First-Person Narrative: How to Make It All About Me, Me, Me
First-person narrative has been going strong for centuries. From Jane Eyre to Pizza Girl, first-person novels have a way of bringing readers inside the skin of fictional characters. (Gross. But also cool.)
It’s no wonder this point of view is so enticing for writers and readers alike. It’s an invitation to pretend all the way… to imagine the story as if it really were happening to you.
Or, at the very least, as if it were happening to someone you know. It’s like this character is at your kitchen table, eating all your banana bread and telling you about that time they discovered their crush’s secret wife in the attic.
But is first-person narrative always the best approach? What are the potential pitfalls? And how can you be sure you’re getting the most out of this potent Point of View (POV)?
You’ll find all those pros and cons and whys and hows right here.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is a First-Person Narrative?
A first-person narrative is what we call a story that is told by a character within the story. You recognize it immediately by the use of first-person pronouns (I, me, we, us) in the narration.
Now, there are a few subcategories of first-person narrative that are worth knowing.
First-Person Central – This is when your narrator is the protagonist—the character your story is actually about. I don’t have any real stats to back this up, but I’m going to say this is the most common style of first-person narrative. Examples: Jane Eyre, The Hunger Games, The Hate U Give
First-Person Peripheral – In this first-person narrative, the narrator is a side character. We see the story through their point-of-view, but they’re not the protagonist. Example: The Great Gatsby
First-Person Omniscient – This one can be tough to pull off. In this approach, the narrator is able to expand beyond their own POV and tell you what everyone in the story is thinking and feeling. This requires you to give your narrator some kind of superhuman perspective. Examples: The Book Thief (narrated by Death), The Lovely Bones (narrated by a character who has died)
First-Person Epistolary – This is a fun style of storytelling where your narrator tells their story through letters, diaries, emails, blogs, or text messages. I still remember discovering this method when I read Dear Mr. Crenshaw as a child. It blew my absolute mind. Other examples include The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Frankenstein, which contains both central and peripheral first-person narration. Whoa.
That’s right; not all these categories are mutually exclusive. You want to try writing a first-person peripheral omniscient epistolary narrative? You definitely could.
Now, is that the right approach for your novel?
Only you can say for sure.
Why Use First-Person Narrative?
This particular style of storytelling comes with a unique set of pros and pitfalls.
In the pros column, first-person narration creates a deeper feeling of intimacy for the reader. They’re privy to a character’s inner-most thoughts, feelings, fears, flaws, and motivations. Sure, you can convey these same details through third-person narration. But it feels more intimate when the character is sharing this insight themselves.
On that note, this approach can be a great choice when your goal is to write a character-driven novel. While you can use any POV to tell a character-driven story, it’s straight-up unavoidable in first person. That is, it’s unavoidable if you write a first-person narrative well.
A first-person narrative also gives you the opportunity to play with credibility and doubt. When you tell a story directly through a character’s eyes, readers feel like they’re getting eyewitness news. At the same time, they’re reading a biased account, informed by your character’s limited perspective and preconceptions.
This brings me to the fourth pro: limited viewpoint. Unless you’re writing in first-person omniscient, you can only tell your story through the lens of one character. This means your character’s misperceptions are your reader’s misperceptions. Your audience is truly traveling this arc with your character, and that can be pretty awesome.
It can also be challenging to do well, and that’s probably the biggest con of writing a first-person narrative. It takes practice to stay inside one character’s head, and you may find that your particular story needs multiple viewpoints.
(Side note: if you want to do multiple first-person viewpoints, you can do that by shifting perspectives between chapters or scenes. Just make sure your reader knows who’s talking to them.)
How to Use a First-Person Narrative Effectively
So how do you write a first-person narrative well?
Here are some best practices to get you started.
Establish a Clear Voice and Tone
While everything you write should have a clear voice and tone regardless of POV, it’s especially important in a first-person narrative. Voice and tone create the sense that your character is a real person. They also make your prose more interesting to read.
Quick primer: Voice is how your character talks and tone is their attitude about the story they’re telling.
Just be sure to choose a voice that won’t get under your reader’s skin after four pages. Avoid cartoony or stereotypical dialects and vocabulary.
Are you writing in past tense or present tense? Whichever you choose, keep your tenses consistent throughout the story and be aware that the tense influences the way your character tells their story.
In a past-tense, first-person narrative, the narrator has had time to reflect on the story they’re telling. That will affect their tone, their ability to remember the story accurately, and the way they choose to tell the story.
Has your character found peace and wisdom because of this story? Do they hold any resentment? Could they be putting any kind of spin on the story to get the reader on their side?
Meanwhile, if you’re writing in present tense, your narrator is reacting to everything in real time. They’re likely to relay an emotional experience that’s more raw and honest. Their perspective is more limited because they haven’t had the chance to reflect on the experiences of other characters. On that note:
Learn How to Tell a Full Story With Limited Knowledge
There are two areas where this limited viewpoint thing gets tricky, especially for new writers.
One is communicating what other characters are thinking and feeling. Now, this challenge comes with a hidden benefit. It gives you an opportunity to work on your “show, don’t tell” skills. Your POV character may not be able to say what’s going on inside another character, but they can tell you about:
- Pursed lips
- Eyes searching the room
- Maniacal shrieking
- Someone taking twenty minutes to pick a sandwich
It’s also okay for your character to state generally that someone is angry or devastated if they can back it up with concrete details.
What you want to avoid is head-hopping, which is when your narration volunteers specific details about the inner world of non-POV characters. For example, “My story reminded Muffy of the day her dog died.”
The other tricky area is self-awareness. We human beings are not always the best at defining our own fears, weaknesses, and demons. And often, your character’s failure to recognize or acknowledge these things are key to their character arc. You need to give them space to learn about themselves.
This means there may be moments when your narrator knows they’re mad but they don’t know why. Or they think they know why but they’re wrong.
Don’t let your narrator tell your reader anything they wouldn’t know themselves.
When writing a first-person narrative, it can be easy to fall into the trap of reporting what happened instead of showing what happened.
“I heard an unhinged laugh on the other side of the door. I felt terrified. I walked to the door, anyway.”
This super boring passage is super boring because there are a lot of filter words—words that create distance between the reader and the story.
Compare “I heard an unhinged laugh on the other side of the door,” and, “An unhinged laugh rang out from the other side of the door.”
The first tells the reader that it happened to the narrator. The second invites the reader to hear the laugh themselves.
Another way to avoid loading your novel with dry reporting is to use the narrator’s senses in describing a scene. What does it smell like in this room? Does their mouth taste sour from this morning’s coffee? What does terror feel like in their body?
These tricks make your reader feel like they’re living this moment with your character and like they truly know the narrator.
And for them to know your narrator…
You Have to Know Your Narrator
Comprehensive character development is especially important if you plan to write a first-person narrative. You need to know how this character thinks, how they talk, and how they see the world.
Fortunately, we have a ton of resources at Dabble to help you with this. Check out the articles on character development in DabbleU. Download our character development worksheet. Workshop character ideas with your community in the Story Craft Café.
If you’re using Dabble to write your book, keep your character ideas, images, and inspiration organized in Dabble’s Story Notes features.
Don’t have the Dabble writing tool? Not a problem. You can try it free for fourteen days by signing up here. No credit card needed.
Just do what you have to do to make your first-person narrative shine.
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