3 Ways You Can Use a First-Person Narrator to Tell a Better Story

3 Ways You Can Use a First-Person Narrator to Tell a Better Story

Using a first-person narrator is tricky and should be attempted only by the most experienced hand. In-house editors know this, which is why they no doubt cringed when they saw the opening chapter of my new release The Cat Lady’s Secret. Not only is it in first-person, it’s in present tense. To make matters worse (to make those poor souls snatch themselves baldheaded) the second scene is in third-person, past tense.

Oy vey!

Since no one outside friends and family knows me from I Love Lucy (except maybe the few hundred who read my first book or follow my blog), I’m lucky I found a publisher. Seriously, that’s how tricky writing in first-person is–and playing around with the tenses doesn’t help the editors’ confidence. I don’t recommend this technique for everyone, but I had my reasons for doing it, and it worked for my manuscript. Fortunately, the good folks at Pelican Book Group agreed.

First-person is the deepest of deep POVs, which is what makes it so tricky. There’s a lot to consider before you even start to write. Like why you need to tell the story in first-person to begin with. Here are a few reasons:

Use a First-Person Narrator to Present the Story From the “Horse’s Mouth”

the cat ladys secret by linda yezakTry as you might, you’ll never get as deep in third-person as you can in first, because you can’t get past the idea the author is telling the story. But when you use first-person, you are creating the illusion it’s the character telling the story. “She raced to the car” is an author’s description of the action. “I raced to the car”–ah! That’s the character speaking! And even though you can create a terrific voice for your third-person character, you can get away with tons more with a first-person narrator because you’re always in his voice–you can’t afford to shift into your own authorial voice.

Let me show you this, from The Cat Lady’s Secret. Millie, my first-person POV character, is eavesdropping on a phone conversation:

I don’t want to be too obvious about how far my ear is stretched in Annie’s direction, so I keep my eye on a yellow tabby…

Try that in third-person, present tense:

She doesn’t want to appear too obvious about how far her ear is stretched in Annie’s direction, so she keeps her eye on a yellow tabby…

Or in third-person, past tense:

She didn’t want to appear too obvious about how far her ear was stretched in Annie’s direction, so she kept her eye on a yellow tabby …

Doesn’t have the same feel, does it? Using “she doesn’t want” and “she kept her eye” is telling. The author stepped in to describe the action. Can’t get around it. It’s telling in first-person too, but it’s done in the character’s voice–which means I got away with “telling” instead of “showing.” Like I said, you can get away with a lot in first-person!

Use a First-Person Narrator to Tell the Reader the Story of Another Character

In this case, the POV character is an observer/reporter of another character’s life or an event in that life. This gives the illusion of credibility–“I know this to be true because I watched it happen with my own eyes.” The emphasis is on the other character, someone who, for some reason, can’t tell the story herself. This is a built-in blessing, because it automatically raises the question, “Why can’t she tell the story herself?” Play your cards right, and readers will hang out to discover the reason.

The POV character probably isn’t as flamboyant as the one he’s describing–who is actually the main character of the story being told. We don’t need to know as much about him as we do about the subject of his discussion, so we’re likely to be more interested in his credibility than, for instance, his physical description.

Use a First-Person Narrator to Tell a Character About Another Character

Perhaps it’s a letter or perhaps it’s from a journal–whatever it’s from, it’s point is to tell someone what happened to someone else. Why your mother gave you up for adoption. Why your lover never came back from Iraq. Why I left your father. Why you have one green ear and one red one mixed in with your other two purple ones. (I wonder how he’d explain that!)

This type of first-person story creates the illusion of listening in to someone’s confession, hearing her heart, seeing his tears. But it isn’t always a sad tale. It can start with “Dear Alia, here’s what happened” and end with “just so you know” or “please believe/forgive me” or “the ball’s in your court” or “tag! You’re it!” The bookends frame the story and set the tone. The story itself can be anything.

Did you notice that inherent in all these reasons to write in first-person is the question, “Who is your character talking to?” When you’re telling your reader a story from the horse’s mouth, your character is talking to the reader. When the narrator is telling a story about another character, he’s going to be addressing either the readers or another character.

Why you choose to write in first-person will inform who your character is talking to. If you can figure this out before you sit down to write, the process will become twice as easy.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever written a story with a first-person narrator? What made you choose that approach?

