First person point of view (POV) is widely used in fiction and certain types of nonfiction. It's characterized by the use of first person pronouns, allowing the narrator/character to tell the story from their perspective.
To be sure, first person narration is a tried-and-true POV. But it's not right for every story. And to determine which POV is right for your story, you'll need to familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of first person POV.
- Three types of first person POV
- Examples of first person point of view
- Benefits and drawbacks of using 1st person
- Tips on writing in first person POV
Table of contents
- What is First Person POV?
- Examples of First Person POV
- Pros and Cons of Using First Person POV in Fiction
- Tips for Writing in First Person POV
What is First Person POV?
You can tell a story written in first person by the use of the words “I,” “me,” and “my.” You may also see “we,” “us,” and “our.” This type of narration works well for autobiographies, memoirs, and nonfiction books where the author's experience lends them credibility.
When it comes to fiction, there are certain pros and cons of using first person POV. But before we get to those, let's discuss the three types of 1st person POV in fiction.
First Person Central
In this type of POV, the narrator is also the main character. He or she tells the story from their perspective, sharing their thoughts and feelings with the reader. It’s their story, as opposed to the narrator being a supporting character.
First Person Peripheral
In first person peripheral, the narrator isn't the protagonist. They're a secondary or peripheral character. This means the reader isn't privy to the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist. The hero is instead seen through the eyes of another character.
First Person Omniscient
This is a rarely used first person POV. In the other two types of first person, the narrator is limited only to only their own thoughts and feelings. They can guess at what other characters are feeling, but they can't know. In first person omniscient, the narrator can share what all the other characters are feeling. This is hard to do well, which is why you don't see many books written this way. But it is possible.
Let's take a look at some examples of first person POV in action, including central, peripheral, and omniscient POVs.
Examples of First Person POV
Chances are you've read many books written in first person. But these examples can serve as a little refresher to help you see the possibilities of this writing style.
“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, by J. D. Salinger
This opening line from The Catcher in the Rye is a classic and well-known example of first person point of view. The narrator, Holden Caulfield, is sixteen years old. He's sarcastic, old for his age, and has a very strong narrative voice. This book is an example of first person central. The reader sees everything through Holden's eyes, and he's the main character. It's his story.
(Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is another example of a first person central story.)
“When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.”–The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The Great Gatsby is another classic example of first person POV. But it's an example of first person peripheral. After all, the narrator, Nick Carraway, is not the main character. He tells the story of Jay Gatsby at a remove, giving the reader his opinions and participating in the story. But since he's not an omniscient narrator, the reader never gets to see Gatsby's inner thoughts. We see him as Carraway sees him.
“I could introduce myself properly, but it's not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.”–The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
The Book Thief‘s POV character and narrator is Death. And as such, it's an omniscient narrator. It makes sense, for this book, because Death is more than human. So it's easy for the reader to believe that the narrator can witness the thoughts of other characters in the book. Were this story told by a regular human narrator, it would stretch credulity and put a barrier between the reader and the story.
Pros and Cons of Using First Person POV in Fiction
Every story is different, and it's usually best to let the story dictate the narrative point of view. So take these pros and cons into account when considering whether the first person perspective is right for your story or nonfiction book.
Pro: It Creates Intimacy and Immersion
When reading a first person book, you get to know the narrator fairly well. Being inside the character's mind can pull you into the story and make you feel like you're on a journey with a friend. Or, in some cases, the narrator can inspire fear and trepidation in you. Either way, it's like being there with the character as they face and overcome challenges.
Pro: It Provides Integrity
A first person narrative can provide integrity and credibility — especially in nonfiction writing. If you're an expert in your field or you have a lot of experience in a certain subject, writing a first person book may be the best way to get your ideas across.
But this doesn't just go for nonfiction. For example, a practicing lawyer may decide to write legal thrillers. By writing the book in first person POV, the author's expertise can shine through the fictional narrator, making it an enthralling read.
Pro: It Allows for an Unreliable Narrator
Since a first-person narrator controls the information that goes to the reader, there's room for some trickery here. Many authors have toyed with the unreliable narrator narrative trope to great effect. Most of the time, the fact that the narrator is misleading the reader doesn't come about until well into the book. Or, in some cases, the very end!
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is an excellent example of a book with not one but two unreliable narrators. As the story progresses, we don't know who to trust, because we don't know who's telling the truth. When done well, this certainly falls into the “pro” category. But when done on accident or for the sole sake of having a twist, it can be a drawback.
Con: It Can Allow for Narrative Tricks
Readers only like being tricked if they're at least partially in on it. This is where writers need to be careful with first person POV. The power and intimacy of the narrative style can draw readers in and really get them invested. So writing an entire story from this POV that turns out to be all a figment of the narrator's imagination can make readers feel cheated. It's best to be careful with these kinds of narrative tricks.
Con: Telling Instead of Showing
When writing first person POV, it's easy to fall into the habit of putting little barriers between character and reader. Consider the following examples:
“I heard the train bearing down on me as I tried to wrench my foot free of the track. I felt fear twist my stomach into knots.”
