First person point of view is one of the most natural voices to write in, but that doesn’t make it straightforward to use. First person perspective allows intensity of experience and freedom of voice, but limits the information you can reveal. It also carries certain assumptions that have to be overcome to use it effectively.
Defining the First Person
Let’s start with the obvious. First person point of view is anytime you write your story using first person pronouns – I, me, my – as if hearing the story from the mouth of one character.
This usually means that the story is told from only one point of view.
It doesn’t have to be – William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury includes sections from different perspectives. Such shifts have to take place at clear breaks in the narrative, such as the ends of chapters, and should never happen mid-scene. Without a clear break, readers assume they are still in the same character’s perspective, and will become confused.
Epistolary fiction – stories made up of letters or other communications – usually falls into this category. For example, Bram Stoker’s Dracula consists of letters and diaries.
Benefits of First Person
Writing in the first person has several benefits. There’s an immediacy that comes from living inside a character’s head, as shown by the intensity of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series. It immerses the reader in the character’s thoughts and feelings. This is powerful and rewarding experience for readers.
This immersion lets you avoid some verbal complications. You don’t have to state when a phrase is only the POV character’s thought. It’s always clear to the reader that every word they read is directly from the POV character’s mind or senses.
It also makes it easier to use certain literary styles. Readers are more willing to accept non-standard English, slang, and bad grammar directly from the mouth of a character than from an abstract authorial voice. And in an age increasingly interested in subjectivity, first person provides the ultimate subjective experience.
Limitations of First Person
The limitations of first person are connected to its benefits, and they restrict you in how you may tell the story. Epistolary fiction has the same benefits and problems.
Being trapped in a single perspective, it’s hard to show the thoughts and feelings of other characters. You can get around this by using multiple first person points of view, switching between them when there’s a natural break. But that’s an uncommon strategy, and like anything readers aren’t used to, it may reduce their immersion in the story.
Also, as the reader is living inside the perspective character’s head, you lose the opportunity to describe that character. After all, they won’t be seeing themselves. There are ways around this, too, but you need to take care how you use them. A scene in which the character examines themselves in the mirror was innovative the first time someone did it, but now it’s a cliché.
With skill and subtlety, you can work around these restrictions by implication. For example, a short character may have to look up at others around them. A red-haired character might be called a nickname that reveals that trait. You can also have the POV character hear world views expressed by other characters. Be careful not to overdo any of these, or it might make it obvious that you’re trying to get around these restrictions, breaking the reader’s immersion.
The Nuances of First Person
Certain nuances of first person perspective are often forgotten. Using them will make your writing stronger.
Firstly, remember that you aren’t writing as yourself, but as a character. As Josip Novakovich points out in Fiction Writer’s Workshop, this persona can have views very different from your own, on everything from personal tastes to vital social issues. Think about how the character is different from you, how they express themselves differently and how this will affect your writing style. This will give the character a richer voice.
In first person, it is normal to make the protagonist of your story the narrator, but they don’t have to be. One of the most famous works of first person perspective, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, are almost all told from the point of view of Dr Watson, an observer to the adventures of the hero Holmes. This allows an outside perspective, and for better or for worse means you are not showing the inner thoughts of the protagonist.
Lastly, remember that first person perspective doesn’t have to be reliable. The narrator can be lying to the audience, or not recognise their own situation. This can be used to trick the audience for a later twist, as in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, or give readers the satisfaction of understanding events better than the hero, as in The Hunger Games.
Don’t default to taking the easy options. First person offers you a range of exciting opportunities, so try them out and see which suits your story.