Point of view is one of the earliest decisions you will have to make when writing a story and can often be one of the most important. There is a modern trend in literature, especially in the realm of genre fiction, to write in 3rd person limited. This gives you the opportunity to dive into different character’s heads but still retain some of the intimacy that comes from a first person POV.
Part of this is because 3rd person omniscient can be very difficult to get right and often comes across as rather archaic when compared to the modern tropes of writing. Another part of this is because 1st person is often looked down upon unfairly.
Perhaps this is because the initial instinct of a school child writing a story is to go with first person – it is easy and relatable for them, like a diary or journal entry – and as such there has become a stigma where ‘first person’ is perceived as more simplistic or perhaps easier than a wide reaching 3rd person narrative.
This stigma couldn’t be more wrong.
I believe that not only is first person one of the most difficult perspectives to do well, but also (if done well) is one of the most powerful tools in all of literature. It elevates writing to something more complex, deeper and far more human. First person narratives are the writing equivalent to Daniel Day Lewis-esque method acting. To do it effectively, you need to eschew your voice as a writer and become your protagonist, wholly and completely.
My favourite example of an author who can do this is Kazuo Ishiguro, a master of first person. If you read any of his books – Never Let Me Go, A Pale View of Hills, The Remains of the Day, it would be quite easy to be convinced that they are written by different people if his name was not on the cover.
In fact, The Remains of the Day stands as my favourite book of all time, and much of that is down to the mastery of the first person narrative that is employed. I will talk about this later.
In this post, I will try to explain why and give some tips as to how to write first person well.
1. Some Technical Points
Before I get into the more complex ideas, I think it is important to touch upon some key technical mistakes that are often made in first person narratives.
a. Filter Words
In first person, you have to remember that everything that happens is being seen through the eyes (and ears and nose and skin) of the narrator, so words that you might usually use to denote who was experiencing what become redundant. You should aim to remove these filter words where possible.
To give an example, here’s a random bit of description I just wrote:
I stood by the bay and watched the boats roll in and bob against the pier.. I could hear the screeching of gulls and smell the salty sea-air as it brushed across my face. As I stood there, watching, I felt a wave of quiet peace wash over me, just as the waves washed themselves on the sandy banks of the shore.
Now, cutting the filter words:
The boats rolled in, one by one, bobbing against the pier. Gulls screeched overhead and the salty sea-air brushed past me, the ocean wind cooling my face. Just as the waves washed themselves on the sandy banks of the shore, so did a quiet wave of peace wash over me.
By getting rid of the “I watched”, and “I could hear” and “I could smell”, we are brought closer to the narrator and the scene becomes more intimate. We see it through the narrator’s eyes rather than seeing the narrator seeing it, so to speak.
Whereas in 3rd person, the reader requires the words here and there to identify character, even in 3rd person limited, the first person does not and including it only serves to distance us from our narrator.
This isn’t to say you can never use filter words. Sometimes, they can be used effectively to increase tension or highlight the impact of a situation. For example:
Stumbling around the room, I searched for the key. I could see the mark from where it lay on the table, I could see the bowl where it was meant to be, but that was it. The key was gone.
Here filter words are used for emphasis, highlighting that the narrator is searching for something. The key is to use filter words sparsely and only for impact. Don’t just include them in description, know why you are including them, if you do.
b. Limited Knowledge
Your narrator has the very limited knowledge that a single person has. If you want to experience, go outside and people watch and see how much you can really work out about what people are thinking, where they have been, what they are doing. If you aren’t Sherlock Holmes (hint: you aren’t), then this is difficult.
Similarly, your narrator should not know more that they can reasonably work out. They shouldn’t know what other characters are thinking unless they state it. And even if they do, they might interpret it wrong. You need to make sure you think about how much one person could reasonably know.