3 Ways You Can Use a First-Person Narrator to Tell a Better Story

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About Linda Yezak

Linda W. Yezak lives in a forest in east Texas, where tall tales abound and exaggeration is an art form. She holds a BA in English and a graduate certificate in Paralegal Studies. Thirty years after graduation, she’s finally putting her degree in English to good use, combining it with her natural inclination toward story-telling to create fun, unique novels.

Comments

  1. I have a novel, entered in a contest but not published yet, that is written in first person. I chose that because much of the book is interior dialogue and it just seemed to work better.

    My challenge with new writers that I work with is that they want to write in first person from everyone’s POV. It quickly becomes impossible to remember whose head I’m in. I glad you talk about how challenging it is, so now I’ll have a second opinion.

    You didn’t mention that first person can become suffocating if the author isn’t careful, and that slipping a clue to the reader without the narrator noticing is almost impossible. It is fun and some of my favourite characters were written in first person.

    • You’re absolutely right about the limitations of first person. Although you know what’s going to happen, your character can’t, and that’s tricky in itself.

      Having everyone’s POV in first person is difficult. Unless the voices are entirely different from each other, it’s hard for the reader to know which POV he’s in–just as you indicated. I’ve seen it work once, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone doing it.

  2. Hi Linda
    I’m worried. You say: “Using a first-person narrator is tricky and should be attempted only by the most experienced hand… Not only is it in first-person, it’s in present tense.”
    I’m doing that myself. And I’m not an experienced hand. It just seemed like the right thing to do for this Late Antique lad to tell his story himself, as it happens. Am I doomed?

    • I can’t answer that for you, Viktor, without seeing your work. But my experience is, what the big names can get away with, we unknowns usually can’t. Big name authors have already established a trust between themselves and their agents, editors, and readers.

      My suggestion is to submit the work to the toughest critique partner or freelance editor you can find–someone who will be honest with you–and see if you succeeded in what you were attempting. More often than not, an author isn’t a good judge of his own work.

      Best of luck to you!

      • Thanks very much for your rather salutary remarks, Linda.
        I’ve started submitting my chapters for critique in Scribophile and have received very helpful suggestions – not all positive! – from which I’ve learned a great deal.

    • Viktor
      I read that too, and it gave me a handful to think about.
      This is because my first completed work was a short story, that I did in first person present tense. I didn’t care about experience and what not. I chose to do it that way [for personal reasons] because I felt that that was the best choice. I’ve read that as a writer, you mustn’t be afraid to experiment what you haven’t tried, so I’d suggest to do what challenges you and go with what makes your piece the most it can be.

      • The tricky part about 1st person POV is making sure you have the depth you want. Some authors figure if they’re writing in 1st person, they’re automatically deep. Not necessarily.

        First person, present tense isn’t always a problem in short stories, but it raised some brows with my novel. One publisher came right out and said she didn’t like present tense. My agent wasn’t comfortable with it at all, but like I said, I had my reasons. We found a publisher for it, though.

        Glad you’ve had some success with it.

  3. This post came at the perfect time as I am currently working on writing a first person, past tense book. Thank you!

  4. Thanks for these insights. I’m writing my first 1st-person story now. Its challenging and fun. I always thought of first person writing as more difficult. And I am finding that I have to be a lot more thoughtful about my words. I wonder if it gets easier as time goes on.

    • Actually, it does. The better you know your character, the easier you can slip into his voice and “become him.” That’s the good news.

      The trick is to remember that you “are” him and not to slip out of POV by engaging in sentences like, “I saw/heard/felt/thought” etc. That’s telling the reader the action instead of simply presenting what was seen/heard/felt or thought. “I saw Dan coming” doesn’t work as well as “Dan came.”

      Hope that helps. And good luck!

      • “The trick is to remember that you “are” him and not to slip out of POV by engaging in sentences like, “I saw/heard/felt/thought” etc.”
        Excellent point, Linda, and so important (and equally challenging).

        • It can be challenging, and it applies when you’re deepening a third person POV also. There are times when you can’t get around it, but more often than not, you can.

  5. Steve Mathisen says:

    Hey Linda! Fancy running into you here! 😀 I have actually written several stories in the first person. I was re-telling Bible stories and I wanted to give the readers (children) that POV so they could feel like they were there. I probably did not do it as well as it could have been done but your points about the things you can do with first person were exactly the things I wanted to do with the story. Thanks for your expert insights. And thanks to KM for having you here today. It was a nice surprise.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Linda!