“The train powered down the tracks toward me as I struggled to free my foot. Fear twisted my stomach into knots.”
By writing things like “I heard,” and “I felt,” you remove some of the immediacy that makes first person so powerful. Luckily, it's easy to eliminate these things when you know to look for them.
Con: Descriptions Can Be Difficult
Writing in first person POV can make certain things more difficult to do naturally. One of those is descriptions of the POV character. The go-to tactic for this seems to be putting the character in front of a mirror and having them describe themself. This is usually awkward because the character already knows what he or she looks like.
While some character description is good, you don't have to go out of your way to describe every detail of the main character — especially if there's no way to do it naturally. Readers will fill in the blanks, and you can drip-feed them descriptive tidbits in more natural ways.
Tips for Writing in First Person POV
In fiction writing, you'll have to decide which point of view is right for your story. The following tips can help you write first person well if you decide to use this narrative point of view.
Familiarize Yourself With Other POVs
Before deciding on first person, make sure you know all about the other viable POVs out there:
- Second Person Point of View – The most common second person pronoun is “you.” Like fourth person, 2nd person is rarely used in fiction.
- Third Person Point of View – 3rd person pronouns include “he,” “she,” “they,” and proper nouns like names.
- Fourth Person Point of View – Told solely from a group's perspective, using words like “us,” “we,” and “our.”
Most stories are written in one of the third person points of view or in first person. Second person is rarely used, and fourth person is even rarer. Still, it's good to familiarize yourself with each of them.
For a closer look at each of these POVs, check out our article on point of view.
Use First and Third Person
You don't have to stick to only first person in your novel. There are plenty of successful authors who switch between more than one POV — usually first and third person perspectives. However, you don't want to switch between the two while using the same POV character. The books that do this stick with one POV for a given character throughout the book.
One example is Michael Connelly's book The Reversal. In this book, two of Connelly's biggest serial characters come together: Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller. Mickey's chapters are written in first person, whereas Harry's chapters are written in third.
Use More Than One Character
If your book has more than one POV character, you don't have to use different POVs. You can use first person for multiple characters in the same book. However, it's important to ensure that each character has a distinctive narrative voice, so readers don't get confused. It’s also important to ensure that both characters are complex and believable because they’ll be carrying the story.
Make Sure the Characters Are Intriguing
While it's important to have interesting characters no matter what POV you're writing in, it's especially important in first person. When the reader is along for the ride, looking over a character's shoulder for 80,000+ words, they need to be intrigued. Obnoxious, boring, or underdeveloped characters can turn readers off quickly. So while they don't have to be likable, they do need to be intriguing.
It's easy to get repetitive when writing a first person story. Starting every other line with the first person pronoun “I” can get old pretty quick — not only for the writer but for the reader, too. Pay close attention to your sentence structure when writing in 1st. Change things up so the reader doesn't get bored.
(Pro Tip: ProWritingAid has a feature that tells you when you’ve started three or more lines in a row with the same word. Very helpful when writing a story in first person!)
Write as the Character
It can be easy to trick yourself when writing in first person. You can easily slip back into writing as yourself, the author. Avoid this pitfall by constantly reminding yourself that you're writing as a character with his or her own wants, needs, feelings, and backstory. This will help you keep the narrative voice consistent throughout the book.
Experiment With Tenses
While most novels are written in past tense, there are plenty of popular books written in present tense. One great example of this is The Hunger Games series. As you can see from those books, present tense used with first person POV can combine immediacy with intimacy to make an enthralling book. However, there are certain limitations to writing in this tense, so consider carefully.
Limit the Character's Knowledge
Unless you're writing a book with a first person omniscient narrator, you'll want to limit your POV character's knowledge. They can make guesses and assumptions from context, but they can't know what is going through another character's head. So instead of writing: “I snatched the ball out of mid-air, saving Shelly from a nasty injury. Her heart swelled with love and appreciation.”
You can write: “I snatched the ball out of mid-air, saving Shelly from a nasty injury. She beamed up at me, an appreciative, loving look on her face.”
The POV character doesn't really know if Shelly's feeling appreciative and loving, but he assumes she is from the look on her face. It's a small distinction, but one that matters in first person novels.
Write Your Chapters Using Different POVs and Tenses
There's no better way to learn than by doing. So if you're not sure if first person POV will work, write a chapter in it. Then write the chapter using a different POV, like third person limited or omniscient. Once you've written the same events using a different point of view, you'll have a better idea of which will work best for your book.
Creative writing is all about making decisions. And one of the most important decisions you can make is what POV (or POVs) you're going to use for your story. If you're writing a memoir or a nonfiction book about a subject in which you're an expert, first person is probably the way to go. But if you're writing fiction, your specific story will dictate which POV(s) you use.
First person has its limitations, but it's popular in English literature for a reason. It creates intimacy and familiarity, and can hook a reader into the story quickly when done well. I hope this article has helped you narrow down which POV you will use in your next novel!