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 with her husband and their funky feline, PB, in a forest in deep East Texas, where tall tales abound and exaggeration is an art form. She has a deep and abiding love for her Lord, her family, and salted caramel. And coffee---with a caramel creamer. Author of award-winning books and short stories, she didn't begin writing professionally until she turned fifty. Taking on a new career every half century is a good thing.

Comments

  1. 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.

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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-

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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!

  9. 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. =)

  10. 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.

  11. 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!

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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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