  7. Lorna G. Poston says:

    Linda, I wish you much success with this new novel. It’s a great read! Thanks for letting me be a beta reader.

  8. Timely post for me as I’m currently finishing the 2nd draft of a first person past tense story. The character is telling the reader about a two-day series of events that nearly ruins his life and how he changes because of the turmoil.

  9. Hi Linda,
    Congrats on the book! Funny thing, I have my first book coming out with Pelican too! And mine is first person present tense! I had written the book in the past tense and then rewrote it all before submitting. I love books in this tense! Feels like you are right in the character’s head.

    • OH–congrats, Terri!

      Actually, my agent wanted me to change everything to past tense, but the present tense version was the one accepted for publication. 😀

      Good luck with yours, and have fun with the promotions!

  10. Good post. I started writing a YA in first person because it felt right. Kind of like your example, changing it to third would have made it more awkward. I also felt closer to the main character by writing it in first person.

  11. Enjoyed the post Linda and KM Weiland. I wrote my first short story in first person, present tense. My editor has a masters in literature and graduated sigma cum laude. It took me a few passes to get it right but gives the reader an immediacy that is hard to match in another voice.

  12. I always write in first person POV, past tense. I write thrillers, and believe it gives the story a sense of urgency that you can’t quite accomplish as well with third person POV, IMHO.

    • I agree–and that’s a tall order, getting thrillers right in first person. Your character can’t know anything other than what’s presented to him. Foreshadowing is nigh unto impossible. My hat’s off to you!

  13. As a reader I despise first person. If I find out a book is written in it I’m gone.

    Why, you ask?The main reason is because it locks me into one head, usually the head of the character I care least about. The secondary reason is because it’s so hard to do it right where the reader forgets it’s first person.

    • You have a point, but I’ve read novels (and my own is this way) where there are several POV characters, but only one first-person POV character. That technique can broaden the readers scope a bit.

      First person isn’t everyone’s mug o’ joe–and when it isn’t done right, it’s *nobody’s* favorite. But when done well, it makes for a good read for those of us who don’t mind it.

  14. First person is my favorite POV to write in. If I enjoy my main character’s voice and love hearing them speak, then I want to get as much time with them as possible and first person POV allows that. I personally love “from the horse’s mouth” stories.

  15. I enjoy reading books in first person – if they are well done – but I don’t think I want to attempt to write one. Looking forward to reading yours, Linda!

  16. Good thoughts, Linda. I like the idea of picking how you tell the story based on who you’re telling it to.

    I started my first (practice) novel in third person, because I’d heard it was a bad idea for beginners to write in 1st person. (Maybe that was because it’s so easy to let our own voice sneak in?) Part way through, though, I realized that I was muddling between two of the characters’ perspectives. Once I swapped to 1st person, I had to keep the story in the main character’s voice. I haven’t used 1st person in my current projects, but I think the practice has helped me avoid a lot of the head-jumping.

  17. The YA novel I’m working on is in first person (past tense). I chose that approach because I believe it the most powerful way of conveying the story. It doesn’t tell the story; it IS the story. The greatest difficulty is writing in my MC’s voice and not my own. I enjoy the creative stretch, though.

    Question: What is your opinion on description of characters? To me, description of the narrator is too often done poorly, the narrator thinking or saying things that in real life no one thinks or says. Descriptions of other characters are also tricky, unless the narrator is a person who focuses on appearances.

    My MC is not one of those people. Therefore, description is hard to fit in his voice. (The older I get, the more I wonder if description is over-rated, anyway.) Is it terrible if readers aren’t given details of my characters?

    • I think first person for YA and MG is perfect, but you’re right about describing the character. In any first person story, it’s tricky to get the MC’s description in without sounding totally bogus. There are several ways to handle it, and the best that I’ve found for YA/MG is for the character to compare him- or herself to another (which generally occurs in the midst of teenage angst). For boys, I’ve seen comparisons of body types, for girls, usually facial features or development comparisons. Kids in that age group do generally compare themselves to others quite a bit. If you don’t try to force a description too early in the manuscript, you should be able to pull it off.

