First Person Point Of View

In the first person point of view ‘I’ is telling the story. The camera lens is firmly behind the narrating character’s eyes, and the reader only sees what the narrating character sees, knows what the narrating character knows, and so on.

The narrator is usually the main character/protagonist. However it can also work well if the first person narrator is the protagonist’s sidekick, e.g. Dr. Watson (Sherlock Holmes) or Hastings (Hercule Poirot).

Advantages of First Person Point Of View

The advantages of first person point of view include:

It’s very easy to get into the head of your protagonist, and for the reader to identify with him/her, especially if you’re using subjective point of view.

  • There’s an immediacy and intimacy between the reader and the protagonist.
  • It’s natural – we all live our lives from our own point of view anyway. Therefore it can be easier to write.
  • It’s easier to share the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings and emotions.
  • It’s pretty much essential if you want to have an unreliable narrator.
  • The writing can be chattier and less formal (e.g. Huckleberry Finn).

Disadvantages of First Person Point Of View

The disadvantages of first person point of view include:

  • Only scenes directly involving the protagonist can be used.
    So, it wouldn’t work for her to describe how another character comes back from an exciting scene and tells her (and hence the reader) all about it. No matter how much detail that other character went into, and how immediate and intimate they made it, the reader would feel cheated out of witnessing it directly.
    Having said that, the novel True Crime by Andrew Klavan (which incidentally was one of the best stories I ever read, truly engaging and gripping) got around it like this: The ‘I’ of the story told us very early on that he had spoken to all of the other characters afterwards and had got a good idea of what they were doing/thinking/feeling during it all – and was would be relating this to us now as needed. By putting this very clearly into the contract between him and the reader, it worked really well, and the reader had no problem swapping from first person POV to third person POV as the story demanded.
  • Another disadvantage of First Person POV is that it’s harder for the narrator to describe herself naturally.The classic method of her looking at herself in the mirror has been way overdone, and is actually truly a cliché which needs to be avoided. You’ll need to be creative about how you do this. In my novel More Than Friends my narrator/protagonist joined an internet dating agency, and of course she had to fill out the profile. That was great for me!
  • It takes away one tool of characterisation, i.e. other characters talking about your protagonist – unless she overhears somebody of course.
  • Constant ‘I’s can get a bit wearing for the reader to read.
  • It can be difficult to make the character sound like himself or herself, rather than you. Each character should have his or her own voice, and in first person POV it can be hard to achieve that.
  • It’s more difficult to get a subplot in place.

Having said all this regarding disadvantages, on’t forget that you can use different characters’ first person point of view in different parts of your novel. Either have one whole section for each character, or swap around from chapter to chapter.
I wouldn’t recommend swapping any more than that – with first person point of view, the reader gets very entrenched in that character’s perspective, and it would be jarring and disconcerting to change too often.

The technique of giving different characters’ perspectives can work very well for showing different sides of the story. It shows how we’re all the heroes of our own lives, and we all justify to ourselves (and to the reader, if we’re a character narrating our own story) everything we did. But of course, other people and other characters have their own perspective and ‘truths’ about what happened.

The author Susan Howatch does this in a lot of her novels, extremely successfully in my opinion. I recommend that you read some of her work to see how it’s done, if this technique interests you. (They’re also excellent stories, very gripping indeed.)

Kate Long’s The Bad Mother’s Handbook used the same device – but in this case I felt it didn’t work because she changed perspective too often, with too little notice, and didn’t make it clear enough whose point of view we had now changed to. (It’s a pity, because it was a novel with a lot going for it otherwise.)