Written by Ben Grange, Literary Agent and co-founder of Writers’ Clearinghouse
Wondering if you should write your book in first person narrative?
This isn’t an easy question to answer. The perspective of your novel plays a huge role in how your reader connects with it and, more specifically, your characters.
But you’re in the right place if you’re struggling to find that answer. Because I’m about to show you five ways first person point of view can benefit your writing. And, to help you implement them into your writing, I’ve designed five writing prompts to go along with them.
Think of it as a solo writing workshop.
If you’re struggling to even understand the different narrative points of view, the simplest explanation I can give is that, with first person narrative, the narrator uses the pronouns related to “I.”
If you just don’t get it, take a look at this simple, easy-to-read explainer article from Grammarly.
No matter the genre, any book can be written in first person point of view. You’ll periodically see phases where it’s popular in a particular genre. But the truth is, if it’s fiction, it can be done in first person.
So, let’s get right down to it. Here are five advantages to writing in first person point of view.
Advantage One: First Person Gets You Inside the Head of Your Character(s)
One of the hardest parts about writing a novel is creating real, believable characters. Writing in first person won’t automatically make you a master of crafting relatable characters, but it’s a good place to start.
See, to write good characters, you need to understand them—their motivations, their background, their goals and desires, their relationships, essentially everything that goes into making them feel like human beings. And to understand them, you need to find a way to get inside their heads. (For more insight on crafting characters, see this insanely good blog post by author Preston Norton.)
Lucky for you, first person perspective is all about being in the head of your character.
Here’s a little thought experiment.
Choose a character from your latest work in progress. We’re going to put her in a role-play scenario. Get inside her head. She’s going to have to make a difficult choice.
Your character has been captured and taken to a ruthless prison camp. Her dearest friend was also taken to the camp, but tries to escape. In her escape attempt, her friend is captured and, to set an example, the warden has sentenced her to hang—and your character must be the one to pull the lever. If she refuses, the warden will select another prisoner to hang alongside her friend. What does she do?
Does she pull the lever, and save the life of a different prisoner? Or does she refuse to be the one who kills her friend, even though it will get someone else killed? Does she ask her friend what to do? What thoughts are going through her head? What emotions does she feel?
As you can see, the above workshop scenario provides a lot of tension and is a great mechanism for character exploration. The fact that it’s designed to not be part of your book gives you freedom to explore without fear of making mistakes—it allows you to delve deep into your character’s mind, and discover more about this person that you’re creating.
Then, once you’ve discovered these things about them, the fun part is asking yourself: Why? Why is my character this way? Now build an entire backstory just for this one scenario.
And before you know it, you’ve just discovered more about your character in ten minutes than you’ve known about her for the past month.
Advantage Two: First Person Provides Your Reader with an Engaging Narrator
Simply put, writing in first person engages your reader. Whether you write in past or present tense, first person point of view is immediately engaging. Why? Because your reader feels like your narrator is talking directly to them.
When I was younger, I voraciously read the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. One of the reasons that this series became such a national phenomenon was the voice of its main character. Percy is immediately likable, and right from the get go, it feels like he’s telling his reader a personal story about himself.
You’ve likely heard of starting your novel in medias res, which essentially means to begin writing in the middle of the action (it’s literally translated “into the midst of things,” and is a topic worthy of its own post). The reason this is such a useful device is that it engages the reader immediately, hooking them in the story’s tension. The reason I bring it up is because first person narrative can provide a similar in medias res type of hook. It’s an immediate, in-the-midst-of-things kind of perspective.
Sure, it’s possible for you to let your narrator ramble and go on lengthy thought tangents and derail the story through a random stream of conscious. But your job as an author is to minimize needless paragraphs, sentences, and words, and only show what’s necessary. If you can do that, the effect is immediate, and readers will engage with your character’s voice.
Just for practice, try turning something you’ve already written in third person into a first person narrative. Take an old novel off the shelf, or grab your current WIP if it’s in third person, and rewrite the opening page in first person. How does the narrative perspective change the story? The voice? The character?
Advantage Three: First Person Presents a Complex Dynamic of Reliability
We’ve all heard the concept of the unreliable narrator, and there is no better medium for that than first person. Whether the unreliability is humorous or dark or mysterious, a first person perspective allows your reader to take any unreliable statements in stride. They become part of the character, and give life to the story.
There are plenty of books out there with unreliable narrators. One of the most fascinating to me remains Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. It’s not humorously unreliable, or even all that mysterious. It’s about the psychology of a boy who survives for 227 days alone at sea with a Bengal tiger—or possibly something a lot more believable—aboard his life boat.
But a narrator is someone a reader wants to trust, and so obviously you can’t have a completely unreliable narrator. This presents a wonderful dynamic that you can use to your advantage in building a relationship between your reader and your narrator.
