First Person Point of View: A Writer's Guide
Just about everyone instinctively knows how to write in the first person point of view. Thinking back to your earliest moments of putting pencil (or crayon) to paper, you will almost certainly find perfect examples of this viewpoint — even if it was only to draft a short elementary school essay on “how many people are in your family.”
As a way of writing that seemingly never goes out of fashion, first-person POV is something that all authors should strive to master. Even if you don’t intend to use it in your next story, you should know the definition of first person point of view, and aim to have this tool in your bag for when the right moment arrives. With the help of editors from Reedsy, we’ve put together this guide to writing in the first person point of view.
What is the first person point of view?
First person point of view is a point of view where the writer (or fictional narrator) relates information from their perspective. Perhaps they’re telling a story from their past, or maybe they’re giving you their opinion. If the main pronoun in a piece is ‘I,’ there’s a good chance you’re dealing with something written in the first person.
Just as the first stories you told as a child were likely in the first person, so were the earliest of all stories told in the first person, perhaps by our cave-dwelling ancestors. After all, if I were an early human trying to keep the attention of my fireside audience, which would be more compelling:
- a story about some random caveman nobody’s never met,
- or a wicked story about that time that I slaughtered a tiger with my bare hands?
In nonfiction, a first-person voice can lend credibility and immediacy to the writing: “I know this to be true, because I actually saw or did these things.” Readers get to relive the experience through a primary source, safe in the knowledge that this person knows what they’re talking about. (Having said that, we’ll later get into unreliable narrators, a phenomenon to which nonfiction is not immune.)
In this post, however, we will mostly focus on first person point of view in fiction — and how novelists and short story writers can use this viewpoint to their advantage.
Advantages of first person point of view
So, to answer the next big question: why should you consider using this particular point of view for your next novel or story? According to our editors, the benefits can be creative, practical, and market-driven all at once.
1. It’s easier for first-time authors
“In my experience, authors have an easier time handling first-person POV than third-person,” says Aja Pollock, an editor who has worked on books by writers like Neil Gaiman, George W. Bush, and more.
“This makes sense since it echoes the way we tell stories in real life. By its very nature, first-person basically eliminates the problem of ‘head hopping,’ which often shows up in the work of writers who use third-person.”
2. It brings the reader closer to the character
Many authors and readers prefer first-person writing for the intimacy that it creates between the character and the reader. Tracy Gold, a Reedsy editor and Adjunct Professor of Composition at the University of Baltimore, corroborates this:
“Writing first-person makes it easier to get deep inside a character's thoughts and feelings. With well-done 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.”
Each distinct viewpoint comes with an inherent level of intimacy (though not necessarily in a romantic sense). First person tends to be the most intimate, as you have access to the character’s internal thoughts. Third-person omniscient exists on the other side of the spectrum, as an all-seeing narrator can often seem more detached from the characters because they describe the story with a broader lens. Third person limited sits in the middle, and is fairly intimate as well — but if you want readers to really connect to the character and empathize with them, first person tends to be more conducive to that.
3. It might be more marketable
If there’s one overarching piece of advice we regularly offer authors, it’s that they should try writing to market. While it might sound dubious as an approach to art, if you’re an author hoping to get your foot in the door, it often pays to know what editors and publishers are looking for. Every editor we spoke to for this article brought up Young Adult as a prime example of where POV can affect a book’s ability to interest publishers.
“Generally, if we're talking about YA, the preferred narrative mode is first person, followed by super-close third person limited,” says developmental editor and veteran book coach Rebecca Heyman. “When I see YA that doesn't utilize first person, I immediately question if the author is aware of (and reading through) the current market.”
Of course, there may be an underlying reason why fiction for younger readers tend to use this POV. Tracy Gold has a theory:
“Young adult and middle-grade books generally focus on young characters and narrate those characters in an immediate way — we get the sense that the plot is unfolding right now or in the very recent past. That's largely why they often use first person and the present tense.
“In contrast, books written for an audience of adults about a young person tend to be narrated by a character who is reflecting on the past.”
Having taken a quick look at the strengths of writing first person, let’s see what potential drawbacks could lie ahead.
Challenges of writing in first person
Remember:, when we say ‘challenge’ or ‘drawback’, what we’re really referring to are the narrative limitations of first person. As is the case with a lot of art, limitations can often turn out to be a creative boon — and as is the case with any writing advice, the relevance of these challenges will depend on what you’re writing.
The scope of knowledge is limited
“The advice I most often give authors who use the first person point of view is: remember that your narration can't reflect knowledge beyond the scope of what the POV character would know,” says Pollock.
