fade from our memories over time, but we’ll always remember the characters and how they made us feel. This is even more true of first person perspective, where the protagonist tells us their story in their own words. Every line is filtered through their motivations, vices, and worldviews while in other POVs the only opportunity you get for this kind of filtering is through dialogue. The main character can come to life on the page as we are in their head through every moment of the journey.
A particularly illuminating example of how first person POV can establish character voice is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn — a novel in which a young boy recounts his adventures on the Mississippi River, together with a runaway slave.
Tom’s most well now, and got his bullet around his neck as a watch-guard for a watch, and is always seeing what time it is, and so there ain’t nothing more to write about, and I’m rotten glad of it, because if I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it, and ain’t a going to no more. But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I’ve been there before.
— The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
From this excerpt, we can clearly hear the childlike spirit that is characteristic of Huck. His voice also echoes the time and place the story takes place in, giving us further insight into the kind of world he inhabits. This is ultimately what makes him such a memorable character and the driving force behind this beloved novel.
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Though a character’s unique voice isn’t always so benign. Sometimes, when a story is filtered entirely through one person, we might not get an unbiased version of events.
Unreliable narrators create intrigue
First person narratives often excel at establishing intrigue by posing questions about the true nature of the narrator — are they representing an objective truth or are they pulling the wool over our overly trusting eyes?
As mentioned before, first person narrators are limited by their own personal understanding, biases, and motivations. They can easily become unreliable narrators, turning the concept of honesty and trust on its head. An unreliable narrator will make you wonder if they’re telling you the full story or leaving out details that completely alter what we’re seeing. This can be extra exciting if you only find out they’re unreliable partway through.
For example, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s subtly dystopian novel, Never Let Me Go, we follow a group of students at Hailsham, a fictional English boarding school. Ishiguro uses the first person point of view to play with the concept of reliable and unreliable narration through an exploration of memory.
My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year. That’ll make it almost exactly twelve years. Now I know my being a carer so long isn’t necessarily because they think I’m fantastic at what I do.
— Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
In this passage, Kathy reveals that she’s become privy to new knowledge that has changed her perception of the past. But she’s not telling us what that knowledge entails. By slowly letting more doubt creep into the story, Ishiguro explores the fickle nature of memory, creating a creeping sense that there’s more to Hailsham than meets the eye. Readers will start to question not only the picture that Kathy paints, but their own ability to separate truth from reality.
An unreliable narrator not only creates an intriguing reading experience that challenges the reader to put the puzzle together themselves, but also highlights a first person narrator’s inherent subjectivity, though there are ways to bypass that even with first person narration.
Non-protagonist narrators can offer a different perspective
While unreliable narrators can lead to some juicy plot twists, in some cases a story can be made clearer from an outside perspective, which is where first person omniscient and outsider narrators come in.
First person omniscient is when a first-person narrator is privy to the thoughts, actions, and motivations of other characters. Much like a journalist, they’re simply our eyes on the ground and can recount the events of the story with the benefit of hindsight. While they might not know exactly what the protagonist was thinking at the time, they have access to information that an observer wouldn’t.
Most outsider narrators use the regular first person POV. Since they’re not personally part of the main conflict, they may be free from some of the biases first person narrators are subject to. We’re still getting the intimate character experience while getting an outside view of important characters and events. Some would call that the best of both worlds.
A classic example of the outsider narrator is To Kill a Mockingbird, which takes place in the American South in the 1930s and recounts the trial of a Black man accused of raping a white woman. The story is narrated by a woman called Scout, looking back on the experiences of her 6-year-old self during the time of the trial.
I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson. If General Jackson hadn’t run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn’t? We were far too old to settle an argument with a fist-fight, so we consulted Atticus. Our father said we were both right.
— To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Young Scout is central to the novel: any impressions the readers have are filtered through her eyes. However, the real drama unfolds in the courtroom and the world of the adults — a world she will only understand when she herself is grown up. Here we see how much Scout respects and values the opinion of her father, Atticus, which hints at how he will serve as the story’s moral compass, even when others in the town turn against him.
First person offers a straightforward way to introduce important characters and information, but this ease can be a double-edged sword.
Exposition in first person is tough to get right
When a character is directly relating a story, it becomes far too easy to fall into the trap of “telling” rather than “showing,” especially when it comes to exposition. This poses a challenge to the writer who chooses the first person POV, the classic example being how to introduce your narrator.
Sure, the POV character could just say what color their eyes are and some key personality traits they believe they have, but that will come across as unrealistic and shoehorned into the rest of the narrative. There are a few different ways to seamlessly include exposition in your story and avoid the dreaded infodump.
Using dialogue to drip feed the reader important information is common — as is using the narrator's voice to get across personality. Self-description can also be sprinkled throughout instead of being listed in a paragraph.
James Baldwin’s short story, “Sonny’s Blues”, provides us with a great example of how descriptions of other characters can also reveal a lot about the narrator. It follows the reunion between the unnamed narrator and his estranged brother, Sonny, as they try to rekindle their relationship after Sonny’s addiction lands him in prison.
When he was about as old as the boys in my classes his face had been bright and open, there was a lot of copper in it; and he’d had wonderfully direct brown eyes, and a great gentleness and privacy. I wondered what he looked like now. He had been picked up, the evening before, in a raid on an apartment downtown, for peddling and using heroin.
— "Sonny's Blues', James Baldwin
In this passage, we sense the affection our narrator feels for Sonny. The way he describes him as a younger man is full of love. However, the fact that he doesn’t know what he currently looks like reveals the conflict between them, though he never outright states that they haven’t spoken in years.
There you have it — the power of first person point of view. If you’re looking for something completely different, check out our next post about the controversial (but always intriguing) second person viewpoint!