    • My editors and beta readers are always begging for more descriptive details. They want to know enough to create a picture in their mind of the character. The thing is that the traits most people describe aren’t the ones that really define a character. For me it is the quirky things that make a visual come alive. Look at J.K.Rowling’s descriptions. they are rarely more than a sentence or two, but they show us a portrait of the person. She adds details later as needed.

      I was at a workshop where we created very detailed pictures of the character, but that was for us, not the reader. The information we would give the reader was still detailed but only a few. In my first person novella, the narrator talks about her mother buying her clothes that no self respecting twelve year old would wear, never mind a seventeen year old senior. Later she compares her pudgy body to the buff cheerleaders. Still no “this is what I look like” but the picture is being built.

      • I would’ve loved that workshop, Alex. I tend to be a minimalist where physical description is concerned. In some genres I read, I get impatient with the author if she gets too carried away describing her character. There has to be a happy medium between me and the person who over-describes.

  18. I’m glad to have read this post today. I’m in the very early stages of my novel and considering whether 1st or 3rd person is the best way to tell the story. This is a good case for 1st person.

  19. thomas h cullen says:

    They’re more or less one and the same – Croyan, and The Representative’s narrator.

    Hearing the text, being spoke, there are the points in which a listener will discern clear distinction, however their overall experience of listening is to understand Croyan and the narrative voice as being essentially the same identity.

    I purely chose this form of POV out of honest emotion – not artistic reasons.

  20. This is a great post! I used to write a lot in first person and then I stopped during grad school, but recently I’ve been contemplating using it for a new short story, and this post gives me a lot to think about, so thank you!
    -Dana

  21. I just recently started writing my current work in progress in first person. I, at first, wrote it in third, present tense, but there was a point in my novel that my mc undergoes a name change from Ethel to Emma. It was hard to convey the transition in third, because Emma addressed herself as Emma and prefers it. It almost came off as adding a new character or one to replace her. So with first person this isn’t as issue.

  22. Thank you for your post, it was very helpful! I’m planning on writing a dystopian novel in first person (most likely past tense) over the summer, and you really made me think about why I chose to take that path. I think that like horror novels, dystopias really need that first person urgency…though I tend to shy away from present tense due to The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc. I’m looking forward to the challenge, as all my other novels have been third person.

    • I’m not familiar enough with dystopian novels–something I need to remedy. Is first person unusual for the genre? Have you read many other dystopians? How are they handled?

      And just out of curiosity–and if you want a homework assignment 😀 — how would your favorite dystopian novel read if the POV was changed from what it is to the opposite? If it’s written in 3rd, how would it sound in 1st?

      It would be interesting to play with it, play with some of the tenser scenes, and see if it increases the tension or changes the tenor of the read. How would the dialogue change? What is the opportunity for foreshadowing?

      Now you’ve got me interested.

      • Most dysopias I’ve read have been in first person, in fact I can’t even think of one that I’ve personally encountered that was written in third.

        That’s a really good suggestion! I think that such an examination would definitely be profitable for my own work. Dialogue is especially affected by tense and narrator changes, since the words of others can be interpreted so differently between your protagonist in first person or a third person narrator…Foreshadowing is also an important point to consider. It’s hard to make it just subtle enough, without making it seem obvious.

        Thank you for your reply! I’ll definitely be looking at some of the things you suggested.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      It was touching – what you had to say on your own site. I myself am someone who doesn’t believe – however I am someone who’s driven:

      To make use of my intelligence, whatever its source of provider.

      The expectation, would’ve been my replying to you in some context related to your own post – our reality’s one of freedom.

      Good luck with your project – I’ve now finally self-published mine, The Representative!

  23. Isn’t “Use a First-Person Narrator to Tell the Reader the Story of Another Character” and “Use a First-Person Narrator to Tell a Character About Another Character” more or less still 3rd person or maybe 2nd person? I thought writing in 1st person is presenting the story from the one character. I’m not sure if I could be that limited.

  24. thomas h cullen says:

    About the very character whose doing the narrating – that’s my own conventional understanding of the term.

    Your right to be confused. The article Linda’s done is superb, however on this one I’d just ignore feeling bound by literary establishment.

  25. By definition, third person means using “he/she/it” for your characters instead of “I.” When you’re writing in first person, you use personal pronouns for your character.

    Next figure out who your character is telling the story to. “Call me Ishmael”–Ishmael is talking to his audience–anyone who wants an account of the capture of the great white whale. “The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began”–Luke is talking to a specific person in letter form. I’ve even read a book where the character is talking to someone known only as “you.”

