Writing in first person: Tips, examples and ideas

To say it simply, a narrator is somebody who recounts or tells the story. One of the most important choices about your writing style you will make as a writer is the choice of narrator. Before you begin writing you have to tackle the following questions:

  • Who will tell the story?
  • Through whose point of view will the story unfold?

The commonest narrators are first person narrators and third person narrators. In this post we look at first person narrators – the challenges involved and the advantages.

First Person Narration: Truths

  1. The first person narrator is often a character in the story and is also a witness to what’s happening.
  2. The first person narrator may or may not be the main character. In the Sherlock Holmes series, the first person narrator is Dr. Watson but Sherlock Holmes is the main character (of course!).
  3. The narrator narrates what s/he sees, thinks, understands, perceives and witnesses.
  4. The narrator has to be in the scene or near the scene where everything is happening Unless you are writing some fantasy fiction where the narrator is far away but can still see what’s happening like that magician in your childhood fairytale who looks into a mirror and knows what’s happening in another part of the world. Even in the instance of the magician do note that he was a witness to what was happening, albeit through a magical mirror.

The “I” character is the one to recount stories. In rare instances the first person plural, “we” is employed to narrate the stories. The Treatment of Bibi Haldar, a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri from her debut collection of stories titled The Interpreter of Maladies employs the first person plural narrator.

Memoirs and Autobiographies are the best examples of using first person narrators.

Examples of First Person Writing Styles

Check out some of these popular Fiction and Non Fiction books that use the first person narration.

  • An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mahatma Gandhi
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Diary of Anne Frank
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger
  • White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler

Advantages of Using First Person Point of View

1.    It’s Considered Easier

Although not a sacrosanct opinion, first person narratives are considered easier to write. Instead of dealing with the points of view of many characters and the resulting transitions in voice and perspective you recount the story through the voice of one character. You can channelize all your creative energy into strengthening one voice. A first-time writer gets to bring about a consistency and build credibility for one character. It might be difficult to do this for all characters at the same time, especially for new writers.

2.    Intimate

It’s like one person is telling you, the reader, his or her story. It becomes an intimate experience for the reader. The character telling you his or her story also helps evoke the right emotion in the reader, empathy for instance. The “Something is happening to him” versus “something is happening to me” has its advantages since it provides a ‘personal’ touch.

3. Understanding

In his book Elements of Writing Craft, Robert Olmstead says of the first person narrator, “…we readers are privy to her thoughts, and her thoughts can endear us, repel us, deliver understanding…” Being in such close proximity with the character, the reader tends to develop a certain attachment with the character. While this is possible to achieve in third person narratives too, first person narratives capitalize on the nearness to the reader. A mentor once told me that writing in first person is like whispering your story into your reader’s ear!

Limitations and Challenges of Using First Person Point of View

1.    Availability of only one perspective

Everything that your narrator says has to be something s/he is privy to. Readers get to know the story only from one person’s point of view and through the eyes of only one person. In his book Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes, “First person locks us in one character’s mind, locks us to one kind of diction throughout, locks out the possibilities of going deeply into various characters’ minds, and so forth.”

2. A bit of an issue when there are multiple characters
In a third person narrative, as a writer you have the flexibility of using the points of view of all the characters. You can say A said this, B saw that, C thinks this, D eats like this and that would be okay. When you are using the first person narrator and there are multiple characters affecting the storyline you have to pause and consider:

  • Your character X cannot know what C thinks
  • Your character X cannot know what B saw (and interpreted) until B tells your character

So how will you move the story ahead? You have to avoid situations that require you to get into the heads of other characters because your character can’t (yeah, yeah, fantasy fiction exception!).

And what if what B saw and C thinks is important to the story that you are writing and you find it difficult to weave it into your writing? This is your cue or red flag that you are using the wrong narrator.

