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
- The first person narrator is often a character in the story and is also a witness to what’s happening.
- 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!).
- The narrator narrates what s/he sees, thinks, understands, perceives and witnesses.
- 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.
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.
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.