    There are dozens of other examples, probably better examples, but these are off the top of my head, so I hope they help.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      That was a most professional explanation. I know you weren’t directing it at me, but I’ll credit you for it anyway.

  26. Great article, Linda! May help even my non-fiction. Saving it! 😀

  27. Having written two novels in third person and read that first person is difficult to accomplish, I wrote the first draft of novel #3 in third person. For some reason the feeling of the story was unsatisfying – a woman telling a story about her grandfather interwoven with the scenes from the grandfather’s experiences during WWI. I switched the woman’s portion to first person and kept the grandfather’s scenes in third person. Now the novel reads better but more importantly I found first person immensely liberating.

  28. I *love* First POV. Third gives me hives. And don’t every start on omniscient! You’ve given some great reasons for using it, Linda.

  29. I’d never seen it that way until recently. The first serious books I read were in First person POV, and since I was very young, I guess I took them as my examples when I started writing my own. I’ve been working on a smaller project in third person, and just now I’ve realized it’s slightly easier!

    I must admit that roleplaying with my characters in some sites helped a bit with the getting their voices right for the first person one, though. 🙂 -It’s actually a good idea to get to know your guys-

  30. I write YA and had difficulty until I switched to first person narrative. Once I was writing from the main character’s perspective, the story just flowed out. I also write in present tense. I think present tense gives the prose a more immediate/action type feel which plays quite well in YA as does the deeper POV. One thing I won’t do is switch perspectives. For some reason, I feel this makes the entire story disjointed–especially when the character voices sound the same, and I forget whose head I’m supposed to be in.

    Writing in first person can be very challenging, especially when trying to give depth to the other characters. We only know what the main character knows, so dialogue is much more important. Getting a villain’s motivations across is also a huge challenge.

    • Writing in first person is challenging, but first person present tense for an entire novel is killer. Kudos to you if you’ve been able to pull it off!

      • thomas h cullen says:

        And it should be the other way round. Writing in first-person, meaning informality, and less expected authority on the narrative voice’s part, one would think easier.

  31. I’m having an interesting conversation with my crit partner. Her MS is in first person. She has a tendency to “info dump” – stop to explain a bit of background. When I said this “jolted me out of the narrator’s head”, her response was that she didn’t want the reader to be IN her narrator’s head in the first place – she saw it as though her narrator was sitting telling the story to a friend.

    Every time I see a description of first person narration, I see people talking about “being inside” the narrator’s head. Am I wrong? I can see what she’s getting at, but how do you stop the reader from identifying with the narrator?

    • We aren’t always “in the character’s head” when we’re reading 1st person. When, as your friend describes, the POV character’s point of being is to tell a story to someone else, the emphasis is on whatever is the object of the story he’s telling, not on the POV character himself.

      I think what’s yanking you from the story are her info-dumps. It could be that these aren’t being handled in the best way possible.

      • Joe Long says:

        After seeing mention of this article on Twitter today I read it along with the first few comments, and then skipped to the end to see if there were any new ones. It so happened that the most recent was also likely the most pertinent to my situation.

        I having been working on my first project for several months. As I am drawing from a lot of personal experiences, I chose to do it in a first person past tense. As if I was relating a story to a friend, I started in the present day and then did the rest as a flashback.

        I have already released several chapters in serial form online, but as time goes by and I read other’s stories and learn from this blog, I see some places to go back and revise what I have already written. As when I’m learning a programming language, when I go back to older code it’s much easier to see the awkward constructions.

        As I’m telling “my story”, I realized that I could tell the audience what was in my head, but all I knew about other characters was what I could observe. I found I did too much data dumping and plan to rewrite several scenes. As I’ve discussed with Katie, I’ll do a “show instead of tell”, so I’ll replace the MC talking directly to the audience with scenes where he’ll be able to relate those same things to other characters.

        It’s been fun, and although the writing has slowed down after roughly 60k words I’, probably about 70% done.

        • There is so much to learn about the craft, isn’t there? Even as I improve and excel in one aspect, I always have another weakness to conquer. Congrats for being on this journey!