(Yes, your narrator can speculate, but it should be clear that it is speculation).
c. Being Wrong
As an extension of this, your character should also often be wrong about the conclusions they come to about people, situations and actions. Think about how often you’ve misinterpreted a situation in life. Your character is not some omniscient genius – make sure they misinterpret things. Have them read into other character’s words in a way that makes sense to them, but is clearly incorrect to the reader. Or becomes clearly incorrect later on.
This isn’t a flaw so much as just being human.
One of the most important aspects of first person narration is voice. In an earlier post about dialogue, I talked about the importance of developing an idiolect for your characters. This applies just as much, if not more, to your narrator.
If you want to write a successful first person narrative, the voice needs to be consistent. You need to think about formality, inflection, dialect, phrases that they use and you need to use this throughout – even in you description.
To give an example, in the chapters of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate where first person is being used, it is done so in a very informal and conversational tone. She even starts the second book with the line:
“Hm. No. I’m not telling this right.”
Which is wonderful. This remains consistent throughout. However, in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, his character is a stuffy butler so his language is far more formal and far more reserved.
He includes many similar phrases in the narrative, like: “I think you will understand”, “But you will no doubt agree,” and “you will no doubt appreciate.” This consistency gives him strong voice and reflects the part of his personality where he feels the need to convince others (and himself) of things he is unsure about.
This is hugely important. Agents and publishers go on about the need for the writer to have a good ‘voice’, but in first person it is less about the writer’s voice and more about the character’s voice. You need to become that character. You need to go full Heath Ledger Joker on it and every line of description or action you write should be told from that voice of that character and not of you.
This is very hard to get right. If you want some tips, go find my post on dialogue and read through the bit on idiolect. Create an idiolect sheet for your protagonist and stick to it.
3. Reliability of the Narrator
This is a huge one for first person. A first person narrator is not a reliable narrator, ever. And by this I do not mean that they are necessarily lying (though many do), but that they view the world with their own particular bias and filter their experiences through that.
We all do this. This is what makes us human. Not a single one of us has the ability to be purely objective. The way we respond to people and experiences is defined by the way we look at the world and the bias we see it from.
If you are writing in first person, you cannot tell an objective story. It feels false and simplistic.
This applies just as much to basic description. Remember that when you are describing characters or settings in first person, you are not describing what they look like, you are describing how the narrator sees them. And, as I talked about in my post on character descriptions, our perceptions of how people look are very defined by the way they make us feel.
A good example of this can be found in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. When Victor Frankenstein is at University he has two professors: Waldman and Krempe. He disagrees with Krempe's beliefs and science and ways of teaching. Indeed, Krempe tells Victor that his previous studies were all a waste of time and 'nonsense', and that he must begin his studies again. However, Waldman is much more conducive teacher, who shares a lot of his views, praises him and pushes him to further accomplishment.
The descriptions of the two professors are therefore very different. He paints Krempe as aesthetically very ugly, while Waldman is upright, strong and soft. Specifically, he describes Krempe as being "a squat man, with a gruff voice and repulsive countenance." and says of Waldman that "his person was short but remarkably erect and his voice the sweetest I had ever heard."
Interestingly, the one objective piece of information we can take from their descriptions in that they are both short, but the choice to describe Krempe as 'squat' compared to Waldman 'short, but remarkably erect' is key. This is, after all, how Victor perceives them.
As such, even the most basic actions and descriptions in first person narratives need to be filtered through the mind and the voice of the narrator.
This sounds tough, but this is where first person narratives excel and where they elevate themselves from other types of narratives. If you can successfully write a story where the reader is only being told the story through the bias of the first person narrator, but can also see the objective viewpoint and how the narrator might be wrong, then you are really on to something.
4. Emotional Bias
Think about what kinds of emotional biases your character has – we all have them.
How do they feel about old people, young people, people who are overly gregarious or very shy, their parents or their siblings? Show this bias through the way they react to them, but don’t explain it. Show it through actions – it’s the ultimate show, don’t tell.