"If first-person narration discusses the interior life of another character, it has to be couched as the POV character's speculation or perception — not as absolute knowledge of what the other character is thinking or feeling.”
You might see this as a roadblock if, in a particular scene, you want to show what a secondary character is thinking. However, as Pollock alludes, your narrator can always indicate what other characters are feeling with a small observation. You might want to write:
Karen was nervous at the news
Of course, your first-person narrator can’t know what Karen is feeling (unless they are literally a psychic). But to convey the same idea, you might write:
Karen looked away nervously.
So you can get the same idea across without violating the ‘no mind-reading’ rule.
This limited scope of information becomes really important when your narrator isn’t your protagonist. For example, The Great Gatsby is narrated by Nick Carraway, a newcomer to the East Egg set. All we know about Jay Gatsby is what Nick sees and the unverified stories he overhears at parties. This creates an enigma around Gatsby that plays a huge role in how the story unfolds.
First person omniscient is another matter altogether
Many people confuse a first person omniscient point of view with a first person limited point of view. When people usually refer to "first person point of view," they mean the latter: a point of view that is restricted to one person, or the "I" that is narrating the story.
First person omniscient is another story altogether — and it's a rare one at that, in part because it's even trickier to pull off. A first person omniscient narrator implies that a story is narrated by a single character (still using the first-person pronoun "I") who nevertheless is privy to the thoughts, actions, and motivations of other characters. As you can imagine, this is hard to accomplish because it's not very realistic. However, there are certain, very specific cases where first person omniscient is relevant and needed. One such example is Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, in which the first person omniscient narrator is (spoiler alert) Death itself.
And now that we’ve seen some of the benefits and challenges of writing in first person, let’s squeeze some practical tips out of our editors.
Top tips for writing in the first person point of view
1. Try not to ‘filter’ too much
Heyman describes “filtering language” as one of the biggest mistakes she sees in first-person prose.
“If your narrator is articulating her own experience, you don’t need to use structures like ‘I saw’ or ‘I heard’ — language that puts unnecessary distance between the narrator's experience and its articulation.
“For example: ‘An owl hooted softly’ vs ‘I heard an owl hoot softly’. One puts us inside the experience of listening; the other one just tells us about it. We know already that everything we're being told comes through the first person narration, so the character's use of empirical sense is implied.”
2. Be careful with multiple first-person narrators
As you’ll see in the examples later on, many popular novels employ multiple first-person narrators. If done well, it can add variety and layers of complexity to your storytelling which readers will greatly enjoy. But as Tracy Gold points out, it can be tricky as readers may get characters confused.
“I would caution writers who use multiple first-person narrators to vary the voices for each narrator as much as possible. For example, in Rachel Lynn Solomon's You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone, one narrator is a musician, and her language drips with musical metaphors. Meanwhile, the other narrator is interested in science, and her language reflects that.”
First person appeals to many first-time authors as it allows them to use their personal, real-world voice. But if all the narrators in a writer’s story happen to share the same quirky turns of phrase, then they might be running into trouble.
3. Consider the unreliable narrator
In the introduction, we teased the idea of the unreliable narrator — where the reader has a reason to believe that the character in question might not be telling the entire story. While this lack of credibility can be fatal in non-fiction (you don’t want an unreliable narrator teaching you how to fix a combination boiler) it can be a real delight in fiction.
Aja Pollock, for one, wishes she saw more of the unreliable narrator.
“When the narrator has questionable credibility, it keeps the reader guessing about the gap between reality and the observations of the POV character. Unreliable narrators can be tricky to pull off for inexperienced writers (or even experienced ones) — but they add an extra layer of mystery and tension that keeps those pages turning.”
4. Don’t use “I thought” with italics
This final tip comes from Tracy Gold: “Writing ‘I thought’ and using italics for thoughts is almost never necessary when writing in first person.” Yes, it’s more of a style suggestion, but one that will come in very handy.
For example, you might write:
The soil was wet and left a red mark on my shirt. Where did the clay come from? I thought.
But a less clumsy version would omit the tag:
The soil was wet and left a red mark on my shirt. Where did the clay come from?
By the very nature of first person POV, we know who is thinking everything on the page without that extra explanation.
So now that we’ve seen what the experts have to say, your last step to head over to our list of POV examples to see some first-person narratives in the wild. And once you've done that, perhaps even give the viewpoint a spin: pick a writing prompt and see what comes out of the mouth of your first-person narrator.
Do you regularly write fiction in first person? Or do you actively avoid it? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.