Balancing when to be reliable and when to place those tidbits of unreliability is crucial—as is unveiling to the reader when and where the narrator was unreliable. With humor, it’s easy to present an unreliable fact, and then use that fact to quickly drop a truth bomb on the author for a comedic break. With mystery, you’ll want your truth bombs to be spaced out a little more, to drive the tension of the mystery.
Most people I meet are decent, straightforward individuals. Even so, most people lie or omit on a regular basis, especially when telling stories about themselves. And at the end of the day, lies are the heart of an unreliable narrator. Lies and omissions. With an unreliable, first-person narrator, omissions are harder to pull off—because if the main character knows pertinent information and isn’t telling the reader, there better be a good reason for it. If the narrator simply isn’t revealing things for the sake of keeping the reader in the dark, your reader will feel betrayed and confused, rather than connected. Most of the time, lies are easier to pull off, as long as the truth reveal works in the end. But sometimes lies are harder to pull off because 1) decent people struggle to come up with convincing lies and 2) if it doesn’t come naturally, omission is easier.
There are many different ways to use unreliability to build your story. However, you should always make sure to present things to your reader in a logical fashion.
Let’s practice a little bit of unreliability. Okay, technically we’re going to practice lying. Don’t tell your mother.
Take your main character from your work in progress, and give her a physical scar.
Now, concoct an elaborate story about that scar. Did she get it in a lover’s spat? In a sword fight with an assassin? Falling from a building? Make it a wild story, but make it believable. That’s the key here.
However, that story is false.
Make up a new story, the real one behind the scar. But this time, make it boring. For example: Did it happen when she was chopping carrots, and the knife slipped?
Now, as I mentioned before, you present the lie first, and then drop the truth bomb later. In this case, I’d likely mention the scar on page three or four, in order to introduce something intriguing about the character in the first chapter. Then, I might do either of two things 1) immediately drop the truth bomb on the reader in a parenthetic, or 2) wait for a chapter or so before revealing the real story. The lie makes your character seem interesting, the truth makes your character vulnerable. Both the interest and the vulnerability help readers connect with her, and build tension as the story progresses. If your readers never knows what’s true, it will keep them guessing until the reveal.
Advantage Four: First Person Creates an Intimate Bond Between Reader and Character
As I mentioned earlier—with first person narrative, your reader feels like your character is personally narrating a story to them.
When writing in first person, you don’t need to feel limited to writing from the perspective of the same character for the whole book. Some people will insist that first person limits your reader’s ability to connect with other characters in your story because they are experiencing those secondary characters through the lens of your main character. This can be true in certain cases; however, I don’t think it’s so clear cut. Plenty of authors use first person to tell successful multi-POV stories. When you shift the perspective so that more than one character is telling the story, your reader then gets the chance to connect with those characters as well. No matter the perspective, secondary characters are almost always introduced through the lens of the main character(s).
We bond with characters in their most intimate moments. When a character feels love, sadness, happiness, excitement, we can vicariously feel those emotions, too. We sympathize with them in their hardships, and celebrate their victories.
For this mini workshop, I want you to connect with your reader by telling a story of failure and triumph. Take your main character—surprise!—she’s going into another difficult situation. This time, she must learn to shoot an apple with an arrow, but instead of being flat-footed on the ground, she’s riding a horse. Make her fail, then overcome, and finally triumph. This doesn’t have to be a huge narrative arc. This can be done in a single page. While you write, identify five emotions she feels. Describe those to the reader.
Advantage Five: First Person Enables You to Write with Confidence
It’s natural to write in first person. Even if you’ve only ever written in third person before, switching over to first person can feel like something you were always supposed to be doing, and that’s normal. This isn’t to say that first person is superior to third person—they both have their advantages and disadvantages. But the reason it feels natural to write this way is because this is how we tell each other stories in real life. You use the first person every time you tell someone a lengthy story about your hazardous trip to the dentist’s office, or about the obnoxious guy at the bar, or the annoying parking ticket you had to pay.
Tell a story out loud, without reading it. This can be an idea you’ve had in your head for ages, or something you’ve been plotting out for months. It can be a first draft that you need to revise, or a polished draft that’s been sitting on the shelf for months. Notice as you speak how the words you use are deliberate, sometimes difficult, and, most importantly, likely not the words you used when you were writing. Try to remember what you say, and write it down afterward.
Wrapping Things Up
So, there you have it. Five ways first person point of view can help your novel. There are certainly disadvantages to using this point of view, but, as we’ve laid out here, there are plenty of advantages to using it as well. To sum up, the pros of using first person are:
- First Person Gets You Inside the Head of Your Character(s)
- First Person Provides Your Reader with an Engaging Narrator
- First Person Presents a Complex Dynamic of Reliability
- First Person Creates an Intimate Bond Between Reader and Character
- First Person Enables You to Write with Confidence
I hope the workshops I provided were helpful in getting your mind thinking about how writing in first person can help you individually. Now, get out of here and finish that novel (even if you do it in third person).
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