If I return to my Frankenstein example, it is clear in the novel that Victor is driven by his ego. The reason he loves Waldman and sees him in such a good light is because he is complimentary and his thoughts fall in line with what Victor already believes. Krempe's only real vice is to tell Victor that all his previous study of alchemy isn't really relevant and he still has a lot of learning to do.
Despite it never being explicitly said, the reader comes away with the sense that Victor is egotistical and sees people more highly if they are willing to stroke that ego. This is a big emotional bias for him and we learn it through the way he sees people and the things he does, without ever being told it outright.
In The Remains of the Day, the narrator is an old English butler who refuses to let himself feel any real feelings and squashes them down. He truly believes that the greatest trait in the world is a sense of restraint and having a stiff upper lip.
Interestingly, one of the ways this is demonstrated to us is through his description of setting. At one point, when he is standing and looking over the English countryside, he says:
"The English landscape at its finest—such as I saw this morning—possesses a quality that the landscapes of other nations, however more superficially dramatic, inevitably fail to possess. It is, I believe, a quality that will mark out the English landscape to any objective observer as the most deeply satisfying in the world, and this quality is probably best summed up by the term 'greatness.' … And yet what precisely is this greatness? … I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it."
This is a nice description of English countryside, yes, but more importantly it reflects his personal emotional bias about the world. Despite never directly relating it to himself, it is clear (given that he is the narrator) that this is implicitly not just about landscape, but about life and ultimately about himself.
Once again, description seen through the subjective eyes of the narrator, rather than just description.
But what is done so masterfully in this book is that through the conversations he has and the actions he does, we can tell these feelings exist. At the end of the day, the story is one of unrequited love and you can tell he is deeply in love with Miss Kenton. But he never once states that he has any feelings for her at any point. It is all implied.
Let’s take the frame narrative of the story, he is travelling all the way down to the South of England just to see her. Now the reason he gives us, as the reader, is that he just wants to go on holiday and he realizes that a job opening has come up and she was a good maid back in the day. He tells us this specifically and gives us no other reason, but it quickly becomes obvious that the real reason is he just wants to see her again. I mean, he could get a maid anywhere. He's travelling halfway across the country just for an opportunity to see her. He never states his feelings; we work it out through his actions. In fact, not only does he not admit this to us, as a reader, what makes it work so well is that he seems unable to admit it to himself.
Why? Because of his obsession with restraint. One does not, after all, shout these feelings from the mountaintop. But he has taken it to such a degree where he can't even whisper these feelings to himself. It's truly heartbreaking.
This leads me to my next point:
5. Contrast as Character
If your narrator's actions are contrasting with the reasons and the justifications they give for things, this creates fascinating character conflict.
As human beings, we aren’t very good and being completely in touch with our feelings and all our decisions. Sometimes we get angry and upset and we don’t know why. Sometimes we do things out of the blue that we can’t explain. Your narrator needs to be like this too, if you want them to be human.
What elevates it to excellent writing is if you can set up the narrative in such a way that the narrator doesn’t know why they are getting angry about something, but the reader does. It’s difficult, but it’s the goal of great first person narrative.
To write well in first person, you need a very strong picture of the character. You need to understand how they view the world in terms of their emotional biases and personal worldview.
Have your character do things, then justify these things to themselves or the reader in ways that aren’t fully objective, in ways that tell you more about the character than they do the situation.
Have your character keep a consistent and steady voice throughout.
Ensure that your descriptions of all things are seen through the lens and bias of your character rather than an objective lens.
Most of all, use contrast to give your character emotional depth.
Lastly, if you do find yourself wanting to write in first person narrative. Please go and read The Remains of the Day. It is an absolute masterpiece of story-telling, a Man-Booker Prize Winner and the best example of first person narrative I have ever read. Ishiguro is a genius and it shines through in this novel. We all have a lot to learn from writing like that.
Next Thursday, I will be writing a blog post on what makes a great villain, in which I'll be exploring the role of the antagonist in different types of stories and what readers look for.
See you next week.
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.