This post is the first of a three-part series on first person narrative. This first post will cover an overview of first person narration and why it is different than third person point of view.

A big challenge of writing in the first person is your narrator is also a character. As well, you need a reason to use first person and then understand who, why and when this story is being told.
In third person writing, the narrative voice can reflect a character (in third person limited) or be its own (with an omniscient narrator). But you the author (and narrator) are free to tell what needs to be told.
In first person, the narration must reflect and develop the character. (More on character development below and in other posts.) Having an uneducated person with an expansive vocabulary or a child reasoning with abstract ideas doesn’t work. Even if the story is set in the past and the narrator has changed since then, this incongruity will take the reader out of the story.
(Writing second person narrative will not be discussed here. And unless you are a master storyteller, please don’t try it.)
What’s more, what is shown and described to the reader must make sense considering who the narrator is. You can’t describe the history of a place unless the narrator knows it. What’s happening in another room is only speculation based on what the narrator can hear. Someone landing in a setting they are unfamiliar with will just see (smell and hear) a jumble of confusion.

First Person is not Third Person with “I”

In my opinion, all stories should be told in the third person unless there is a pressing reason to tell them first person. So the question is: What does a character narrating the story add?
One reason is the inner thoughts and conflicts of the character. Someone once said “film is what happens between people; prose is what happens within them.” While third person limited can do this, first person allows you to chose the words, style and patterns that both develop your character and convey a story.
And when I say “story,” remember that story is more than plot. Think back to those things we learned in English class. A story is made up of:

  • Plot – What happens
  • Setting – Where and when does it happen
  • Characters – Who does it happen to
  • Tone/style – How does it happen
  • Theme – Why is it happening & what are you really trying to say

So with first person, how are you developing character and contributing to theme, setting or plot by telling the story first person? Some ideas are your narrator:

  • Has an extra sense others lack, allowing her to see ghosts
  • Is the only survivor of some event and returns to its location, bringing a sense of dread
  • Is going through an internal crisis that mirrors the external conflict of the plot

Your narrator’s senses also come into play. While you can certainly describe sights, sounds, smells and texture in third person, using first person provides a context―how would the narrator relate a spaceship to the reader? If spaceships are everyday occurrences, probably in plain language. If the narrator’s a 12th century serf, then as just shapes and surfaces without a cohesive idea.
To say nothing of what senses are described. We are visual creatures, so in our moment-to-moment lives we tend to ignore sounds and smells unless they are intrusive . So what sounds or smells would penetrate the narrative flow and have the narrator mention them? Consider:

  • Fresh coffee brewing in the morning
  • A scream
  • A sudden drop in temperature

By having the narrator note these sensory details, it signals to the reader to pay attention since they are not normal. As well, the details your narrator notice and describe say about the narrator as a character.

In the second part of this series, I’ll continue exploring how writing in the first person point of view is different than third person narration. Plus, discuss how knowing who is telling the story is essential to its structure and detail.