  32. Robert Gruett says:

    A few years ago I published a novella written in the first person. Normally I wouldn’t go anywhere near this approach (I generally gravitate towards 3rd person past tense). However, in this case the story was a satire, and I discovered very quickly that narrating from the main character’s point of view was much more fun than a 3rd person wallflower approach would have been. Not only that, but the inner-dialog born out of the character’s perceptions of what was happening around him provided countless opportunities for humor that simply would not have been there had I not chosen this approach.

    Now, much later, I find myself authoring a drama through a series of diary entries. As such, once more I am using 1st person present tense as my approach, but this time it’s much more difficult. Not only is there a shift at the beginning of the story from 3rd person past to 1st person present at the moment the tertiary characters begin reading the diary, but I must constantly keep myself away from the same inner-dialog that breathed humor into my satire.

    Knowing how much/little to put in is tricky, and I won’t know if I got it right until someone pats me on the back or hits me over the head after reading it.

    -Robert Gruett

    • Third person can be almost as deep as first–it doesn’t have to be a “wallflower” approach to the character. Many of the same principles apply.

      As for your current WIP, have you considered book-ending the third-person present tense scenes? *The Bridges of Madison County* by Robert James Waller, and *The Notebook* by Nicolas Sparks, are similar to what you’re working on. Granted, they may not be your cup of tea, but you can get ideas simply by watching the movies. Notice how the present time and the past are presented. If I remember correctly, the present day scenes in Bridges book-end the story, and in The Notebook, the present day scenes are interspersed.

      Another is *Second-Hand Lions*.

      If you look to see how these are done, you may be able to decide how you’d like to do your own piece.

      It sounds more complicated than it really is. Chapter titles or margin notes can help (like, “London, Present Day” vs another chapter set in “London, 1892”). Prefaces and epilogues can help.

      I wish you all the best in figuring this out. Now, I think I’ll indulge in a movie marathon–it’s been a while since I’ve seen the films I listed!

  33. Hello, Linda,
    First of all, thank you for your article. I have been writing for several years but, unfortunately, I have not yet been able to finish my first book. In fact, this article made me think that perhaps I have set a goal that is simply too difficult for me as a new writer…

    I mostly write first-person, past-tense… science fiction. Naturally, an enormous amount of research is required, as well as life experience, besides the writing techniques that take time to perfect. It is certainly very deep. And as if that isn’t bad enough, I am not a native English speaker.

    But the main question I need to ask here is this: does 1st-person POV imply that the real-life author of the book has to be the main character, giving an account of their own predicament? Or is it possible to, say, use an alias – sign the book as the character themselves, while hiding your identity as an author?

    I believe this would make it possible for me to create 1st-person characters (one for every book) of different ages, genders, origins, etc. while letting the readers concentrate on those characters, their personality and their perspective in the story, rather than the fact that I wrote the book.

    Thank you for your attention, and take care.

    • João–first off, I love your name! Are you from Brazil?

      Anyway, only in creative non-fiction would the first person indicate that the author and the main character are the same person. In fiction, it’s just another tool to bring immediacy and intimacy to the POV character. You as the author can present any character through first person–you’re limited only by your imagination.

      Thanks for writing! I wish you all the best with your manuscript.

      • Hello again, Linda,
        Thanks for your reply. It’s good to see I had the right idea. From the very beginning, that sense of intimacy to the character is exactly what I was aiming for.

        I will probably sign my first book with the character’s name, not my own, mostly to make the readers focus on the character.

        And I’m from Portugal. =)

  34. MARTHA BUTCHER says:

    I am writing my first book in first person narrative. It is non-fiction and autobiographical but I am not the main character. My dog is the main character.

  35. Muzamil Syre says:

    Writing a novel, if the story starts with a narrator, who’s got a manuscript with him to dig into it for certain reasons, and finds that the manuscript is the detail of the person in coma he had found the manuscript with, what must the writer opt? First Person for the first narrator? Or for both narrators? Or could make use of Third Person for either of them? Which one would be more appropriate?

    • Wow–tough one. I would go first person for the one telling the story, and third person for the one whose story is being told.

      Good luck, and have fun with it!