3. Writing about Action in Other places

Your character cannot be everywhere (yeah, yeah, er… fantasy fiction exception!) so you need to be careful about how you recount the events taking place somewhere your character is absent. So, you have to ask yourself: how does he know this? Who told him? Did he hear it from someone? How reliable is that source? For instance if your character begins to doubt his girlfriend because somebody told him that he (that somebody) saw her with another man you need to provide for the reliability of that source because the reliability or the unreliability will turn the trajectory of the story.

John Gardner was evidently not too much of a fan of first person narration. For he says, “ (first person POV) can achieve little grandeur. It thrives on intimacy and something like gossip. It peeks through a keyhole, never walks through an open field.

Things for You to consider:

  • How many characters are there in your novel or short story?
  • How much ‘action’ (the plot) or occurrences happen to other characters?
  • How does your character know these things in order to be able to narrate the story?
  • What gender is your narrator? Remember you can’t say, “he said” or “she said.” It has to be “I said” so you have to work and showing your readers your character’s gender. There are ways to do this. Consider the following lines:

I spent the day with my gal pals and we gave each other makeovers. (If you thought the protagonist was male, well, YOU should write fiction!)

My girlfriend gifted me a new tie and my wife saw it (easy to get the gender right?)

Are there any more advantages or limitations that you came across while writing your stories? Let us know as a comment below. We’d be happy to hear from you.

About Lavanya

Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind | MBA | Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Special Prize (2011) | MFA in Creative Writing programme (City University of Hong Kong) | Her literary fiction novel will be published soon by Roli Books.

7 thoughts on “Writing in first person: Tips, examples and ideas”

  1. Doug Kabrey

    I just finished writing my second novel. My first one is titled Father;Unknown and is written in the first person from the viewpoint of a high school girl named Lisa Morgan and since I am a man I had to ask my wife a ton of questions on how she thought a female character would react under certain circumstances. After I completed my first draft and let another female read my novel (not my wife) I found out I was way off base. I had basically written what would have been considered almost a porn novel. I listened to what they had to say and completely re-wrote the novel. Two years and three drafts later and a P G rating I finally got it right.
    My second novel is a sequel titled The Line-up. I wrote it in the same first person because I continued on with the same story line and characters. Since I started writing in the first person I think my mind is stuck in that format. I have a third novel in mind and I’m still going to write it in the first person simply because of a habit. Habits are hard to change!

    1. Doug Kabrey

      I got around the limitations and challenges of writing in the first person by simply having the main character receive a phone call or seeing the news on TV to explain what had happened away from her first hand. It really wasn’t all that difficult and actually led to new angles of subject matter in my books. I even had my character videotape news reports and play them over and over again to help solve an assassination when she wasn’t at the actual event. It made creating a scene that I was describing easier when she was hearing the story from a third person or news report.

      1. Sameer

        Thanks for sharing your experiences, Doug. I’m sure other authors will find some ideas in there that they can use.

        It’s evident that you are putting in a lot of hard work into the book. Hope you find the success you deserve!

  2. Kaiko

    John Gardner wrote the book called “Art of Fiction” but does he really know anything about said art?
    He says that “first person locks us in one character’s mind”.
    So all those first person narrators in Dracula must be the same one character then. Funny!

  3. Vasant Hattangadi

    The only problem with the first person narration is that many a time readers misconstrue it as autobiographical. Readers have often asked me if the story narrated by me was a true story and if the experience described actually happened to me. I had once written a story about my wife having been mistaken to be a mother of triplets and many ladies wanted to confirm from my wife the veracity or otherwise of the incident, when she would reply that it all came out of her husband’s wonderful imagination

  4. Ben Dendy

    I am now reading a book by James Patterson (truth or die) it says with Howard Roughan. What does this mean. In reading this book and I read nearly all of Pattersons books, it seems like it is not Pattersons writing. Somehow it does not sound like Patterson. Could it be my imigannation?

    1. F. Armstrong Green

      Kaiko, you should read Gardner’s fiction and then comment. You might also get a great deal out of his ON BECOMING A NOVELIST.
      Ben, you are very perceptive. Patterson is a corporation that buys stories
      For the sophisticated reader First-Person must be unreliable or else the story should have been written using a Central Intelligence Omniscient Narrator. See Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” et al.

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