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First-Person Point of View: How to Use it in Literature

first person point of view

In literature, the first-person point of view immerses readers into the intimate perspective of a single character or individual. When a story is told from this viewpoint, the narrator shares their experiences, thoughts, and emotions directly with the reader. The narrator uses pronouns like “I,” “me,” and “my” to convey their personal journey.

First-person is the most immediate point of view. Since readers share the protagonist’s every thought and emotion, they identify closely with them. 

Writers of young adult fiction often write from a first-person point of view to offer appeal through plots that involve self-discovery and acceptance. First-person POV is also common in literary fiction, women’s fiction, urban fantasy, and some crime fiction and mysteries in which readers discover the clues and solve the crime along with the narrator. 

New writers often find first-person POV easier to maintain. It forces authors to adhere to one perspective. POV violations don’t happen as often because there’s only one “I,” and because it’s how we tell stories about the events in our lives.

When to use first-person POV:

  • To foster empathy for your character
  • When writing a character-driven story that centers on internal conflict and character growth

When not to use it:

  • The story has a large scope with multiple locations and dozens of characters followed over a long period
  • The POV character isn’t present in all key scenes
  • When you’re not sure whether you can create an engaging voice for your narrator

 What Is First-Person Point of View?

The narrator tells the story from their perspective and takes part as a character within the story. Depending on the type of first-person POV employed, the narrator may or may not be the story’s protagonist. The narrator uses pronouns such as “I” and “we” and describes the actions, characters, and settings through their lens.

what is first person point of view

What Are the Types of First-Person POV?

First-person central 

  • First-person deep
  • First-person peripheral

First-Person Central POV

The protagonist tells the story, immersing the reader into their thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions. By allowing readers to step into the shoes of the protagonist, the reader shares their joys, fears, and growth during the story.

Since the narrator is the protagonist of the story, readers see events only through their purview. 

If done well, writing in first-person central POV establishes an intimate bond between the reader and the character, and the reader experiences the events as if they’re happening to them. The narrator’s biases, opinions, and feelings influence their narrative, and their unique voice shapes their perceptions.

Examples of First-Person Central POV

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Protagonist Holden Caulfield’s introspective voice allows the reader to feel his angst and depression and experience his rebellion, alienation, and search for authenticity. 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Charlie, an introverted high school freshman, writes a series of letters that capture his struggles and emotional journey during a pivotal year in his life. 

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins 

Protagonist Katniss Everdeen takes readers through her fight for survival in a dystopian world, grappling with her identity and her role as the symbol of the rebellion against the Capitol.

First-Person Deep POV

Deep POV immerses readers into a character’s psyche, blurring the line between narrator and protagonist. It explores the lived experience in real time and doesn’t filter through a narrator’s voice or the author. Every word on the page comes from the character or from within the character. That is the essence of deep first-person POV.

Writing in deep first-person requires the author to remain completely invisible. Readers should feel what the character feels and hear what they think, experiencing what they do without distance. In deep POV, every word on the page comes from within the character. 

While the reader lives vicariously through the character, the character doesn’t acknowledge, talk to, or think of the reader at all. Everything happens in real time, so the author’s voice should not summarize, explain, skim, describe, skip time, etc. The difference is like that between feeling your own emotions and watching someone else’s.

Writing in deep first-person POV eliminates unintentional telling. This means having a better understanding of showing versus telling. Deep POV feels tighter and quicker in pace even though it often uses more words. Tight writing is less about the number of words used and more about making every word count. 

Deep POV cuts out a lot of the filler words and emotionally empty words and replaces them with strong words that hold the reader’s interest. Emotional depth, connection to the viewpoint character, smooth writing, and a fast pace all combine to form a reading experience that blocks out the world around the reader. 

Examples of Deep First-Person POV

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Spensa dreams of becoming a starfighter pilot to battle the aliens threatening her world. Readers experience her hopes, fears, and personal growth as she fights to break free of her father’s tarnished legacy and shows resilience in the face of danger.