  36. Hi, it is very informative post. But i have one question. I’m writing my first novel with first person’s point of view. i need to describe some scenes where first person is not present. or first person just left that place. How can i achieve this? one thing i can do is by changing narrator from first person to another person but i don’t want to do that as it will break link of story with readers mind. Is there any other way to do so?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There are only two ways to do this and, frankly, neither are ideal. One is, as you say, to use another narrator. But if you do that, then you need to set that narrator up as a consistent POV *throughout* the story. The second is simply to break POV and say whatever you want to say in the absence of the main narrator. But that’s even more problematic, since it’s likely to be “head hopping” and will interrupt the overall narrative flow. Usually, it’s better to simply sacrifice whatever info the narrator isn’t privy to and write your way around it. It’s the lesser of two evils by far.

    • Technically, no. One of the downfalls of first person is that the character can not know what he isn’t there to witness. There are ways your MC can find out–through other characters, for instance, or by witnessing the results of the event–but unless he witnessed it himself, you as the author can’t present it while in his POV.

      If anyone has a better idea, I’d like to hear it.

      • Joe Long says:

        I was going to say, “through other characters.”

        My story is 1st person past tense. I have some outlined but yet to be written scenes in the third act where important events happen out of the sight of the MC. Other characters will have to relay the info to the MC.

        I did write down a quick first draft of one of the scenes where the MC learns of something that happened to another character. I figured his mother gets the info in a phone call and then tells the MC. Since then I’ve thought further about it. He has a strong emotional response, so I didn’t think it would be realistic for Mom to calmly relay the news. I visualized it (haven’t written it yet) where he witnesses the phone call to his mom, where she gets to also have an appropriate emotional response – but only hearing half of the conversation he’s confused about what’s happening. Having them get the news at basically the same time they get to share the response.

  37. I’m still in the planning stage of my novel, which may never see the light of day. However thank you for this article. I had just decided on first person past tense from the main character, but after reading your article I feel first person present tense by another character would be better for the story. It worries me that you say this is tricky though.

    You have given me some good information and I will put more thought into it.

  38. I enjoy reading first person. Many stories I find I enjoy are written in it. Jim Butcher’s the dresden files are an excellent example of this, and even Kim Harrison’s series also showcase the abilities of this perspective. Both of these are urban fantasy which is probably adds to their characters.

    I personally do not like third person stories because many of the stories I read do not feel as personal, or as engaging.

    One advantage with first person you can add in commentary right from the horses mouth. The character’s personality comes out and the limitations of it do add a bit to it. You’re only able to get the story from the person who lived it, and what little knowledge they hold. This may seem determental, but once you know your limitations you are freed as crazy as it sounds.

    Writing these stories are difficult because you have to have a character that can stand up on their own. They must be alive in order to pull it off. You are in their eyes or being told the story directly by them. You must experience what they feel.

    So the more unique or different your characters are the better they hold up or even the world. A first person story involving a guy at an office isn’t as amazing as one about a wizzard for hire in chicago or a witch for hire in a world that was forced to tolerate and acknowledge the supernatural, and live with a fear of tomatoes.

    Many people shy away from first person because it is something that is hard to nail, and it isn’t that common. A creative writing teacher told the class I was in not to write in it, unless she approved. I was the only one given approval. I think the review of the small piece I wrote was the best way to describe it.

    They said it had a cinematic feeling.

    And I agree that a first person POV can give the story a more cinematic approach. The action is there, the main character is there and it is a bit more relatable if done properly. You are given a front row seat to what is going on if done properly, if done incorrectly you’ve just duck taped a go-pro onto some poor sod’s head.

    If you’re shooting for first person you need to get into your characters head. Not your head. This why I think people like writing third person because it gives you the power and does not have restrictions. If the main character gets hit in the face with a shovel and knocked out you can simply go follow the van the MC gets lobbed into trunk of the lincoln like a sack of potatoes and continue on from there following the mobsters in the car explaning how vinny got his ring on his finger.

    Where as first person where if the MC gets knocked clean out you either have to resume when they wake up or go to another character who is well established. You can have more then one prespective in a first person story. It just becomes a bit tricky establishing who is who in order to not confuse the reader.

    But just like any techique there are people who love it, hate it, view it as the worst thing since sliced Hitler and think those who use it should be beheaded and their manuscripts burnt immediately.

    Signed,

    Mr. James

Trackbacks

  1. […] And those who are considering writing in first person are welcome to drop by KM Weiland’s blog, Helping Writers Become Authors, where you’ll find my article, “Three Ways You Can Use a First Person Narrator to Tell a Better Story.” […]

  2. […] Three Ways To Use First Person Narrative […]

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