First-person narration lets you pack every moment with personality and explore your writer’s voice to the max, but it can be a tricky point-of-view to pull off for the course of an entire book.
First-person narration can launch us into another world — and into another person’s mind — in a deeper and more efficient manner than third-person narration. Consider some of the most famous opening sentences in literature:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
— Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.
— A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
— Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
— The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger
In each of these examples, we are plunged into the world of our narrator and engulfed in their unmistakable voices right from the start.
I love first-person narration. I love the ability it gives writers to pack every sentence, every moment, with personality.
The word metaphor means carrying something from one place to another, and it comes from the Greek words μετα (which means from one place to another) and φερειν (which means to carry), and it is when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn’t. This means that the word metaphor is a metaphor.
I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards. And when I try and make a picture of the phrase in my head it just confuses me because imagining an apple in someone’s eye doesn’t have anything to do with liking someone a lot and it makes you forget what the person was talking about.
— The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon
First-person narration can lend an air of veritas to a story, for example, think of the tales of Sherlock Holmes as told by Doctor Watson. But also — because while Watson is our narrator, he is not our protagonist — there remains an air of mystery.
“Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” said Stamford, introducing us.
“How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”
“How on earth did you know that?” I asked in astonishment.
“Never mind,” said he, chuckling to himself.
— A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle
What makes first-person narration so interesting is no matter how reliable you may think your narrator is, there is always the lingering possibility that he may be misleading you, even if unintentionally.
Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.
— Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
I been silent so long now it’s gonna roar out of me like floodwaters and you think the guy telling this is ranting and raving my God; you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.
— One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey
Don’t lies eventually lead to the truth? And don’t all my stories, true or false, tend toward the same conclusion? Don’t they all have the same meaning? So what does it matter whether they are true or false if, in both cases, they are significant of what I have been and what I am? Sometimes it is easier to see clearly into the liar than into the man who tells the truth. Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object.
— The Fall, Albert Camus
Perhaps my favorite thing about first-person narration is how it allows the writer to fully explore voice.
You know, the way love can change a fellow is really frightful to contemplate. This chappie before me, who spoke in that absolutely careless way of macaroons and limado, was the man I had seen in happier days telling the head-waiter at Claridge’s exactly how he wanted the chef to prepare the sole frite au gourmet au champignons, and saying he would jolly well sling it back if it wasn’t just right. Ghastly! Ghastly!
A roll and butter and a small coffee seemed the only things on the list that hadn’t been specially prepared by the nastier-minded members of the Borgia family for people they had a particular grudge against, so I chose them, and Mabel hopped it.
— “Jeeves in the Springtime,” P. G. Wodehouse
Those are some of the reasons to choose a first-person narrative for your mode of storytelling. But first-person can be a tricky point-of-view to pull off.
Telling not showing
First of all, it can lead to too much exposition. It never fails to astonish me, but as great as first-person is for quickly establishing your novel’s voice/tone/setting/world, it seems to bring out the need for authors to have their narrator drone on about their backstory. Sprinkle essential info throughout your narrative, but it’s best to take a page out of Salinger’s book and skip all that David Copperfield crap.
One point of view
First-person can be limiting: after all, your narrator has to be in every scene. This makes it challenging-to-impossible to describe events in which your narrator doesn’t participate, which is why first-person can be an inelegant choice for action/thriller/epic novels.
OMG, get over yourself
Your narrator can be too self-indulgent. No matter how many people love Holden Caulfield’s profanity-laden tangents, there are just as many people who find him insufferable and whiny. And not everyone has Salinger’s or Wodehouse’s talent. As much as I love the fact that a stroll out to the mailbox can provide a perfect launchpad for a narrator’s rant, at some point you need to get on with your story. One way to avoid this is to populate your book with interesting secondary characters. In fact, as we see with the Sherlock Holmes stories, sometimes the best approach is to have your most interesting character be someone other than your narrator.
It’s hard to physically describe your narrator. Personally, this has never bothered me, but readers may want to know what your narrator looks like. Don’t have them stand in front of a mirror and describe what they see. Instead, throw in the occasional comment from other characters, like “Stop fussing with your dreadlocks, already! She’s going to be too turned off by your improper teeth-to-tattoo ratio to notice your natty hair.”
People can get bored with your narrator and their voice. Your readers are going to be stuck with your narrator for the duration, so this is a relationship that has to endure. If your narrator has an accent or speaks in a peculiar way, or has strong opinions, or a powerful personality, those can all be great, but make sure you dole this out carefully. It can tire your readers out. I love the voice of Damon Runyan, for example, but only in small doses. After about three short stories, I’m over it.
Off and on I know Feet Samuels a matter of eight or ten years, up and down Broadway, and in and out, but I never have much truck with him because he is a guy I consider no dice. In fact, he does not mean a thing.
In the first place, Feet Samuels is generally broke, and there is no percentage in hanging around brokers. The way I look at it, you are not going to get anything off a guy who has not got anything. So while I am very sorry for brokers, and am always willing to hope that they get hold of something, I do not like to be around them.
— “A Very Honorable Guy,” Damon Runyan
Watching someone watch
First-person can lead to passive action: “I saw the door open and heard an unearthly scream.” In this example, the reader is watching the narrator experience these things, which puts too much distance between the reader and the action. To avoid this, eliminate filter words (“I saw,” “I heard,” “I noticed,” etc.). “The door opened. An unearthly scream pierced the room,” is much more effective.
I and I
Don’t start every sentence with “I.” It gets old. In fact, try to eliminate the word as much as possible, because, after all, “I” is implied by the fact that this is a first-person narrative.
As much as first-person narration can be limiting and challenging, there’s one last point I wanted to list in the “pro” column: it’s a device that is unique to writing. Movies are notoriously inelegant at delivering this perspective, having to resort to the use of voice-overs or breaking the fourth wall, which seldom works well (Alfie, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off being notable exceptions).
If you haven’t tried writing in first-person, I encourage you to do so. After all, no other medium can deliver the dizzying flights of fancy quite like first-person narration, perhaps best exemplified by the last lines of Ulysses by James Joyce.
…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
Developing a Distinctive Voice in Writing
Finding Your Voice As A Writer
Create a villain your readers will loathe
Narrative Structure, Part One: What It Is and How To Use It
Narrative Structure, Part Two: It’s OK To Stray (or: Don’t Forget Your Cockroach Races)