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

Nina navigates modern dating, friendships, and self-discovery. Readers share Nina’s joys, heartaches, and humorous observations.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Celestial and Roy reveal, through alternating perspectives, their vulnerabilities, desires, and the impact of wrongful imprisonment on their marriage.

First-Person Peripheral POV

A story written in first-person peripheral involves a narrator who is not the story’s protagonist. Their narration shows an excellent view of the action surrounding the main characters. They may or may not explicitly identify with or approve of the real main character (the protagonist). 

Why choose a first-person peripheral POV? 

  • The protagonist dies before the end of the story
  • They are heroic to such an extent that telling their own story might appear conceited
  • The protagonist is difficult to relate to
  • To keep the reader wondering what the protagonist is thinking, especially if the protagonist has a secret to keep

Examples of First-Person Peripheral POV

The Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 

Doctor Watson narrates and takes part in the tales of his friend and the protagonist Sherlock Holmes.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Nick Carraway narrates his front seat view of the protagonist’s (Gatsby) exploits and that of the other focal characters.

First-Person Point of View Examples

The first line of these books makes it clear the POV is in first-person:

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

 “Call me Ishmael.” 

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

 “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow…”

Sharp Objectsn by Gillian Flynn

 “My sweater was new, stinging red and ugly. It was May 12 but the temperature had dipped to the forties, and after shivering four days in my shirtsleeves, I grabbed cover at a tag sale rather than dig through my boxed-up winter clothes. Spring in Chicago.”

Killing Floor by Lee Child (first in the Jack Reacher series)

 “I WAS ARRESTED AT ENO’S DINER. AT TWELVE O’CLOCK. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch…”

Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros

 “Conscription Day is always the deadliest. Maybe that’s why the sunrise is especially beautiful this morning—because I know it may be my last.”

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (narrated by Death)

“First the colors. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least how I try.”

 8 Tips for Writing in First-Person POV

tips for writing first person point of view

First Person POV Tip: Maintain Consistency

Once you decide to write in first-person, stick with it throughout the story. 

  • Remain consistent with what the narrator knows and doesn’t know. They cannot relate information from events or conversations they haven’t witnessed unless another character informed them. Using Fictionary StoryTeller can identify issues about unshared knowledge and plot holes. See this article for suggestions: 
  • Avoid sudden shifts to third-person or other perspectives. 
  • Remember that a non-point-of-view character will only convey information by their words or actions, those observed by the POV character. 
  • Refrain from having narrators make self-descriptions because unless very vain, they’d be unlikely to do so. These could be indications of POV shifts.

First Person POV Tip: Develop a Strong Character Voice

The narrator’s voice is crucial in first-person writing. Make it distinct and unique, a reflection of the character’s background, personality, and quirks. 

  • Think about their vocabulary, speech patterns, and tone so the reader can hear the character’s voice and recognize their perspective. 
  • The narrator’s voice should be engaging to keep the reader’s interest throughout the novel. 
  • Is the narrator’s voice consistent with the novel’s tone? Maybe the narrator is flippant and sarcastic or reverent and respectful. Whatever they are, this voice will permeate the entire novel, so you’ll want it to fit the story’s tone. If your readers don’t like the character’s voice, they may dislike your book. If the narrator’s voice is too strong, it can overshadow the other characters.

First Person POV Tip: Limited Knowledge

Remember the narrator only knows what they experience. Use this limitation to build suspense and intrigue.

  • It is hard, awkward, or sometimes impossible to describe events that happen outside of the narrator’s view. One way to avoid this is by prefacing certain passages with something like, “I heard from Jane that…” But that can sound contrived and may alienate readers. 
  • Leveraging this limitation can be a brilliant device for mystery or horror because the narrator knows only what the reader knows, especially if written in the present tense. If your narrator knows who the murderer is, your readers know it too. 
  • Two of Fictionary StoryTeller’s 38 Story Elements are “Revelation” and “Reader Knowledge Gained.” Use them to track the information the narrator and other characters know to ensure they only have knowledge when it has been properly revealed to them.

First Person POV Tip: Reliability

Decide whether your narrator is reliable or unreliable. If it’s appropriate for your story, using an unreliable narrator can add intrigue and complexity. 

  • A narrator who misinterprets events, lies to the reader, or is delusional can create suspense and engage readers by making them question and interpret the account. 
  • Consider their motivations for deception—are they fearful, feeling guilty, wanting to manipulate, or just misinformed? 
  • Holden Caufield, the protagonist in Catcher in the Rye, is unreliable because the emotional upheaval he’s experiencing is coloring his view of events. 
  • In Flowers for Algernon, the narrator’s intelligence and awareness fluctuates throughout the story. 
  • The audience knows or suspects an unreliable narrator lacks credibility when they filter events through their emotions, prejudices, or mental state. They omit crucial details or manipulate facts to create a specific impression. It makes readers speculate how much of the story is true and how much of it is either a lie or in error. 
  • Unreliable narrators in psychological thrillers or mysteries can create tension by revealing discrepancies between their perception and reality.

Conversely, a reliable narrator establishes a strong sense of trust with readers by showing consistency, good judgment, and truthfulness. Think Doctor Watson in the Sherlock Holmes books. Watson provides a consistent and objective perspective, and the reader believes him to be rational, knowledgeable, and trustworthy.

  • Use reliable narrators when you want a straightforward, objective account. 
  • They work well for genres like detective crime fiction or historical novels. 
  • Give them unique voices and quirks that make them interesting.

First Person POV Tip: Show, Don’t Tell 

All writers have heard this rule before, but it’s especially important when writing in first-person to use sensory details and emotions to immerse readers. For example, instead of saying, “I was scared,” describe a racing heartbeat and sweaty palms.

  • Remember to only relate things that the narrator hears, sees, touches, tastes, smells, feels, or thinks. 
  • Showing the world through their eyes, everything should be filtered through their perceptions. Their emotions and biases should color the descriptions of places, events, sensory perceptions, and other characters. 
  • Avoid passive voice by eliminating filter words (saw, heard, felt, knew, watched, decided, noticed, realized, wondered, thought, looked, etc.). 

First Person POV Tip: Avoid Monotony

In first-person, it’s all too easy to start sentences with “I” or “We.” Beginning with a sensory detail or an action can keep things interesting. 

  • Don’t linger in the character’s head, having them think instead of act. Passive characters can be unlikable, and they can make the book drag.
  • Balance reflective moments (sometimes called sequel scenes) with active scenes to keep the narrative engaging and dynamic. 
  • Use Fictionary StoryTeller to track Action and Sequel scenes to achieve the desired pacing and to ensure characters show reactions to pivotal events. 

First Person POV Tip: Know Your Character

It could be a challenge to write from a first-person POV if your character differs vastly from you in gender, age, or education and the voice doesn’t come naturally to you. A writer with a PhD in French History may struggle to write convincingly from the POV of an illiterate coal miner. 

  • Whether writing a story about a peasant from seventeenth century England or a modern-day detective, take care to do the proper research. 
  • Delve deep into the character’s psychological and emotional landscape. What moves them? What are their fears, desires, and secrets? The more you understand your character, the more authentically you can portray their voice and reactions.
  • Make sure they react to events in an appropriate and timely manner. 
  • They should not be privy to more than the reader.

First Person POV Tip: Handle Other Characters with Care

Developing other characters when writing in a first-person perspective can be challenging, since readers see everything only through the narrator’s eyes. 

  • Use interactions, dialogue, and the narrator’s observations to reveal the personalities and motivations of other characters. 
  • The narrator may regard others with biased views, which can add layers of complexity and unreliability.

In summary, first-person POV offers intimacy, subjectivity, and emotional resonance. The narrator’s psychology will draw readers into a close relationship. It’s a powerful way to connect readers directly with the main character’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Choosing between reliable and unreliable narrators allows writers to shape readers’ perceptions, challenge assumptions, and add layers of depth to their stories. 

Done effectively, writing in first-person can submerge readers into the narrator’s world, forging a bond that keeps them reading to the very last page.

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